Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?

No:

Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

The Likeness — Tana French

If you don’t mind the crazy, improbable plot—and it’s crazy and improbable even by murder mystery standards, where authors strain relentlessly to think up new plots—The Likeness is an okay, functional book of its type. In the novel, Cassie Maddox is a cop who, prior to the novel’s start, developed a fake identity to go undercover in order to crack some victimless crime related to drugs. That assignment ends, and as the novel begins, police discover a dead woman who has an ID saying she is Cassie’s old identity—that is, the dead woman had enrolled in grad school under that name and developed a life using that name. But how’d the dead woman get the ID in the first place? Why would she use or need it?

So far, we’re in the land of extreme improbability. Then—and this is where “improbable” moves to “ridiculous”—Cassie and her boss decide to pretend the dead girl actually lived, but suffers from amnesia, and Cassie is going to pretend to be the dead girl, who was pretending to be one of Cassie’s old IDs, because Cassie so closely resembles the dead girl. Who had been living with four of her grad school friends in a big house, where they all see each other every day.

It’s not bad, but it’s also one of these doppelgänger books—books that are like another book, but often not quite as good. If you want a bunch of surprises among a band of tightly-knit college students who are hiding a shocking secret, start with The Secret History, in which an outsider joins a band of four other students who have a dark secret (besides their facility in Latin). Reading a book that’s similar but not quite as good just makes me want to go read the real thing. The Weight of Ink suffered from the same problem: it was like Possession, but without the wit.

When Cassie first hears from the gang she lives with, one says:

We were wrecks. Not Daniel, obviously, he would never do anything as undignified as get upset, he just stuck his head in a book and occasionally came out with some fucking Old Norse quote about arms that remain strong in times of trial, or something.

Daniel plays the role of Henry in The Secret History. The Likeness asks how well we can ever really know a person (answer: not very), and that makes it more interesting than many mysteries, but I flip through it, hunting for some bit of evocative writing, and I’m struggling. There is this, at the end:

I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack.

It’s beautiful, not commonplace, but not inaccurate, either. But more often the sentences can be dropped into any other cop novel: “This case had been different from the first moment.” Which is not a criticism, exactly (not every sentence in every novel is an original), though one does yearn for novelty or at least great precision. Or: “The possibility hit me like a wrecking ball: suicide.” But we know it won’t be suicide; that would deprive us of the pleasure of discovery.

Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules — Helen Dale

Kingdom of the Wicked is one of the best, weirdest, and most fascinating novels I’ve read in recent memory; I’m amazed that it hasn’t garnered more reviews, both from Amazon and the press. It takes a seemingly simple premise—what happens if the Industrial Revolution occurred in ancient Rome?—and combines it with an insurgent campaign against an occupying power in the Middle East and the appearance of Jesus. Is the occupying power good, evil, neither, or both? Kingdom refuses to yield simple answers, which is part of what makes it addicting.

Many sections resonate with very current events: “These men really do believe a ragtag army of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen. The result will be a bloodbath, you know that better than me” could easily be taken from a news story about contemporary Afghanistan. Yet in the context of the novel, it defamiliarizes the tropes that appear so readily in the news.* We also know from the last 50 years of real history that ragtag armies of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen, at least by some measures of “defeat.” But in Kingdom, that power isn’t the United States; it’s the Roman Empire in the period Jesus lived.

I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s prediction that The Name of the Rose would be read in at least three different ways; Kingdom can perhaps be read similarly:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coups de scène, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Kingdom is not a whodunit, and if it is a “textile of other texts,” I do not know those other texts well enough to detect their presence. But I do think Kingdom is a kind of textile of history, though I don’t enough Roman or Biblical history to perceive those patterns, either. David Lodge suggests regarding Eco’s categories that “there is an implied hierarchy in the listing of these kinds of reading, the most approved being the last. A fully appreciative reading must, however, combine all three.” So while I can speak to the plot and coups de scène, as well as the many resonances between imaginary past and actual present, I cannot grasp what may be the deepest level.

That being said, the first two levels offer much material. I will caution, though, that the book may feel slow and strange to start: many odd (to my American background) names appear in rapid succession and are hard to keep straight. Some, like Pontius Pilate, are familiar even to me from history. Many others are not familiar or not from history, and it is not always easy to keep Camilla, Claudia, Caiaphas, Cornelius (whose last name is Getorex, and he is referred to by the one or the other depending on context) and many others straight.

Yet I kept reading, and about halfway through I could not or would not stop. I wasn’t wholly attentive at the beginning, either, maybe due to reading on a bus—or because I couldn’t make up my mind about the book’s quality immediately. Then I finished and immediately began again, to see all that I’d missed or not understood. And there was much to find in a second reading. This reaction might be idiosyncratic, but I forced the book on a friend who had the same reaction: caught halfway through, she finished and turned back to page one.

She also observed that there are a lot of “really hot sex scenes.” That’s true, and they intersect with the political and military contexts beautifully. To say more would be to give away too much of the novel.

Beyond the plot and the correspondences between imagined world and present, many individual sentences are beautiful: “[Caiaphas’s] mind ran like a rodent on a wheel as he tried to think how he was to explain himself to Pilate.” “Like a rodent on a wheel:” that is sometimes how one feels when preparing to explain the inexplicable. This novel combines a turbulent plot with beautiful sentences, as too few novels do. The word “combines” features prominently in this review, for good reason. This book is a combination of many ideas in an unusual way. Unlike most novels, it feels very novel.

In this world, Christianity hasn’t happened yet, so there are no Christians. Islam comes many centuries later, so there are no Muslims; this allows Kingdom to deftly sidestep many current controversies. There are Jews and we’re in a land that corresponds geographically to the modern Middle East, here called Judaea, where the Roman soldiers are unhappy to be living amid cultural aliens. Most of the novel’s narrative perspective happens within Romans, but sometimes we get Jews, who see the Romans a little like modern Palestinians might see Israelis, or as Afghans might see Americans. One senses, perhaps wrongly, that the author sides with the Romans, just as one senses that Umberto Eco sides with William of Baskerville, but everyone gets a hearing. Courtrooms and lawyers frequently appear in Kingdom, so the notion of a “hearing” is not purely metaphorical.

Early in Kingdom, a Jewish cabbie is driving a Roman lawyer and notices the environment:

Whenever he saw Roman soldiers in dress uniform, he always had the same struggle to prevent himself from admiring them. When they were in the streets wearing their desert battle dress and coalscuttle helmets and heavy boots, one could despite them—the body armour even made them look non-human—but not when they wee preening like peacocks and charming the women who wished to reward the Empire’s warriors for their protective efforts.

“Body armour” can make modern soldiers “look non-human.” Many have argued that in the United States, “We Are The Empire” of the Star Wars films: culturally and militarily hegemonic, builder of massive war machines, masters of the physical world. In Kingdom we are Rome—yet we’re also the product of monotheistic religions. Yet even those monotheistic religions haven’t been sufficient to keep a libertine culture from growing; in Kingdom, the libertine culture is the majority culture and thrives in the mainstream; people want what they want and do what they do. In American culture, we often deny wanting what we want, and the next morning we deny what we did. We’re schizophrenic: simultaneously partaking and rebelling, affirming and denying, at war with ourselves, with self-denying, right-wing religious culture circling back around and sometimes combining with self-denying, fear-based left-wing feminist culture. It’s an odd world, if you really think about.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us don’t. Not actively. You don’t have to think too hard about the correspondences between our world and Kingdom if you don’t want to: the story itself keeps one’s interest. Speculative fiction readers may have an advantage here, because the world is extremely disorienting at first. Historical figures like Saul of Tarsus and Pontius Pilate appear, but people who don’t know the New Testament won’t necessarily see how strangely these figures are changed. And lots of people don’t know it: I was recently teaching Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and asked students about the famous historical-mythic figure who died at age 33. No one knew.

The novel switches perspectives often at first, but the narrative voice remains similar. It took me till about halfway through to get the characters straight and begin to piece together who everyone was and the main things that most characters might want. But the disorientation is the pleasant sense of being in a foreign place, much like Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight.

I mentioned the novel’s sex scenes. They’re tied to the Roman celebration of sensuality. Many characters notice each other in a way that real people do and fictional characters often don’t. Mary Magdalena, for example, is “a newsreader on JTN” and she is “bar none, the most beautiful woman” one character has ever seen. She is like Ben Yusuf in that she has something of the supernatural about her, so much so that “He could imagine her telling him to do something ridiculous and complying without hesitation.” In the Roman world, sexuality is highlighted rather than sublimated, and when Linnaeus is too intent on her, he says, “Please accept my apologies for staring at you like that.” She replies, “That is the best of Rome . . . You do not pretend.” A world where, if not everybody, then many people have such an attitude is a cultural change.

In the real world, the second-best-known pornographic movie is probably Debbie Does Dallas, which even has its own Wikipedia page (the first is of course Deep Throat, which is immortalized by its role in Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and the taking down of Nixon). In Kingdom, a movie called Deborah Does Damascus plays a similar role.

The sly winking to Deborah Does Damascus also reminds one of the novel’s frequent humor. Though that humor is hard to take from its context, I laughed out loud reading it and so did a friend. When the disorientation from entering Kingdom’s world subsides, be ready to laugh.

In the novel; there is a lot of argument about how “women are not free in their country;” maybe the novel is also an experiment asking what freedom, or some definitions of freedom, actually look like. “Freedom” means a lot of things, and it does seem like few people are actually free, or want to be. Even people who want freedom for themselves would often deny it to others; politically salient examples of this seem too obvious and numerous to cite.

If there is a single lesson from the novel it may be that governing is hard, culture is hard, and there is no way to make those problems not-hard.


* Here is Dale’s essay, “What if the Industrial Revolution happened in Rome?” and she is also on Twitter. Here is Mark Koyama, “Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?” I’ve seen very few American reviews of Kingdom, which is odd considering how good the book is. The next book is supposed to be out soon in “Early 2018,” but from what I can tell it isn’t yet available for pre-order.

I know almost nothing about Roman history but am now reading Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which is readable, fascinating, and thus far recommended (although I can’t speak to its accuracy because I lack sufficient knowledge to do so).

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy — Mark Regnerus

Cheap Sex is more useful, interesting, and informative than many books on the same or adjacent topics, and it pairs nicely with Date-onomics. The books can be read as differing reactions to similar social phenomenon on the ground, with the latter having a more left-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how people should pragmatically react to current conditions, while the former has a more right-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how these conditions came to be. We live in an age in which everyone is outraged or offended by something; when you find something that outrages or offends you, leave a note in the comments. You may find that cathartic.

Although neither book makes this point, I think they’re part of the continuing social reaction to the Industrial Revolution. “What,” you might be thinking, “does the Industrial Revolution have to do with contemporary books on love, marriage, and dating?” Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most societies were (relatively) stable most of the time, at least for the duration of a human life; the technological and social conditions one’s parents faced were likely the same an individual would face and the same that individual’s children would face. Cultural and technological change was of course real for much of human history, but it was also relatively slow, allowing people to acclimate to it over generations instead of years or decades.

Since the Industrial Revolution, though, we’ve seen technologies that radically and repeatedly reshape the technological and social worlds. This leads to periodic moral panics, especially but not exclusively around sexuality and religion, in part because we never get a chance to get used to new technologies.

(It’s hard to think of a single book that summarizes the Industrial Revolution; Joel Mokyr has some, Deidre McCloskey has others).

Today, we’re still grappling with the reshaping of society due to pretty reliable contraception. In some ways we’ve had pretty reliable contraception for a very long time (since the ’60s), but in the view of human history, or even human history since the 1750s, we’ve had it a very short time. We’ve spent pretty much the entirety of human evolution without pretty reliable contraception, and that’s shaped our minds, our bodies, our societies, and our practices. And it’s still reshaping all of those things, without most of us stopping to think about what it all means to look at these things in the course of a very wide and long history.

That’s part of what Regnerus is doing. The present moment is the product of a whole lot of past, most of which most of us don’t think about most of the time. But a lot of our current conflicts come from past conflicts that we don’t fully understand. And he’s pointing to that history, when he writes in subheaders about “The transformation of intimacy.” Or when he writes about the “obsession of romance among many, and yet stability seems increasingly elusive.” At the same time, “the ramifications of cheaper sex are just beginning to unfold on a panoramic scale.”

No wonder people are confused. For most of human history, cultural notions around sexuality have been pretty stable. Now they’re incredibly unstable and we’re all making things up as we go along and responding to technologies that have unpredictable consequences.

Regnerus may not be right about many of his conclusions, but he is thinking differently and also not stupidly, which is valuable in and of itself.

I’m also not sure how much you can trust the book’s conclusions, as many are drawn from “nationally representative survey data” as well as “in-person interviews,” the problem being that people notoriously lie in surveys, especially about sensitive subjects, and the same biases occur in in-person interviews. Those weaknesses are part of the reason why books like A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Dataclysm, and Everybody Lies are so interesting: rather than relying on the surveys in which everybody lies, they look at revealed preferences in the form of data from the Internet (and online dating itself).

Cheap Sex itself is written competently but not beautifully. You will not stop to admire individual sentences, and that’s why I’ve not quoted much from it so far. Read it for the knowledge, not the prose. Like many academic books (this one is published by Oxford) it has its share of “You don’t say?” statements, like, “When it comes to relational happiness, then, sexual frequency is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is certainly a net positive for most.” “A net positive:” really? I’m shocked! I would never have guessed.

But it also has its moments of humor, as when an interviewee discusses at length his own romantic dilemmas and then Regnerus writes, “After we turned off the microphone at the end of the interview, Brent asked if we though the and Betsy should break up. (We declined to respond).”

There are also moments I’m still mulling and don’t yet understand:

Meant to be a “haven in a heartless world,” as the late social critic Christopher Lasch described it, marriage is fast becoming a contest, another tenuous social arena in competition with the economic marketplace (for our limited time and energy) and the remarriage market (for second chances and variety).

A “haven in a heartless world:” Regnerus implies here and elsewhere in the book that maybe there isn’t such a place. I’m not arguing that he’s right. But I don’t see a compelling reason he isn’t.

The Last Picture Show — Larry McMurtry

The Last Picture Show ought to be one of the most boring novels ever written: It’s about a handful of losers in a nowhere town who don’t do very much. Stated like that you wouldn’t want to read it. But the delivery makes it work and that delivery can’t be easily excerpted.

The Last Picture Show feels humane; I can’t exactly define that term in this context and I can’t point to a single sentence that encompasses it, but the feel permeates the novel. When people talk about politically correct art, they are talking about the opposite of The Last Picture Show, which is never doctrinaire yet often honest about its characters their foibles. Maybe the best is Lois, Jacy’s mom, who is scary and desiring and wants everyone around her to fuck off and wants to be gone but never quite can be.

Part of being humane entails familiarity with brutality, desperation, and annihilation—all of which appear, in various guises, as when Ruth Popper finds that a teenage boy has become everything to her: he “was what made the days worth confronting” (the word “confronting” being a better one here than “living”) and “the thought of going back to the existence she had had before he came was too much to face.” Yet on some level she must face it: he’s a high school senior and she’s married to his former football coach. Their relationship is by its nature has a terminus, but fighting the terminal nature is part of what makes the novel work—and part of the nature of its melancholy, melancholy being a feeling that is rarely if ever named yet one that pervades the whole thing. It isn’t melancholy the way someone like Houellebecq is, but all the characters yearn to be somewhere else.

The Last Picture Show world is very different from today; we learn that Sonny played football for four years at the local high school, but the football coach is “a man of most uncertain temper. He had already shot at Sonny once in his life, and with a new under-over he might not miss.” It’s hard to get the tone of this sentence in the context of the novel. Is it supposed to be farcically funny? Reported straight? A sign of the town and the boy’s resignation? Something else? I don’t know and not knowing is part of what makes it good.

Sometimes, but not too often, the sentences hit classic beautiful metaphors:

after an hour’s slopping necking with Charlene even the fantasy that he was kissing Jacy had a dangerous power. Charlene kissed convulsively, as if she had just swallowed a golf ball and was trying to force it back up.

If that is Charlene to Sonny, we know everything about their relationship.

Or, not in metaphor form:

“But I don’t care about money,” Jacy said solemnly. “I don’t care about it at all.”
Lois sighed. “You’re pretty stupid then,” she said. “If you’re that stupid you ought to go and marry him—it would be the cheapest way to educate you.”
Jacy was so shocked at being called stupid that she didn’t even cry. Her mother knew she made straight-A report cards!

And report cards are of course the surest, most steady sign of intellect devised by man.

The first sentence is, “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town.” “Human creature?” What and where is “the town?” “Lonely,” “lonesome” and similar words about the lack of human contact and camaraderie are the most-used in the novel. There is of course no social media, but even if there were it probably wouldn’t help much. The town is too far from the big city. For Sonny and Duane, the military may be a way out. For many others, there is no obvious out.

I love this book because I don’t get it, and it should be bad, but it isn’t.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things — Ben Horowitz

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of the best books I’ve read recently and one of those books whose subject matter is unlikely to interest most of you, but the execution is so good that you ought to read it anyway. The best books transcend their subject; this is probably the best passage in an already great book:

Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship.

Implicitly, you could strike the adjective “business” and replace it with a lot of others… or perhaps strike it altogether and still achieve a similar effect. I’ve often felt exactly what Horowitz is describing but never conceptualized it that way. Over and over again, I found myself marking passages and putting checkmarks next to them. In most books, that practice falls off a third of the way through; in this one, I kept going to the very end.

Many sections just demonstrate that Horowitz gets things. Like:

“What would you do if capital were free?” is a dangerous question to ask an entrepreneur. It’s kind of like asking a fat person, “What would you do if ice cream had the exact same nutritional value as broccoli?” The thinking this question leads to can be extremely dangerous.

Wishful thinking can block useful thinking. Which most of us don’t think, or don’t think consciously.

He’s thinking about antifragility before Nassim Taleb wrote the eponymous book:

The close call was a sign to me that the entire operation was far too fragile. I got another sign when our largest competitor, Exodus, filed for bankruptcy on September 26. It was a truly incredible bankruptcy in that the company had been valued at $50 billion a little more than a year earlier. It was also remarkable because Exodus had raised $800 million on a “fully funded plan” just nine months earlier. An Exodus executive later joked to me: “When we drove off a cliff, we left no skid marks.” It Exodus could lose $50 billion in market capitalization and $800 million in cash that fast, I needed a backup plan.

I’m surprised there aren’t more novels set among venture capitalists or startups. The drama is all there. Maybe most writers don’t realize it, but Horowitz is good at stakes and drama. His stories are too often to quote in full, but they’re full of narrative drama and tension in a way most books aren’t. And some character descriptions are as good as anything in fiction:

Wow. I had no idea who I was dealing with until that point. Understanding how differently Frank viewed the world than the people at Opsware helped clarify my thoughts. Frank expected to get screwed by us. It’s what always happened to him in his job and presumably in his personal life. We needed something dramatic to break his psychology. We needed to be associated with the airport bar, not with his job or his family.

Horowitz had an epiphany and he acted on it. Hard Things could be seen as a series of epiphanies, and we get to follow him through.

We’re often told to attend to data, likely because most people don’t, but once you attend to data, “Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.” Like Peter Thiel, Horowitz argues that your life is not a lottery ticket and that markets are often wrong (or at least that insiders can see things that the outsiders who create market values cannot):

If I’d learned anything it was that conventional wisdom had nothing to do with the truth and the efficient markets hypothesis was deceptive. How else could one explain Opsware trading at half of the cash we had in the bank when we had a $20 million a year contract and fifty of the smartest engineers in the world? No, markets weren’t “efficient” at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion—often the wrong conclusion.

Almost anyone trying to do anything useful should be thinking about what good ideas are not being pursued: “Wall Street does not believe Opsware is a good idea, but I do.”

“The wrong conclusion:” if markets can converge on “the wrong conclusion,” so can individuals and societies. Some of Hard Things can be read as a critique of American society: “My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.” American society is regularly considered to be positive, but in a way that isn’t necessarily founded on skill or improvement. The “self-esteem” movement is part of this trend, even though moving towards self-efficacy would be an improvement. In class, when I started teaching I was often too positive. Now I’m less positive and more likely to emphasize that growth often comes from pain and struggle. The deadlift doesn’t get higher without some pain, and the best lifters learn to love the pain. Same with intellectual, psychological, or emotional growth. Yet we have a society that shies away from those truths.

I’ve heard about Hard Things many times but this recommendation tipped me into reading it, and I hope my recommendation tips you. The best books can be read many ways and applied to many situations, and this is one of the best. I didn’t expect it to be, which makes it all the more delightful.

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