Empire of Necessity – 5/5 Stars
|Grandin begins his book with a short retelling of the Herman Melville novella “Benito Cereno” about a slave rebellion on slaving vessel in 1799. In the novella, the ship is happened upon by another trade vessel where the captain Delano talks with Benito Cereno, the one surviving former crewmate, now held hostage in order to assure safe passage. Delano, not really seeing the Black crew and imprisoned slaves as capable of such a subterfuge, never really understands he’s being deceived.
This novella is based on a real incident by the real captain Delano who recorded it in his diary. Grandin uses this incident as a focal point of a transatlantic history of slavery, focusing specifically on the contemporary writing and subsequent historical writing that would have allowed a given commenter to actually see the humanity of enslaved people and to write about conditions of slavery and freedom, especially humanism, capitalism, and politics.
The history then spends large amounts of its space to explore these concepts of freedom versus slavery (especially using more of Melville’s writing and specifically his chapter from Moby Dick “Fast Fish and Loose Fish” as central metaphors). The history also spends its pages looking into the nature of slavery-based capitalism.
One of the central questions that comes up a lot in history of slavery (and revolve around some actual critical race theory) is whether racism was the reason for slavery or slavery the reason for racism, and the answer of course is complicated. Rather than face this head on Grandin does what I think he always does well, tell a compelling story, raise important questions, and let the historical records attempt to answer them.
So much of our energy in looking at US history and US literature is spent in the 19th century where historical and cultural records (literature) are a lot more robust, but it belies just how truly wild the 18th century was
Late Mattia Pascal – 4/5 Stars
If you’ve never imagined faking your own death, I don’t know what you’re doing with yourself. I don’t actively think about faking my death, because it wouldn’t net me very much, but sometimes looking at the total amount I owe for my student loans, I do dream a little about all of society collapsing so I can escape that debt. Sorry about the mass death and all, but those payments!
Anyway, Mattia Pascal doesn’t have to wonder because his death is accidentally faked for him. Or rather, a suicide outside of a casino is mistaken for him, and he’s presented with the option of trying to clarify the mistake or roll with it. And he chooses to roll with it, and tries to reinvent himself.
In American literature, we often get someone trying to escape their past and even reinvent themselves only to discover that the past has a way of catching up to all of us (gulp!), but here whether it does or doesn’t, the future, devoid of identity ends up feeling empty and blank. Kafka will soon after this novel address the feelings of isolation, emptiness, and loss of being lost to a society who erases you, and the 20th century will be plagued with governments erasing people, so this little book is a prescient moment of trying it out on purpose and finding it wanting.
Dune Messiah 3/5 Stars
This is a novel, but more so than a novel, it feels like a part three of Dune. It’s several years after the end of the first novel and Paul is now in charge of everything. And with that comes new responsibilities and new dangers. He’s married to the Empress Irulan, but he’s still with Chani. He does not wish to have children with Irulan and it’s not entirely clear he can have children with Chani, which puts his situation into some specific kinds of dangers.
A cadre of conspirators looks to unseat the new emperor. Their idea involves creating a genetic clone of Duncan Idaho, made from his preserved corpse, and who is not supposed to have any real traces of the past person except for some body memories. This of course would make him a formidable swordsman, and that with his emotion ties to Paul, however ghoulishly twisted through cloning, could put him in the position to become an assassin. But something happen, he begins to have traces of memory, and irrespective of this Paul is too intrigued by the situation to renounce what is so clearly a trap.
Overall, what’s here is good. But what’s not here feels missing. Dune is so rich and full, and to follow this up with an interesting but ultimately short follow up.
Friday – 3/5 Stars
|A Robert A Heinlein take on cyberpunk, which was a fledging genre at the time. This book is about an artificially produced (she’s more or less what used to be called a “test tube” baby) with some body modifications person who works as a “combat” messenger who can transport goods from one place to the next. But like with all Robert Heinlein novels the question is what is it REALLY about. And well the answer to that is more or less womanhood/personhood in regards to artificially created people. Friday used to be part of marriage creche, before she was outed as artificial and drummed out of the group, just barely escaping having to pay back double her dowry. So she moves forward and begins to question what kind of future she wants for herself. Society has changed quite a lot from how we might recognize it, with the fracturing of the modern states into smaller enclaves, with corporations being equally if not more powerful than many countries. Ok, so not all that different from what we might recognize, but there aren’t that many corporations that currently have standing armies that can complete with small countries (well, some, but still).
Friday is a little on the run as all this happens, and for a book about a genetically modified human assassin on the run, there’s a LOT of sitting around in this book. Ultimately once we get a direction, the book takes us there. It’s interesting how this book clearly has its feet in two different worlds literarily, with a lot of this book feeling like older Heinlein based in Golden Age writing, and trying to make sense of where sci fi will take us in the 80s and 90s, with a much smaller scope, but often a more indepth look at society. This one feels throughout like it’s splitting the difference.