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I'm a writer, among other things.

I write speculative fiction and poetry. I review short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty, and I contribute to The Ruined Report, a blog about social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality.

I blog here, usually to share my thoughts on what I've been reading.

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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

April 6, 2019 reading

Photo of A People's History of the United States

Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003. Introduction copyright 2015. Originally published in 1980.

This is a good book, and I’m glad I read it. It’s also a big long book, and I’m not sure how to sum up my thoughts on it. I think I’ll try to articulate what I perceived to be the book’s main ideas, and then I’ll review some of the recurrent themes.

Main Ideas

  1. Mainstream histories suck. They obscure our understanding of the past and serve to indoctrinate us and make us passive, often with and through patriotism. A corrective, a People’s History, is needed.
  2. So much of the history of the United States is a history of elites struggling against the majority, trying to keep the majority fighting among itself and identifying with the elites rather than with each other. When the elites to admit change, it is because it is the smallest possible change that still permits them to maintain control.
  3. The political systems and institutions of the US defend the interests of the elite.
  4. When change happens, it is because the people, working together, force it.
  5. In the post-WWII era, the US is tragically committed to funding its massive military and not taxing the super rich at super high rates, which undermines our ability to invest in peace and in people.

Featuring American Classics, such as

  1. “the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress” (9)
  2. It’s a “defensive” war, we swear.
    • “Jackson began raids into Florida, arguing it was a sanctuary for escaped slaves and for marauding Indians. Florida, he said, was essential to the defense of the United States. It was that classic modern preface to a war of conquest. Thus began the Seminole War of 1818, leading to the American acquisition of Florida. It appears on classroom maps politely as “Florida Purchase, 1819”—but it came from Andrew Jackson’s military campaign across the Florida border, burning Seminole villages, seizing Spanish forts, until Span was “persuaded” to sell. He acted, he said, by the “immutable laws of self-defense.”” (129)
    • “Polk spoke of the dispatch of American troops to the Rio Grande as a necessary measure of defense. As John Schroeder says (Mr. Polk’s War): “Indeed, the reverse was true; President Polk had incited war by sending American soldiers into what was disputed territory, historically controlled and inhabited by Mexicans.”“(152)
    • “a White House conference two weeks before Pearl Harbor anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified.” (411)
  3. Hey poor people, come fight and die for me, and I’ll make you rich and famous.
    • “Here was the traditional device by which those in charge of any social order mobilize and discipline a recalcitrant population—offering the adventure and rewards of military service to get poor people to fight for a cause they may not see clearly as their own.” (78)
    • “We know much more about the American army—volunteers, not conscripts, lured by money and opportunity for social advancement via promotion in the armed forces.” (160)
    • “There were extravagant promises and outright lies to build up the volunteer units.” (161)
    • The rich could avoid service, of course (235-237)
  4. War is actually good and safe, so long as you’re in the elite.
    • “Ruling elites seem to have learned through generations—consciously or not—that war makes them more secure against internal trouble.” (79)
    • “The psychology of patriotism, the lure of adventure, the aura of moral crusade created by political leaders, worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.’” (237)
    • “And always, as a way of drowning class resentment in a flood of slogans for national unity, there was patriotism. […] The supreme act of patriotism was war.” (295)
    • “The mixed reactions of labor to the war—lured by economic advantage, yet repelled by capitalist expansion and violence—ensured that labor could not unite either to stop the war or to conduct class war against the system at home.” (317-318)
    • “American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest between the rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements.” (363-364)
    • “The coming of World War II weakened the old labor militancy of the thirties because the war economy created millions of new jobs at higher wages. The New Deal had succeeded only in reducing unemployment from 13 million to 9 million. It was the war that put almost everyone to work, and the war did something else: patriotism, the push for unity of all classes against enemies overseas, made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the CIO and AFL pleged to call no strikes.” (402)
  5. Bipartisanship for war.
    • “Congress now appropriated money for a war against the Seminoles. In the Senate, Henry Clay of Kentucky opposed the war; he was an enemy of Jackson, a critic of Indian removal. But his Whig colleague Daniel Webster displayed that unity across party lines which became standard in American wars” (145)
    • “Through the war, as Schroeder says, ‘the politically sensitive Whig minority could only harry the administration with a barrage of verbiage while voting for every appropriation which the military campaigns required.’” (153) (reminds me of Democrats in the 2000s)
    • “The liberals in the government were themselves acting to exclude, persecute, fire, and even imprison Communists. It was just that McCarthy had gone too far, attacking not only Communists but liberals, endangering that broad liberal-conservative coalition which was considered essential.” (431)
    • the Democratic Party during the Gulf War: “It went along with the Bush administration. It was pleased with the results. It had some misgivings about civilian casualties. But it did not constitute an opposition.” (600)
  6. Look! We’re bringing you democracy! Aren’t we great? Totally worth this war.
    • “Accompanying all this aggressiveness was the idea that the United States would be giving the blessings of liberty and democracy to more people. This was intermingled with ideas of racial superiority, longings for the beautiful lands of New Mexico and California, and thoughts of commercial enterprise across the Pacific.” (154)
  7. There was actually a lot of racism behind the war, go figure (157, 436)
  8. Selective enforcement and biased/elitist/racist interpretations of the laws.
    • “We see then, in the first years of the Constitution, that some of its provisions—even those paraded most flamboyantly (like the First Amendment)—might be treated lightly. Others (like the power to tax) would be powerfully enforced.” (101) See 100-101 for more.
    • “It was the national government which, while weakly enforcing the law ending the slave trade, sternly enforced the laws providing for the return of fugitives to slavery.” (186)
    • “In the thirty years leading up the the Civil War, the law was increasingly interpreted in the courts to suit the capitalist development of the country.” (239) Examples: contract law, health and safety laws.
    • “Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, despite its look of somber, black-robed fairness, was doing its bit for the ruling elite. […] Early in the nineteenth century the Court laid the legal basis for a nationally regulated economy by establishing federal control over interstate commerce, and the legal basis for corporate capitalism by making the contract sacred.” (260) See 260-261 for more on trusts and the 14th amendment being used to protect corporations (corporate personhood) instead of African Americans.
    • “Truman could have issued executive orders in other areas, but did not. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, plus the set of laws passed in the late 1860s and early 1870s, gave the President enough authority to wipe out racial discrimination.” (449)
    • “The first person prosecuted under the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was a young black leader of SNCC, H. Rap Brown, who had made a militant, angry speech in Maryland, just before a racial disturbance there.” (461)
    • “Evidence was piling up that even with all of the civil rights laws now on the books, the courts would not protect blacks against violence and injustice” (462)
    • “The events of those years underlined what prisoners already sensed—that whatever crimes they had committed, the greatest crimes were being committed by the authorities who maintained the prisons, by the government of the United States. The law was being broken daily by the President, sending bombers to kill, sending men to be killed, outside the Constitution, outside the ‘highest law of the land.’ State and local officials were violating the civil rights of black people, which was against the law, and were not being prosecuted for it.” (518)
  9. I’d love to do that, but I can’t.
    • “So Lincoln distinguished between his ‘personal wish’ and his ‘official duty.’” (191)
    • “Lincoln read the Constitution strictly, to mean that Congress, because of the Tenth Amendment (reserving to the states powers not specifically given to the national government), could not constitutionally bar slavery in the states.” (187)
  10. Using aid money to purchase influence rather than help those most in need.
    • “The United States in 1865 had spent $103,294,501 on public works, but the South received only $9,469,363.” (206)
    • “Meanwhile, the United States, giving economic aid to certain countries, was creating a network of American corporate control over the globe, and building its political influence over the countries it aided.” the Marshall Plan (438)
    • Foreign aid was mostly military aid (569)
    • Foreign aid in the Clinton administration being way too political (657-658)
  11. Reluctant “reform that would not yield too much” (218)
    • “The farmers had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history.” (214) Related, the two party system as “an ingenious mode of control” (217)
    • Philanthropy and public schooling as ways to maintain order and power and foster patriotism (263)
    • “What was clear in this period to blacks, to feminists, to labor organizers and socialists, was that they could not count on the national government. True, this was the “Progressive Period,” the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.” (349)
    • “The federal government was trying—without making fundamental changes—to control an explosive situation, to channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, the officially endorsed quiet gathering.” (456-457)
  12. Conducting half-assed investigations simply to cover your ass.
    • “The whole Iran-contra affair became a perfect example of the double line of defense of the American Establishment. The first defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but they will not get to the heart of the matter.” (586)
  13. Violating our own laws for national security and foreign policy.
    • “The Iran-contra affair was only one of many instances in which the government of the United States violated its own laws in pursuit of some desired goal in foreign policy.” (588)
    • See 588+ for examples including the Mayaguez affair, Lebanon, and Grenada.
    • (And then ironically we didn’t intervene in El-Salvador because we backed that horrific regime.) (589)
  14. “As so often happens in cases where the government commits murder, the surviving victims were put on trial” post Waco (646)
  15. Choosing military solutions when diplomatic ones are possible.
    • “But it seems that the Clinton administration, like so many before it (Truman in Korea, Johnson in Vietnam, Bush in the Gulf War) chose military solutions when diplomatic ones were possible.” (661)
    • Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (660-661)
  16. Wanting a “bold program of social reconstruction” but not being willing to cut the military budget or super tax the super rich to pay for it. (663-664)

Recent Reading: March 2019

March 9, 2019 reading

Photo of bookshelves in a bookstore

Born to the Blade: Season 1 by Michael R. Underwood, Marie Brennan, Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw

Serial Box, 2018. https://www.serialbox.com/serials/born-to-the-blade

This was tons of fun. The mash-up pitch is: Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Babylon 5. It’s got floating islands, duels with both magic and swords, intriguing politics, great worldbuilding, and nonbinary main character. Please read it at then tweet @SerialBoxPub and ask for a season 2.

I especially liked how nuanced the villains are. There’s one clear set of bad guys, Mertika, the classic imperialist power. They suck. But I loved how Quloo, Mertika’s capitalist rival, wasn’t without faults either. Quloo also sucks. In some ways, you could even argue Quloo is worse than Mertika. (I’m writing in general terms here so as to not spoil things.) I loved this nuance. A fun effect of this is that our heroes end up running around trying to stop everything from going to shit, which I think is a more interesting storyline than a “just” war against a flat villain.

The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Circlet Press, 2017.

The Stars Change is a queer SF romance, set on a different planet, at a university founded by Indian immigrants. It’s mostly a human populated planet, but there’s also a good number of aliens living and working there as well. The central conflict revolves around a group of likable, everyday people cooperating to try to stop a terrorist attack conducted by radicals whose slogan is “Humans First.”

I really liked this short novel because of its:

  • Indian-centric worldbuilding
  • classic pulp SF setting and feel
  • deeply ingrained intersectional feminist approach
  • compassionate and sophisticated engagement with important contemporary political themes

I will quickly recommend this book to basically anyone.

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Tor.com, 2017. https://publishing.tor.com/acadie-davehutchinson/9780765398253/

This short and fun novella is short and fun. I was able to read it in a day. I liked it. The twist near the end was fun and well-executed. An impressive amount of interesting worldbuilding is crammed into this short book.

I recommend this book if you like twists or if you like stories about genetics, human modification, and/or transhumanism.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

Tor.com, 2017. https://publishing.tor.com/thelambwillslaughterthelion-margaretkilljoy/9780765397355/

An anarchist community of squatters summons a demon to protect them. When it turns out the demon may be turning on them, the community begins to turn on itself.

I was inspired to read this in part because last year I read “The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” by Margaret Killjoy in Strange Horizons, a fun, powerful, and heartbreaking story about trolling, capitalism, and immigration. (See my roundup of 2018 short fiction here.) I loved that story. You should go read it. So when I was looking for novellas to read (I got on a novella kick the other week, can you tell?) I decided to give this one a shot.

Margaret Killjoy has become a new favorite of mine for the way she portrays anarchists, punks, squatters, activists, trans people, and others who are generally not only on the margins of society but also underrepresented in fiction. When these people are represented, they’re all too often represented in problematic, caricatured, and/or flat ways. So it’s really a joy to read Killjoy’s writing, which compassionately and empathetically centers these voices.

In particular, I loved the collectivist community of anarchist squatters that Killjoy depicts in this book. One of my favorite books ever is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (it has an anarchist-communist society on the moon!), and while I love that book, it takes place in another star system far in the future. It’s detached from everyday life on Earth in the early 21st century. The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion examines how people can try to live in anarchist communities now, in the present(ish) day, and it depicts squatters, punks, and activists who are currently trying to do so.

To me, the plot felt a little tight, a little too hurried. I think it would have benefited from more room to stretch. That said, the novella was long enough to be engrossing and short enough to read in a day, which is a pretty delightful length. I want to read the sequel, The Barrow Will Send What it May, and I hope that that book is able to spend more time worldbuilding and developing characters.

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Tor Books, 2017. https://craphound.com/category/walkaway/

Wow. I totally loved this book. The way I see it, Walkaway is a book about the end of capitalism and the end of death. Which like … yes please I want to read that. I was mostly interested in reading about the end of capitalism(!), but I was also totally onboard for exploring the end of death as well, which Doctorow does here with much more nuance and sophistication than he did in his earlier Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Let’s just pause for a moment and appreciate that here we have an intelligent, well-written novel that takes place over a span of maybe a couple decades and imagines how capitalism might end and illustrates for us the essential process by which capitalism is replaced. [Pause for a moment.] Heck yes this book is awesome!

Now let’s single out two things in particular that I loved about Walkaway.

First, throughout the book, characters get into discussions/arguments/debates about any number of topics, and these conversations can go on for pages, with the characters really diving into the arguments and exploring their implications. Perhaps some readers may get bored by these conversations or feel they are somewhat unrealistic. That was not my experience at all. I loved these conversations. I was fascinated by them and felt they were acutely realistic. I was reminded of my friend Jordan, and how he and I will often get into just these sorts of conversations. I haven’t seen him in a while, so I loved getting to vicariously enjoy these sorts of conversations while reading the novel.

Second, quite possibly my favorite thing about Walkaway is the way it imagined family and community structures. From what I can tell, this element hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in either reviews or in Cory Doctorow’s own talks about the book, so I’m thinking I may have to write an essay exploring this in more detail. But for now, I just want to point out that in the novel there are essentially two societies: “default” (which is basically today’s world nearing the point of collapse) and “walkaway,” which can be described in a lot of ways, but here I’ll sum it up as a collective of anarchist-communist co-ops. Walkaway society is formed by people who walk away from default, and the base unit of society for walkwaways isn’t the nuclear family but rather a form of community life. Walkaways mostly live together in what are essentially anarchist-communist housing co-ops. Now, one of my core research interests and artistic obsessions has to do with family and community structures, specifically with alternatives to the heteronormative nuclear family. And I find it deeply significant that, in Walkaway, the exact point at which capitalism starts to really die is when people go walkaway and begin to live in community co-ops with one another. I also find it significant that one of the main villains of the book is the father of one of the walkaways, and he does some pretty fucked up things in the name of “family.”

Lastly, this book made me happy because of its queer, transgender, and POC representation.

I tend not to reread books all that often, but I’m already itching to reread this one.

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

One World, 2019. http://www.johnjosephadams.com/projects/peoples-future/

This is an A+ Trump-era anthology of politics, resistance, and hope. Some of the stories are dark and heart-wrenching, but others are warm and hopeful. See my recent Skiffy and Fanty review for more thoughts on this.

My favorite stories in the anthology are:

  • “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders
  • “Our Aim Is Not to Die” A. Merc Rustad
  • “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right” by Sam J. Miller
  • “Riverbed” by Omar El Akkad
  • “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” by Violet Allen
  • “No Algorithms in the World” by Hugh Howey
  • “A History of Barbed Wire” by Daniel H. Wilson
  • “Harmony” by Seanan McGuire
  • “Now Wait for This Week” by Alice Sola Kim

If you want to read excellent science fiction short stories that feel hyper-contemporary, read this. I can practically guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation translated and edited by Ken Liu

Tor Books, 2016. https://kenliu.name/translations/collection-invisible-planets/

I’m a fan of Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, and I’m also a sinophile who currently lives in China and studies Chinese, so this anthology seemed like a thing I should read.

I really liked Liu Cixin’s stories in this anthology. I also liked Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” and Hao Jingfang’s “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing.” Generally speaking, I appreciated but didn’t particularly enjoy the other stories here.


Website Redesign

March 2, 2019 web design

Photo of a programmer's computer screen

Over the last two months, I taught myself the Bootstrap framework for web development, and I used it to redesign my website/blog. This project was on my to-do list since April 2017, and I’m glad that I had the chance to get it done this season. The blog looks much better now.

Screenshot of the blog from before the redesign
Here's how my blog looked before the redesign. Functional, but sad.

Much better.

Bootstrap

Bootstrap is a fabulous tool, and I think it should be taught to beginners right alongside HTML and CSS because if you want to do some basic web design-y things (like add a navbar), it’s actually quite a bit of work if you’re just using HTML and CSS, but with Bootstrap, it’s a cinch. And it’ll look good. The basics of Bootstrap aren’t much more complicated than the basics of HTML, and Bootstrap has another significant advantage: Bootstrap is a tool for developing responsive websites, websites that shift their layout depending on whether the reader is accessing the site on a desktop, tablet, or phone.

It also turns out that Bootstrap integrates really well with Jekyll, the platform that powers my blog, which made this redesign quite a bit of fun.

What’s New

Thanks to Bootstrap, my website/blog is now responsive, so it’ll look nice whether you access it on your desktop or your phone.

I added color and photos to the blog, simple design basics that I had neglected before. They do a lot of good, go figure.

I’ve added support for both categories and tags.

I also added support for Twitter cards, so that when I post blog links on Twitter, Twitter adds a nice little box with the post’s featured image and an excerpt. Like so:

Screenshot of a tweet showcasing a Twitter card
Here's a pretty Twitter card that now shows up when I post links to my blog.

And, of course, in the process of redesigning the website, I also made lots of other small typographical and design edits. All in all, I’ve very happy with the site now.

Forking My Website/Blog

This website/blog is powered by Jekyll and hosted for free on Github thanks to Github Pages.

It’s a pretty sweet setup because it means: I don’t pay hosting fees; the website is super easy to backup; it’s easy to host elsewhere if I decide to ditch Github. Also, I was able to set up a custom email and email forwarding for free through Google Domains.

If you’re looking to set up your own website/blog, you’re welcome to fork my website on Github and use it for yourself. In an earlier post I reflected on the benefits of using Jekyll and Github Pages over a platform like WordPress, so check out that post for more details. It’s a little complicated, but if you’re tech-savvy, you can probably figure it out okay. Feel free to shoot me an email if you’ve got any questions.

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