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04-22-10: Juliet B. Schor Finds 'Plenitude'

Shattered Capitalism and Creative Recovery

There's a lot more science fiction about than our society would like to admit. We'd be happy relegating the world of "sigh-fi" to cheesy blockbusters, novels with lurid cover images, hyper-violent video games and turgid television. If only we could keep our tendency to pretend that we can predict the future to those low-brow, low-ball venues. We'd be a lot less likely to mislead ourselves into, for example, a massive economic breakdown!

But we can't confine our inclination to science fiction to the science fiction genre. And so we have those who happily sit on their hands while we under-tax and overspend our way blithely towards economic meta-catastrophe. We predict in the year, say 2010, what things will be like in say 2030, even 2020. A crushing debt will come upon us like unto a plague, and lo, all our houses shall be triple-mortgaged then foreclosed. Yea, the rich shall walk the streets in slightly less regal splendor while around them the ever-growing sea of poverty shall engulf the middle class! Woe are we! Woe are we! We must not allow a mine-shaft gap!

You write that stuff in a novel, they call it sigh-fi. You put it on the opinion page and they call it economic forecasting. Let me remind readers and listeners of the ever-present truth of the matter, as related by one Kim Stanley Robinson: "We are living in a bad science fiction novel."

And where does that leave Juliet B. Schor and her book 'Plenitude' (Penguin Press / Penguin Putnam ; May 17, 2010 ; $25.95)? It certainly appears to be a sobering look at what's to come, and as if to enforce the message of the title, my copy came with not one, not two, but three dust jackets.

Juliet B. Schor
But despite the optimistic-sounding title, Schor seems a bit more connected to the world as she actually is than many who write science fiction in the guide economic and social theory. Schor is no advocate of the 'Dow: Ten Zillion" school; she's no zealot from the Pericalyptic school of the-end-has-already-come. Schor instead, suggests that the world is currently in the shape it is already in! And that is not so hot; nor is it mind-bendingly bad. What it is, she says, is something we can live with — so long as we can re-jigger our expectations and look for growth other than Big, Fast Money. Cos you know what? We just burned up a boatload of that stuff, and it ain't coming back.

Schor's exercise into speculative fact is based on a sobering view of how economics collides with ecology. You can imagine that that latter will win and the results are not pretty, at least not for a world where the expectation is that things will get continuously better. You'll meet the entertaining and mis-informed Environmental Kuznets Curve, which suggested that it was all going to work out. Oops. Not quite. You'll meet the rebound effect, and have you mind dusted by the fact that the BAU (business as usual) economy just can't be sustained. In other words, our grandkids will not be living in a bigger house cleaned by robots.

There's a solution, of course, and thankfully Schor does not offer us a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Instead, she offers a sensible combination of lowering our expectations and diversifying our interests and not our investments, which in the BAU world are likely to head straight down the Big Swirly. Nope — no jet pack either. In fact, you're going to look back at air travel of the 1960's and realize that was the pinnacle of that particular combination of technology and economy. Fly the friendly skies? Make sure your underwear is clean. You're on Candid Camera!

Schor talks about changing our lives in ways that focus on self-development and social wealth as opposed to figuring out how we can make more money. My co-host on Talk of the Bay, here in Santa Cruz, Kelly O'Brien, does a lot of shows about alternative transportation and is already investigating one of the suggestions in 'Plenitude' — she's considering converting her Prius to a plug-in. It's just a piece of the puzzle; Schor also talks about how the BA cycle leads to less time for social connection and suggests that our perceptions of a rich life can profit more from social connections than economic connections.

It is possible that we are already in the midst of not the End, but the Beginning. The Beginning is Near — coming to a sandwich sign near you. By the way; don't expect all those lost jobs to come back. There's one governmental legacy that is not likely to go away.

04-21-10: Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders Haul Out 'Swords & Dark Magic'

Sword and Sorcery Gets a Makeover

How many readers could claim they cut their teeth on sword and sorcery stories? How many adolescent males plucked paperbacks with lurid covers from spin-racks in musty-smelling liquor stores? Those books, literally "tales of yore," created more readers than their authors may ever have dared to imagine possible. Those stories, from genre giants like Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock still have an undeniable energy and appeal.

But the years have not been kind to the genre itself. What is gripping reading has generally proved to be boring or worse when put on film. The big-budget adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories seemed to consist of characters walking from one dusty place to another; the television series that followed it was obscenely bad, featuring the Cimmerian barbarian seemingly clad in a leather diaper. Nothing new of note for readers appeared, and the spin racks were given over to porno VHS tapes, then DVDs. Liquor store literature seemed to have died. Like the dark gods who drove the stories it was only waiting for a time when the stars were right.

Jonathan Strahan
The vast cosmos apparently turns a bit faster than any Cimmerian might have had a right to expect, and readers are all the more fortunate for this. We did not have to wait for the fall of our civilization, though there is an argument to be made that this has already come to pass. We had to wait for the market to be right, for Jonathan Straham and Lou Anders to knock heads and bring us 'Swords & Dark Magic' (EOS / HarperCollins ; July 2010 ; $15.99). Sword and sorcery is back, with the same dark, violent and gritty verve that made it so appealing the first time around. Strahan and Anders have managed to find writers who can grab the bloody prizes, and evoke the ancient magic with mere words. The old tools always work best.

Starting off the anthology is a smart, concise introduction by both editors, who trace the troubled history of sword and sorcery; the name, they tell us, came from a letter by Fritz Leiber, whose Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories brought an element of caper humor to the fold. It's a nice history for the current generation of video and online gamers, an audience waiting to happen. If anything can grab these kids and keep their eyeballs on the page, it[s going to be this anthology, these stories.

Lou Anders
Strahan and Anders have the kind of clout required to bring in the best, and they do just that. Steve Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Tim Lebbon, and Michael Moorcock — that latter with a new Elric novella, to once again lure the sick, weakly drug addicts of the world. Michael Shea follows a tradition of the sword and sorcery world by updating the work of another great writer, Jack Vance, in a new tale featuring Cugel the Clever. Glen Cook supplies a new story of the Black Company, which in this case seems like perfect company.

But Strahan and Anders are smnart enough to vengture a bit outside the currentlyknown fold of hard fantasy writers, so you get a new story by Garth Nix, which is certainly something to get excited about. I spoke with Nix at the world Fantasy Convention, and he's a smart, fascinating writer with a lot of talent; having him apply that talent in this setting offers readers to get a different slant. Likewise Caitlin R. Kiernan, a superbly talented writer of horror fiction. The originators of sword and sorcery, Howard and Leiber, are also known for this contribution to the horror genre. It's not surprising that the river would run both ways.

What's really interesting here as well is the dominance of the short story. The sheer physical mass of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy has gravitationally pulled most fantasy literature into works of ever-increasing size. For all their appeal, if you don't start at square one, you face a frankly unappealing mountain of reading to catch up. But writers like Howard, Leiber and Moorcock always worked largely in the long short story and novella form. This gives the writers enough space to create an immersive world, and readers a story that can be read in one or two sittings. Given the time crunch most of us face in our days, this is a better way to get new readers, to offer them substantive reasons to start long books and finish them. Beginning of course, with this one.

04-20-10: Mollie Katzen Wants You To 'Get Cooking'

No More Excuses!

Mushroom-Zucchini Over Creamy Polenta Cooked; Follow This Link to the new Cooking Blog

It's easy to eat take-out food. At the end of a long day, sometime going into the kitchen and pulling out this, or figuring out that you need to buy this to make that, it all seems too much. Easier to call the local pizza joint, taqueria, or Chinese take-out.

Well, maybe it's easier. It is certainly not cheaper. And I don't care how good the food is, after a while you get tired of it. And it's certainly not as good as what you can make. With 'Get Cooking,' (Harper Studio / HarperCollins ; October 13, 2009 ; $24). Mollie Katzen shows you that it's not only better, it's easier. Plus, our favorite vegetarian cooks burgers, with beef.

Well, no not really. She's never been an absolutist. Now however, we have a chapter titled "Burgers" in a Mollie Katzen book. With 'Get Cooking,' Katzen offers up a general-purpose cookbook with lots of super-easy to make (and buy in advance!) recipes. Even if you think you know a lot about cooking or have a lot of cookbooks, this book will succeed in inspiring the reader to live up to the title. Yes, you can and will get cooking.

OK, so I know it's cheating and really indicative of my lower nature, but I'm saying go right to the back of the book, to the very last recipe, for "Cherry Clafoutis." All you need in addition to the standards are frozen cherries and you can make a world-class dessert that you can serve warm to your friends. It is simply amazing. It's great left-over, but don't have any high hopes of there being leftovers.

This recipe will also give you an idea of how the book is set up. You get a nicely-written paragraph of background about the dish. A great color picture, and yes, min turned out pretty much exactly like the photo. You get a mid-length list of ingredients, most of which you should have on hand; just grab a bag of frozen cherries. You get a nice set of steps. Easy-to-follow, no kitchen-science, just the sort of thing you mom might have made in the hazy mists of your memory. It pops out of the oven looking just like it does in the book, and it tastes as good as it looks. 'Get Cooking' works.

Then there's the whole creative thing.

That's what keeps you cooking. After each simple, and delicious recipe, there are a series of easy-to-implement suggestions that offer some creative spins on the original recipe. And more importantly, they offer a sort of template for the cookbook reader's own experimentation. So you won't get tired of what you cook, because it can infinitely evolve.

The deal is that pretty soon you're going to come to the conclusion that it is not only healthier and more delicious to cook your own food, it's actually easier than going out. You don't have to leave your house. Now my suggestion it to start cooking dinner very early, even if it just means setting out some utensils you're going to use to cook. Once your cross that threshold, you'll find that you are less likely to want to go out and fetch something, and cooking in tiny increments always makes the whole process seem like a lot less effort.

You won't be exerting much effort if you follow the recipes in Katzen's book. I made the Beef brisket, substituting a dry Marsala wine for the water, and got a fantastic brisket, and a full recipe of broth perfect for French Onion Soup. We made the a double recipe of the Poached Salmon and used the leftover half for Salmon Burgers the next day — so much better than canned. Some of the recipes are vegan and so labeled. But that won't stop some enterprising souls from getting creative and adding meat. Because in the end, we all just want to get cooking. Food is a pleasure to eat, and it can be an equally enjoyable pleasure to cook.

Here's my effort on one recipe that turned out grandly:

Mushroom-Zucchini Over Creamy Polenta Cooked; Follow This Link to the new Cooking Blog

04-19-10: Ian McEwan Goes 'Solar'

Studying the Character of Science

It's easy to think that science resides outside of the human experience, that it is somehow platonic, eternal — that science is indeed just what it studies. But science is not what it studies, nor is it even like what it studies. Science itself, though it strives to be better is, when all is said and done, no more than, no less than — human.

The humans who perform science, those who use the rules we've created to create something beyond the human, they too are human. They have, and always will make great characters in novels, from Doctor Victor Frankenstein, whose scientific creation escapes his control to wreck his life, to Michael Beard, whose life escapes his control to wreck his science. Unless he can make one last grab, one last stab at working outside of himself. Being human is not a science, alas.

Or at least what passes for truth.

Ian McEwan is not a scientist, and he does not write science fiction. But his latest novel, 'Solar' (Nan A. Talese / Random House ; March 30 ; $26.95), examines the very human life of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, one Michael Beard, in a compelling story of human frailty and technological progress. McEwan's novel is a triumph of character-driven storytelling that is funny, tragic, frightening and utterly engrossing. It is a superb example of the power of the written word, a purely pleasurable reading experience. McEwan has mastered the science of the sentence.

'Solar' begins with the end of Michael Beard's fifth marriage, as the philandering cuckold finds himself cuckolded, and consequently, desolate. Were it not for his mind and the Nobel Prize-winning math formulae it created, Beard would be thoroughly reprehensible. He's better at lying and cheating on his wives and girlfriends than he is as a scientist. When he consents to head up an energy-research institute, hoping for another series of meaningless meetings and pro-forma appearances, he finds instead that he might actually be able to make a difference — and that his spectacular lack of a moral compass may prove to be an asset that can redeem his reputation. Alas, even if he himself were an equation, his best days are behind him. The future is not so bright as even his best assistant.

McEwan's best days may still be ahead of him, but at the moment, his ability to craft brilliant sentences is firmly in place. Reading 'Solar' is a true, joyous pleasure because even when he is describing Beard's most despicable acts and memories, McEwan's sentences capture Beard's world with the clarity of photography and the insight of an artist. The prose sings with wit and humor that will make most readers laugh out loud even if in the next moment they cringe with embarrassment. There is not a single misplaced word in the entire novel. McEwan makes every word count, and the result if effortless reading and complete immersion.

The character-based cringe factor in 'Solar' is alarmingly high. Michael Beard is shown in full, and we see him in high-definition prose that makes the most unpleasant bits seem witty and almost carefree. McEwan does an admirable job of giving us Beard's self-image and contrasting that with the obvious vacuum at the center of Beard's soul. We may not admire Beard, but we love to read about him, a perfect paradox that McEwan makes real with equally perfect prose. McEwan writes with a generous sense of humor that makes even the likable characters seem refreshing.

Immersed as we are in McEwan's characters, we're still able to enjoy the complicated machinations of a cunningly-architected plot. McEwan is concerned about nothing less than saving the world, and he manages to make 'Solar' into a page-turning race in which the destruction of a one human's lifestyle may allow the rest of us to continue own merry march towards personal apocalypse. He juggles fascinating science and self-serving politics against a background of messy human relationships accentuating each with the exact nuances necessary to take us towards an ending for one and a beginning for all. There's an element of revenge fantasy here that is remarkably rewarding.

All this skill, all the art and science of Ian McEwan are required, because our protagonist, Michael Beard is a thoroughly reprehensible man. Some readers will find him hard to be around, but the rewards of McEwan's writing prowess, even his ability to evoke embarrassment as grand as any love, create a sort of complicated push-me, pull-you effect. We can't stop reading about him any more than we can turn away from a sight of a crashing airplane. Though it may signal and conceal tragedy, the fireball is ultimately compelling. 'Solar' is often funny, always gripping and seems to presciently point towards the hope that the most flawed of humans can, in a self-destructive spiral downward, still create hope — for everyone else. But somebody, somewhere, will burn.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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