Books I Finished in September (with one I didn't)
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Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by: Christopher Ryan
The End of History and the Last Man by: Francis Fukuyama
Siddhartha by: Herman Hesse
The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Sławomir Rawicz
Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space by: Kevin Peter Hand
Kansas City Noir by: Various
Innsmouth: (The Weird of Hali #1) by: John Michael Greer
The Kill Chain: How Emerging Technologies Threaten America's Military Dominance by: Christian Brose
Trump vs. China: Facing America's Greatest Threat by: Newt Gingrich
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by: G. J. Meyer
September ended up being kind of crazy meteorologically, particularly the first 10 days. The month opened with only the third 100 degree day in September we’ve ever had (as measured at the SLC airport). This was followed a few days later by hurricane force winds (100 mph, perhaps higher) as a massive cold front moved in. The high one day was 90 and the next it was 54. As you might have surmised, we don’t get hurricane force winds very often in Utah. I think most of the houses were okay, but the winds brought down hundreds if not thousands of large trees, leaving over a quarter of a million people without power. I was one of those people, and our power was out for 33 hours, which was pretty annoying, but people directly across the street from me were without power for 96 hours!
As an (aspiring, largely secular) eschatologist I try to be on the lookout for impending cataclysms, but also careful to not overreact to things. Catastrophe’s happen all the time, and sometimes they even happen in clusters, and most of the time this doesn’t translate into serious long-term chaos. Still sometimes your emotions go places you don’t expect. Such was the case the Saturday before the windstorm. I had left the house early and I was driving east. The Sun had risen, but I could look straight at it, because with all the smoke it was nothing but an angry red orb, almost Sauron-esque in its appearance. And I was suddenly overcome by a sense of dread and impending doom. I can only imagine what sort of emotions people were experiencing this month when they looked at the skies in California. All of which is to say, despite my apocalyptic interests I don’t think the world is going to end any time soon, but 2020 is sure doing everything in its power to make me doubt that belief.
I- Eschatological Reviews
By: Christopher Ryan
Who should read this book?
Anyone interested in a rebuttal to modern optimists like Steven Pinker will find that this book does a pretty good job of exactly that.
Beyond that if you agree with Jared Diamond that “Agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Then you’ll definitely enjoy this book.
I already took aim at this book in a previous post and I’d rather not repeat too much of what I already said, so if you want more discussion of Ryan and his book than what’s provided here, I would recommend reading that as well (if you haven’t already).
To begin with, and I probably didn’t emphasize this enough in that last post, I did enjoy this book, and he brought up all manner of issues which are not only ignored by the cheerleaders of modernity like Pinker and others, but issues which are also ignored by the vast majority of “normal” people as well. And as I mentioned in that last post, insofar as you apply these things to yourself and actions you take in service of your own health and happiness then the book has a lot of great advice. For example, using his description of the horrors of medically prolonging life to encourage you to draft a living will. It’s when the book tries to tackle the bigger issues that problems start to emerge. Speaking of which…
In that previous post I pointed out Ryan’s contention that he is fine trading additional deaths if in exchange we get “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. And by the way his trade didn’t involve a few additional deaths, but rather the deaths of nearly half of everyone before the age of 15 and many more deaths beyond that. Claiming you’re willing to make such a trade is easy enough when it’s hypothetical, or when you’re referring to people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago. Where it gets much more difficult is when you’re talking about the deaths of people right here, and right now. In other words having read the book I was very curious about his views on the current pandemic.
It seems reasonable to expect that having written a whole book on the tradeoff between an increased chance of death and “health, happiness and personal freedom” that he would be eager to explain how this tradeoff works when applied to the biggest news story since at least 9/11, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t undertaken that exercise. Which is too bad, because at first glance, it does kind of seem that most people are trading happiness and personal freedom (and possibly health as well, certainly mental health) for a slightly reduced chance of dying (certainly nothing close to the chances he was throwing out for hunter-gatherers in the book). And this would appear to be the exact opposite of what he’s advocating. I could imagine him offering an explanation for why this seemingly obvious interpretation was in fact not the interpretation one should draw after reading his book, but there’s no evidence of him attempting that. Mostly what I found when I searched his twitter account is the kind of the garden variety exhortations to wear masks, and retweets about how much Trump sucks that you might expect out of any urban liberal. (Which is not to say that’s what he is, merely that his tweets contained nothing to set himself apart from that stereotype.)
Though, in the process of searching, I did find this tweet:
Every time you hear someone say, "We'll get through this," remember that they're denying the existence of those who won't.
Viewed in light of his own very blase attitude towards the 46% of children in forager societies who “don’t get through it” this statement seems at best oblivious and at worst massively hypocritical.
A long time ago there were these text only story games. One of which was based on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In the game there was a path you could follow which closely resembled the plot of the book. However someone once told me (i.e. this might not be true) that that wasn’t the way to win. To win, very early on, before even leaving Earth, you had to do something completely unexpected and it was that path, completely different from the book, and only available if you made a radical choice right at the beginning which led to victory.
I was reminded of this by a story Ryan told in his book of a man by the name of Brian Stevenson who, in 2003, while attempting to help secure a hot air balloon ended up hanging on to the balloon as it was carried away, and hung on so long that when he finally lost his grip he was hundreds of feet in the air and ended up falling to his death. This story ends up providing one of the central metaphors of the book, that the invention of agriculture was like grabbing on to a hot air balloon as it gets blows away and then despite being in a very bad place (cultivators as opposed to foragers) we get to a point where we can’t let go. Where, like the game, we needed to make a different decision right at the beginning, but now we can’t because we’re hundreds of feet in the air. Perhaps this is so, but telling us we should have let go a long time ago isn’t very helpful. What we really need is advice on how to climb into the balloon and descend safely.
From the standpoint of how things end, e.g. eschatology, this makes Ryan’s book post-eschatological. The end isn’t out there somewhere, rather it happened a long time ago in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and ever since then we’ve been consigned to a hell of our own making.
by: Francis Fukuyama
Who should read this book?
Anyone who snorted derisively at the idea that history ended at the same time as the cold war (like me) should read this book as penance.
Or, if you're familiar with the term “Whig history” and you want a modern and sober assessment of it, this is also a great book for that.
I spent my last post talking about this book, and my next post will talk about it as well, so I’ll try and keep my review on the short side.
At a more general level, beyond all the stuff I’ve been discussing, Fukuyama's claims can be reduced into a set of tiers of decreasing plausibility:
His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. (Certainly it’s not something Ryan’s foragers could do.)
Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.
A lot of stuff gets added on top of this framework, but in the end his claim that there are no alternatives left to liberal democracy basically comes down to the idea that no other system of government can beat it in a fight. Which is kind of an interesting way to show that we’re at the “End of History”.
In order to show that we’ve reached some kind of end point (albeit, as we’ve seen a somewhat different end point than most people imagine) you have to assume that history is directional. If we reverse that we find that any claim that history has a direction, like Fukuyama’s, automatically becomes an eschatological claim. However, as you can see from the framework above it’s not a very strong eschatology, Fukuyama predicts neither a utopia (apparently we still have the threat of war and racial animosity) nor an apocalypse, but rather sort of a weird local (or maybe global?) maximum created by the scientific method. The maximum is easy to slip off of, but there are no other heights, at least not nearby, from which it can be challenged. Or is there? China seems to be giving us a lot of problems despite not being a liberal democracy, and this will be the subject of my next post.
II- Capsule Reviews
By: Herman Hesse
Who should read this book?
I’ve seen this on a lot of lists. And furthermore many people recommend it as one of the best books of all time. On the off chance that it will end up on your “Best of” list you should probably read it. Even if it doesn’t (as was the case with me) it’s still a pretty good book.
This was an interesting book to read in the immediate aftermath of finishing The Master and His Emissary which was all about the need to strengthen the right hemisphere, and in any assessment Siddhartha is a very right-brained book, though perhaps too right-brained. While the quest of Siddhartha is beautiful and simple, his final philosophy ends up being a little too broad, seemingly reducible to the tautology that everything is everything.
That said I still think there’s a lot a wisdom in here and in particular, like Tim Ferris (who may have provided the recommendation necessary to push me into reading it) I love the response Siddhartha provides when the merchant asks him what he can do: “I can think, I can wait and I can fast.” I would have to say we need a lot more of all three of those in our current world.
Beyond that, while the book was beautiful and inspiring, I’m not sure how much practical advice there was, or how much you would want to emulate Siddhartha or whether such emulation is even possible. To give one example, which I assume will seem very picky to the many fans of the book, but which I think gets at an important criticism of a lot of books like this. For all of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, for all of his wisdom, he can’t figure out two of the most basic things. How to be a good Son and how to be a good Father. And it’s not as if he decides that those roles are unimportant. In the book, the only thing he wants more than to be a good Father is to achieve enlightenment, and he also realizes, in the process of being a father, how much he has wronged his own father. And yet this thought, rather than prompting him to immediately to make amends, passes with kind of an “Oh, well” shrug.
The central point being, if enlightenment can’t give you the skills necessary to be even average at some of the most fundamental roles of existence (father and son) what exactly is the point of it? I guess you might say happiness, but clearly his failures as a father make him unhappy and cause him pain, so he doesn’t even get that.
All that said, it’s not inconceivable that I’m missing the whole point of the book...
By: Slavomir Rawicz
Who should read this book?
I couldn’t finish this book, which almost never happens (though it should probably happen more often to be honest) which I guess means that nobody should read this book.
I assume most people don’t go into books blind, though maybe I’m wrong about that. Speaking for myself I like to at least know what kind of book it is, and a general overview of where it’s headed before I start reading. Wikipedia is usually a pretty great source for that sort of information, and that’s what I consulted before beginning this book. Once there I found out that the book, in addition to being a tale about prisoners escaping a camp in Siberia and making their way to India in the early years of World War 2, might also be entirely made up.
As you can imagine that cast a pall over things, but the book had been recommended to me by the little old lady of my acquaintance who I’ve mentioned in this space before and she normally has pretty unerring tastes when it comes to what makes a good story, so I figured even if it was fictitious I’d get a “ripping yarn” out of it. Accordingly I started reading it (actually listening to it) despite my misgivings.
As I mentioned I didn’t finish it, but I did get around 70% of the way through it, and perhaps the ending is incredible, but the part I did read wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Still, given my desire for completeness, I probably would have pushed through if it had continued to at least maintain the veneer of realism. Unfortunately it couldn’t even do that. What finally made me stop was when, in the process of crossing the Gobi Desert, they ended up going without water for 13 days!!! And this wasn’t 13 days without exertion in mild conditions where there would be no need to sweat for temperature regulation, this was 13 days of walking in the heat. By itself, this is a pretty unbelievable claim, but my choice to abandon the book probably had more to do with his description of the events. I’ve read a fair number of survival books, and his version of going without water seemed almost laid back, in comparison to the frantic, insanity inducing accounts of the other books I’ve read.
Lest I give you the impression that the novel was entirely without merit. I thought the first part of the book, which took place before being sent to Siberia, and mostly consisted of different descriptions of Soviet interrogations was actually quite good. But beyond that I wouldn’t otherwise recommend this book.
By: Kevin Peter Hand
Who should read this book?
People interested in xenobiology.
If you read anything at all about Fermi’s Paradox you’ll encounter the idea of a habitable zone. That place where a planet is neither too close to the sun, nor too far away. Where most of the time water is a liquid. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find discussions of galactic habitable zones, where the solar system itself is not so close to the center of the galaxy to be overwhelmed by supernovas and high energy gamma radiation bursts, but also not so far away that there are no nearby stars, or previous supernova to supply the heavy elements. To these first two Hand adds a third a habitable zone for planetary satellites, where a moon is close enough to a large planetary body that tidal flexing provides sufficient heat to support oceans of liquid water. As it turns out there are quite a few of these moons just in our own solar system. The most promising candidates being Europa and Enceladus, and Hand goes into quite a bit of detail on why these oceans buried under an external layer of ice make such promising environments for life. But he also covers other moons, and even Pluto as part of the book.
For myself I don’t think Alien Oceans did much to increase the probability I would assign to life on one of these moons, which I already felt was pretty high (which in the xenobiology game is probably equates to anything above 5%) but after reading the book I had a much better foundation for my beliefs than previously. All of which is to say I found the book interesting but mostly unsurprising. And something which tied in well to the recent discovery of phosphine on Venus as another reason to have serious doubts about all of the “Rare Earth” answers for Fermi’s Paradox.
Who should read this book?
If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned noir short stories this isn’t a bad collection.
I’m doing an embarrassing amount of remote role-playing right now. One of the campaigns I’m playing in is an homage to True Detective set in 2016 Kansas City and environs. On a whim, in an attempt to get more material for things I picked up this book and decided to listen to it. In all my reading I have actually not done a lot of noir reading, and so I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge the quality of this book in relationship to other collections of noir short stories, but I enjoyed it, it seemed to largely do a good job of getting the feeling correct. I understand this isn’t a stirring recommendation, but it is a recommendation nonetheless (for those looking for this specific thing.)
Who should read this book?
If you like the Lovecraftian mythos, and you’re looking for something different, but still within that “world” this should be right up your alley.
I like John Michael Greer a lot, which is not to say that I agree with him on everything, in fact I think we have very different world views, but his thoughts on the problems of modernity are spot on, and I’ve referenced him quite a bit in this space. That, however, is his non-fiction, this book is (hopefully) fiction. Though as you might expect his somewhat eccentric worldview does have a big impact here, so big in fact that *minor spoiler* the followers of Dagon, Cthulhu and the rest are the good guys. I say that’s only a minor spoiler because you found out pretty early on that that’s the way it’s going, so yes, if you know this it will eliminate some of the early suspense, but I think it’s the reason you’re most likely to decide to read the book, so I wanted to get it out there.
Beyond this fascinating premise, the rest of the book was quite good, and I tore through it pretty quickly. That said, there were some bits that didn’t quite work when translated from unnamable horror to defender of magic and mystery, and while Greer is a good writer, he’s not a great writer, and his characterization is a little flat. Even so I quite enjoyed it. And I’ll add it to the list of series (there are at least four more books) which I have started, but not yet finished.
by: Christian Brose
Who should read this book?
If you’re a military buff, I would recommend this book. If you’re a military buff who’s also worried about China then you absolutely have to read this book.
Last month I ended up reading two books focused on the threat of China, of which this was the first. Reading the two together, with some additional pollination by ideas from End of History and to a lesser extent A World Undone (the last book I’ll be reviewing in this post) led to an interesting and hopefully fruitful alchemical combination. Which, as I have extensively foreshadowed, will be the subject of my next post. I hope that the ideas look as good on paper [BLOG] as they do in my head. In addition to stoking your excitement, this is also my way of saying that this review is only a partial exploration of the book, that I’m saving much of it for that next post.
This book is a deep exploration of the emerging areas of weakness in the US military, compared to the emerging areas of strength in the Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian militaries. As a former aide to John McCain and the Staff Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee the thing that Brose brings to the table is an incredible understanding of the relationship between the military and the government. I imagine that it’s possible to get a sense of the danger China poses militarily from lots of sources. (To be clear they’re really only dangerous in their own backyard, no one is saying China is going to invade and conquer the US.) Indeed I think I already had a pretty good sense of the danger just from stuff I picked up on the internet, what I didn’t have a sense of was how hard it’s going to be for the US military to pivot in such a way that they can effectively counter China in places like Taiwan and the South China Sea.
While it’s hard to know exactly how effective the Chinese military is, (though according to Brose over the last decade in war games intended to simulate a conflict with China the US side has lost every single time) or how good they are at acquiring and using weapons systems. We do have a very clear idea of how good the American military is at such use and acquisition. And the answer is not very.
A good example of how defense acquisition can go wrong is the Army’s attempt to buy a new pistol a few years ago. It issued a request for proposals that ran over 350 pages of cumbersome details and envisioned years of costly development and testing before soldiers would ever get a new sidearm. Even Army leaders were surprised. They learned about it when McCain and I told them, and then they were as outraged as we were. “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing,” said an outraged General Mark Milly at the time, when he was chief of staff of the Army, “This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million?” he vented. “You give me $17 million on a credit card and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”
This example is just the tip of the iceberg. It pretty much doesn’t matter which aspect of the military or its relationship to the government you look at, it’s all bad. And it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.
by: Newt Gingrich
Who should read this book?
Of the two books I’m reviewing that deal with China, if your worry is primarily military in nature, and only secondarily about China read The Kill Chain. But if your worry is primarily China, and only secondarily about their military strength, read this book. Also I’m reasonably certain there are better books about China than Trump vs. China. I’m not certain that there are better books about the current problems facing the US Military than The Kill Chain.
I feel like this book needed a different title, I think I would have gone with “The US vs. China” rather than “Trump vs. China”, because the problems Gingrich outlined existed long before Trump came into office and will continue to exist long after he’s gone. Nor (and here my biases may be affecting things) did he make a very strong case for Trump being uniquely focused or effective when it came to this problem. Which is not to say that Biden would be better, I don’t think there’s much evidence he would be, but if you imagine that the scale of the problem is 1000, does it really make much difference to have Trump who treats it like a 30 in office vs. Biden who only treats it like a 10? Either way the effort being put forth is completely inadequate to the problem. The thing that Trump should get the most credit for, tariffs, takes up only a small part of the book, and while they’ve probably been better than nothing (for those convinced of China’s perfidy) there impact was pretty small, and there’s ever indication that even Trump might back down before they have the necessary impact.
Where the book really shone was in crafting an overarching narrative for the Chinese strategy, though even here Gingrich could have done better. He uses the idea that the Chinese treat their international efforts like they are playing a game of go, as opposed to the West which treats it like a game of chess. He also demonstrated how everything China is doing makes sense if you consider it to be part of the high level Belt and Road Initiative. But in both cases he introduced these frameworks well into the book’s second half, which was a weird decision, almost as if he only thought of them after he’d been writing for awhile and rather than go back and introduce them earlier and incorporate them into the stuff he’d already written they just got included at the point at which they occurred to him. Nevertheless their explanatory power was great enough that it was easy to see how they provided excellent analogies for the situation.
The go vs. chess analogy ends up being very illuminating when applied to the situation with Taiwan and the South China Sea. If you view the region as a chess game, then Taiwan is obviously the king, aircraft carriers are the queen and other ways of projecting force are analogous to rooks, bishops and knights. But as a game of go, it’s all about making small incremental moves to take more territory. Building up artificial islands in the South China Sea, moving anti ship missiles to the coast and gradually increasing their range. Getting countries to no longer recognize Taiwan, etc. The analogy is not perfect of course, but in the end I think the Chinese strategy is a better one. Particularly for controlling the area right in their backyard.
As far as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, I admit to being initially dismissive of the idea when I first heard about it. What do I care if the Chinese build a road that connects China to Rotterdam? I kind of assumed that it was already possible to make that drive and the Chinese were just making it easier, but once you start to view it more figuratively, the initiative becomes a lot more worrisome. What do I mean by that? Well perhaps you’ve heard of the fight over 5G? Well as Gingrich points out the Chinese are well ahead of us on this, and using a spectrum for transmission which the US hasn’t even gotten around to making available yet, and while that’s interesting, I only really grasped it’s true impact when I envisioned 5G as yet another road, one that China is building, one that might be so advanced that a significant portion of the world’s communication ends up on a Chinese road rather than something built using American technology. This same pattern applies to their activities in space, and even the manner in which they work with organizations like the NBA and Hollywood.
There’s obviously a lot more to things, but as with the previous review I intend to expand on all of these topics in my next post.
by: G. J. Meyer
Who should read this book?
If you’re looking for a book on World War I, I would read Guns of August first, but this is a strong contender for second particularly if you’re focused on the actual hostilities. (If you’re looking for a more political angle with a focus on America, Meyer’s other book, The World Remade, is better.)
I sort of stumbled into reading several books on World War I. This has given me the idea of choosing some piece of history at the beginning of each year and really focusing on it. Though we’ll have to see how that works out, some periods probably need more than a year, and some probably just need one good book.
Also I don’t intend to abandon World War I because it’s so fascinating. I know World War II get’s far more attention, and certainly it’s flashier, but WWI was really when the world changed, when old ideologies fractured, when the nature of war was forever unmasked, when the communists took power and the Tsar, Kaisar and monarchs not only lost the war, but lost their countries and in some cases their lives as well. It’s a time that was only 100 years ago, and yet people alive today can’t even fathom doing what those people and nations did. And yet despite this, particularly in the way the nations rushed into war, I still think it holds a tremendous number of lessons.
Ten books last month, that feels like a lot. I’ve always dreamed of getting paid to read. If you want to make that dream a reality consider donating.