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09-28-12: Michael Lewis Fools With 'The Environmeddlers'

21st Century Pranks

The world is changing faster thank we think and generally, at least, not for the better. Every day brings another news report of dire environmental change, whether it is the smallest North Polar Icecap ever recorded or a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One might well wonder where the crusaders have gone. Richard Nixon is looking more and more like our greenest president. That can't be a good sign. Edward Abbey left this plane of existence twenty-three years ago. Monkey-wrenching seems well-intentioned but quaint, and we're not far from a tree-sitting reality TV show. (TLC, that's MY idea!)

We can be thankful then for 'The Environmeddlers' by Michael A Lewis, who, I can fully disclose, used to work at KUSP where my radio show is broadcast. That made it much easier for him to bring his book to my severely shattered attention, and then, only months after it had come out. That said, here's why you should read it: with 'The Environmeddlers,' Lewis effectively and entertainingly brings underground environmental activism into the 21st century. The result is a paranoid but positive-leaning thriller about aging activists who make use of the latest technology to bring a halt to that same technology. Yes, there's a touch of Escher's staircase to the proceedings.

Clovis is the aging activist who finds himself drawn into the latest environmental shenanigans by a cast of characters who often prove not to be who they say they are. Lewis does well with Clovis, who provides the sort of grounded perspective we need to bring us into the shadier side of the those who are acting our best interests, if not always their own. Understanding just who these people are and what their motives might be provides a nice pull to the narrative. Lewis is kind enough to offer us the Cowboy in this mix, a sort of sage who overlooks the proceedings with an air of mystery.

Driving action and keeping the pages turning are paranoia-inducing perceptions of surveillance that will have you unplugging your appliances and wrapping your battery-less cell phone in a lead-lined pouch. As the two threads converge, Lewis develops new concepts of the fight against technology; theme and character have to adapt in the presence of the new plot elements. And perhaps it will prove that fighting fire, as it were, with fire is not the best strategy.

With 'The Environmeddlers,' Michael Lewis sets up a very interesting parallel; it's a literary update of a genre about technology and its dissenters that have both themselves been updated. Lewis may use technology to write about its undoing, but it's the ancient power of storytelling that proves to be the most powerful force for preserving nature.

09-27-12: Archive Review: David Eagleman Calculates the 'Sum'

Forty Tales From the Afterlives

Editor's Note: Here is a book that is well worth searching out in hardcover, a book that you will read again and again because it is easy, delightful and thoroughly thought-provoking. Whenever I pass by, I pick it up and read a few afterlives. To my mind, this is the sort of book that should be nominated for and win the major speculative fiction awards, but alas, it would only do so in a world that is the result of speculative fiction.

OK, let's start with this delightful premise:

You're dead.

Now what? Assuming you — your soul, that perceptive being that creates a narrative for itself — continue to exist, what, precisely, might you be perceiving? What are the parameters of the afterlife? The answers to these questions are generally left to religion; but that doesn't have to exclusively be the case. Unfortunately, technology has not yet advanced to the point where we can track perceptual data after death. This isn't to say that it's impossible, just that it's impossible now. So the only kind of experiments we can really conduct are thought-experiments; and they may tell us as much about ourselves as they will about the afterlife.

It seems almost impossibly audacious. One man decides to define the afterlife — forty times. But in 'Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives,' David Eagleman gets on that high-wire and struts effortlessly from one vision to the next. Eagleman, a neuroscientist, and thus well-placed to be there should we create a means for retrieving perceptual data after death, manages to find the perfect prose style with which to engage in a consistently entertaining thought experiment. Perhaps this is because if there is an afterlife, our experience of it might closely resemble that of reading. Reading, heaven or hell, you decide.

Eagleman's book is quite simple in execution. You get forty short vignettes, just over one hundred pages total, each of which is a thought experiment in which the afterlife is defined, then described. Though Eagleman is a neuroscientist, this is not a work of science; and though the afterlife is the province of religion, and God, in a variety of incarnations, is a frequent (though not constant) presence, 'Sum' is not a work of theology. If anything, it most resembles the science fiction of Stanislaw Lem. The prose is as crystalline as the thoughts. The scenarios for the afterlife are quickly set up and the then rigorously and succinctly extrapolated.

The book begins with "Sum," in which it is envisioned that the afterlife consists of the moments of our lives, re-arranged so that we first, say, clip our nails for six days straight; then perhaps you spend, "Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting." You get the idea. For this reader, this beginning was quite reminiscent of Lem's, "One Human Minute," in which the author calculates how many people are engaged in a given activity on the globe during any particular minute. But not just in concept, because, obviously, statistics tell us that statistics themselves will eventually be parsed every which way they can. No, where Eagleman shines, again and again is the joyous clarity of his prose. 'Sum' is the science fiction / scientific equivalent of a book of powerful prayers, set in the format of, "There, but the grace of being alive, go I."

Eagleman has a knack for approaching religious visions with a style that makes them not just palatable but enjoyable to those who don't hold religious beliefs. He writes without fear, with incredible grace and a very nicely understated sense of humor. This little hardcover is fantastic gift for just about any reader, because everyone will find something to enjoy within. Moreover, it's short enough and punchy enough to actually get read. It's never morbid, though some may now and again find the visions it presents upsetting. Turn the page and another vision awaits you.

Eagelman himself is an interesting fellow and his website is well worth your time to visit. He's co-authored a work with Richard Cytowic, who wrote what has in the long run proved to be my introduction to neuroscience, 'The Man Who Tasted Shapes,' a study of synaesthesia. Eagleman himself is engaged in studies of this (sort of) disorder wherein sensory data are blended. I suppose that should come as no surprise. 'Sum' is indeed the sum of a number of interesting ideas and words, and the book as a whole is indeed far greater than sum of its parts.

09-24-12: David Rich Targets 'Caravan of Thieves'

Spies & Lies & Fathers & Sons

The one prison from which we may never escape is our upbringing. For most of us, that's a not a problem; these bars are not barriers. But for Rollie Waters, the bars do not keep him in, but rather out; he'll never live a normal life. His father, the con-artist, made sure of that. But in David Rich's tense, smart 'Caravan of Thieves,' that's the only certainty. Everything else is up in the air.

When we meet Rollie, he's being followed, and not just by the soldiers who want to toss him in the brig. Rollie is used to that kind of thing; as an undercover agent in Afghasistan, it was bread, butter and the breath of life. What's following Rollie that he cannot escape is his past, particularly in the form of his father, a charming con artist who has managed to ensnare his son in a particularly twisty heist involving a significant number of those dollars we heard were being shipped to the Middle east on pallets. The cash deal would be bad enough, but that's just the beginning.

David Rich is a smart writer who knows the virtues of economy and keeps his tale of crime and punishment lean and mean. Setting us up is the voice of Rollie Waters, a chameleonic undercover agent (read: spy) who upon his return to the States finds that hiding and changing your identity is a hard habit to break, particularly when it runs in the family that won't go away quietly. Rollie tends to be laconic and has a desert-dried sense of humor that makes reading the book both fun and somewhat disquieting. He might say something to make you laugh, then do something to make you wince in the same paragraph. It's a compelling combination that makes the pages turn fast.

On the other side of the deceptive divide is Dan, his father, a real charmer who tends to leave a trail of wreckage behind. Where Rollie is capable of swift and certain violence, Dan is more likely to be culpable for the actions of those who follow him. Both are accomplished liars, and that skill proves to be necessary in their world of military crime and ideologues without a conscience. There are innocents here as well, and they seem all-too real in Rich's gritty workaday world, but nonetheless worth saving and offer some balance to the clearly unbalanced drivers of the action.

Rich, a screenwriter, knows well how to stage and block the action scenes in 'Caravan of Thieves,' whether he's delivering stolen supplies in Afghanistan or busting up MP's in a barroom brawl. The book is never frantic, but never less than exciting; often thrilling and intense. He knows that keeping things brisk involves changes in pacing, not just constant acceleration. The character moments are pivotal and engaging, every bit the match of the considerable firepower on display. Rich knows what's important to a good novel; by putting hiss people first and foremost, the bullets, blood and torment are all the more intense.

The prose that pulls all this together is a model of lean transparency. There's nothing overly fancy, nor is anything too stylized. Rich has a strong story to tell, and Rollie is not wasting any words doing so. By weaving two different time streams together, the past becomes the present and the present heads into an increasingly uncertain future. Rollie may not escape the prison of his upbringing, but he is adept at confounding current attempts to confine him.

Rich, too, is adept at keeping readers immersed in a world where identity can be bought, sold, or manufactured with a quick wit and a few lies. Like the con artists he creates, he makes it all look easy and sound utterly plausible. Trapped in the prisons of our normal lives, we want to believe that Rollie is able to escape his.

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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