March 2008

Minogue, Kenneth. Alien Powers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, [1985] 2007. ISBN 978-0-7658-0365-8.
No, this isn't a book about Roswell. Subtitled “The Pure Theory of Ideology”, it is a challenging philosophical exploration of ideology, ideological politics, and ideological arguments and strategies in academia and the public arena. By “pure theory”, the author means to explore what is common to all ideologies, regardless of their specifics. (I should note here, as does the author, that in sloppy contemporary discourse “ideology” is often used simply to denote a political viewpoint. In this work, the author restricts it to closed intellectual systems which ascribe a structural cause to events in the world, posit a mystification which prevents people from understanding what is revealed to the ideologue, and predict an inevitable historical momentum [“progress”] toward liberation from the unperceived oppression of the present.)

Despite the goal of seeking a pure theory, independent of any specific ideology, a great deal of time is necessarily spent on Marxism, since although the roots of modern ideology can be traced (like so many other pernicious things) to Rousseau and the French Revolution, it was Marx and Engels who elaborated the first complete ideological system, providing the intellectual framework for those that followed. Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, racism, nationalism, feminism, environmentalism, and many other belief systems are seen as instantiations of a common structure of ideology. In essence, this book can be seen as a “Content Wizard” for cranking out ideological creeds: plug in the oppressor and oppressed, the supposed means of mystification and path to liberation, and out pops a complete ideological belief system ready for an enterprising demagogue to start peddling. The author shows how ideological arguments, while masquerading as science, are the cuckoo's egg in the nest of academia, as they subvert and shortcut the adversarial process of inquiry and criticism with a revelation not subject to scrutiny. The attractiveness of such bogus enlightenment to second-rate minds and indolent intellects goes a long way to explaining the contemporary prevalence in the academy of ideologies so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.

The author writes clearly, and often with wit and irony so dry it may go right past unless you're paying attention. But this is nonetheless a difficult book: it is written at such a level of philosophical abstraction and with so many historical and literary references that many readers, including this one, find it heavy going indeed. I can't recall any book on a similar topic this formidable since chapters two through the end of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. If you want to really understand the attractiveness of ideology to otherwise intelligent and rational people, and how ideology corrupts the academic and political spheres (with numerous examples of how slippery ideological arguments can be), this is an enlightening read, but you're going to have to work to make the most of it.

This book was originally published in 1985. This edition includes a new introduction by the author, and two critical essays reflecting upon the influence of the book and its message from a contemporary perspective where the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have largely discredited Marxism in the political arena, yet left its grip and that of other ideologies upon humanities and the social sciences in Western universities, if anything, only stronger.

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[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1876] 1995. ISBN 978-157270-307-0.
Having read this book as a kid, I never imagined how much more there was to it, both because of the depth of Mark Twain's prose as perceived by an adult, and due to reading his actual words, free of abridgement for a “juvenile edition”. (Note that the author, in the introduction, explicitly states that he is writing for young people and hence expects his words to reach them unexpurgated, and that they will understand them. I've no doubt that in the epoch in which he wrote them they would. Today, I have my doubts, but there's no question that the more people who are exposed to this self-reliant and enterprising view of childhood, the brighter the future will be for the children of the kids who experience the freedom of a childhood like Tom's, as opposed to those I frequently see wearing crash helmets when riding bicycles with training wheels.)

There is nothing I can possibly add to the existing corpus of commentary on one of the greatest of American novels. Well, maybe this: if you've read an abridged version (and if you read it in grade school, you probably did), then give the original a try. There's a lot of material here which can be easily cut by somebody seeking the “essence” with no sense of the art of story-telling. You may remember the proper way to get rid of warts given a dead cat and a graveyard at midnight, but do you remember all of the other ways of getting rid of warts, their respective incantations, and their merits and demerits? Savour the folklore.

This audiobook is produced and performed by voice actor Patrick Fraley, who adopts a different timbre and dialect for each of the characters in the novel. The audio programme is distributed as a single file, running 7 hours and 42 minutes, with original music between the chapters. Audio CD and numerous print editions are available, of which this one looks like a good choice.

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Ferrigno, Robert. Sins of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-3765-6.
Here we have the eagerly awaited sequel to the author's compelling thriller Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006), now billed as the second volume in the eventual Assassin Trilogy. The book in the middle of a trilogy is often the most difficult to write. Readers are already acquainted with the setting, scenario, and many of the main characters, and aren't engaged by the novelty of discovering something entirely new. The plot usually involves ramifying the events of the first installment, while further developing characters and introducing new ones, but the reader knows at the outset that, while there may be subplots which are resolved, the book will end with the true climax of the story reserved for the final volume. These considerations tend to box in an author, and pulling off a volume two which is satisfying even when you know you're probably going to have to wait another two years to see how it all comes out is a demanding task, and one which Robert Ferrigno accomplishes magnificently in this novel.

Set three years after Prayers, the former United States remains divided into a coast-to-coast Islamic Republic, with the Christian fundamentalist Bible Belt in Texas and the old South, Mormon Territories and the Nevada Free State in the West, and the independent Nuevo Florida in the southeast, with low intensity warfare and intrigue at the borders. Both northern and southern frontiers are under pressure from green technology secular Canada and the expansionist Aztlán Empire, which is chipping away at the former U.S. southwest.

Something is up in the Bible Belt, and retired Fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps returns to his old haunts in the Belt to find out what's going on and prevent a potentially destabilising discovery from shifting the balance of power on the continent. He is accompanied by one of the most unlikely secret agents ever, whose story of self-discovery and growth is a delightful theme throughout. This may be a dystopian future, but it is populated by genuine heroes and villains, all of whom are believable human beings whose character and lives have made them who they are. There are foul and despicable characters to be sure, but also those you're inclined to initially dismiss as evil but discover through their honour and courage to be good people making the best of bad circumstances.

This novel is substantially more “science fiction-y” than Prayers—a number of technological prodigies figure in the tale, some of which strike this reader as implausible for a world less than forty years from the present, absent a technological singularity (which has not happened in this timeline), and especially with the former United States and Europe having turned into technological backwaters. I am not, however, going to engage in my usual quibbling: most of the items in question are central to the plot and mysteries the reader discovers as the story unfolds, and simply to cite them would be major spoilers. Even if I put them inside a spoiler warning, you'd be tempted to read them anyway, which would detract from your enjoyment of the book, which I don't want to do, given how much I enjoyed it. I will say that one particular character has what may be potentially the most itchy bioenhancement in all of modern fiction, and perhaps that contributes to his extravagantly foul disposition. In addition to the science fictional aspects, the supernatural appears to enter the story on several occasions—or maybe not—we'll have to wait until the next book to know for sure.

One thing you don't want to do is to read this book before first reading Prayers for the Assassin. There is sufficient background information mentioned in passing for the story to be comprehensible and enjoyable stand-alone, but if you don't understand the character and history of Redbeard, the dynamics of the various power centres in the Islamic Republic, or the fragile social equilibrium among the various communities within it, you'll miss a great deal of the richness of this future history. Fortunately, a mass market paperback edition of the first volume is now available.

You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

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D'Souza, Dinesh. What's So Great About Christianity. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59698-517-9.
I would almost certainly never have picked up a book with this title had I not happened to listen to a podcast interview with the author last October. In it, he says that his goal in writing the book was to engage the contemporary intellectually militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger on their own turf, mounting a rational argument in favour of faith in general and Christianity in particular, demonstrating that there are no serious incompatibilities between the Bible and scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang, debunking overblown accounts of wrongs perpetrated in the name of religion such as the crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, witch hunts, and religious wars in Europe, and arguing that the great mass murders of the twentieth century can be laid at the feet not of religion, but atheist regimes bent on building heaven on Earth. All this is a pretty tall order, especially for a book of just 304 pages of main text, but the author does a remarkably effective job of it. While I doubt the arguments presented here will sway those who have made a belligerent atheism central to their self esteem, many readers may be surprised to discover that the arguments of the atheists are nowhere near as one sided as their propaganda would suggest.

Another main theme of the book is identifying how many of the central components of Western civilisation: limited government, religious toleration, individualism, separation of church and state, respect for individual human rights, and the scientific method, all have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how atheism and materialism can corrode these pillars supporting the culture which (rightly) allows the atheists the freedom to attack it. The author is neither a fundamentalist nor one who believes the Bible is true in a literal sense: he argues that when the scriptures are read, as most Christian scholars have understood them over two millennia, as using a variety of literary techniques to convey their message, there is no conflict between biblical accounts and modern science and, in some cases, the Bible seems to have anticipated recent discoveries. D'Souza believes that Darwinian evolution is not in conflict with the Bible and, while respectful of supporters of intelligent design, sees no need to invoke it. He zeroes in precisely on the key issue: that evolution cannot explain the origin of life since evolution can only operate on already living organisms upon which variation and selection can occur.

A good deal of the book can be read as a defence of religion in general against the arguments of atheism. Only in the last two chapters does he specifically make the case for the exceptionalism of Christianity. While polemicists such as Dawkins and Hitchens come across as angry, this book is written in a calm, self-confident tone and with such a limpid clarity that it is a joy to read. As one who has spent a good deal of time pondering the possibility that we may be living in a simulation created by an intelligent designer (“it isn't a universe; it's a science fair project”), this book surprised me as being 100% compatible with that view and provided several additional insights to expand my work in progress on the topic.

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Abadzis, Nick. Laika. New York: First Second, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59643-101-0.
The first living creature to orbit the Earth (apart, perhaps, from bacterial stowaways aboard Sputnik 1) was a tough, even-tempered, former stray dog from the streets of Moscow, named Kudryavka (Little Curly), who was renamed Laika (Barker) shortly before being sent on a one-way mission largely motivated by propaganda concerns and with only the most rudimentary biomedical monitoring in a slapdash capsule thrown together in less than a month.

This comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) tells the story through parallel narratives of the lives of Sergei Korolev, a former inmate of Stalin's gulag in Siberia who rose to be Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and Kudryavka, a female part-Samoyed stray who was captured and consigned to the animal research section of the Soviet Institute of Aviation Medicine (IMBP). While obviously part of the story is fictionalised, for example Kudryavka's origin and life on the street, those parts of the narrative which are recorded in history are presented with scrupulous attention to detail. The author goes so far as to show the Moon in the correct phase in events whose dates are known precisely (although he does admit frankly to playing fast and loose with the time of moonrise and moonset for dramatic effect). This is a story of survival, destiny, ambition, love, trust, betrayal, empathy, cruelty, and politics, for which the graphic format works superbly—often telling the story entirely without words. For decades Soviet propaganda spread deception and confusion about Laika's fate. It was only in 2002 that Russian sources became available which revealed what actually happened, and the account here presents the contemporary consensus based upon that information.

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