Sunday, November 29, 2020

#StayAtHome: Paul Waters' "The Republic of Vengeance"


When I purchased Paul Waters' The Republic of Vengeance at Uncle Edgar's (the back room of Uncle Hugo's SF bookstore, where mysteries and historical novels live), Elizabeth told me that some of the regulars, who are fans of novels set in classical antiquity didn't like the homosexuality in the novel. Apparently they didn't look at the last paragraph of the Historical Note at the back of the book:

"It should perhaps be noted that bisexuality was ubiquitous in the ancient world, and well attested in the sources. Such behavior was not, in itself, an object of censure, and this remained true until the end of the classical period when the Church, wielding its growing political power, began to impose its own uniform blueprint on human relations." 

This book in fact qualifies as a gay novel. Marcus, the Roman protagonist, is gay and a major arc in the novel is the development of his lifelong relationship with his Greek lover, the athlete Menexenos. But it is not a typical gay novel, as one of its abiding themes is a young man's quest for vengeance against the pirate who killed his father (and indeed a whole shipload of hostages, of which Marcus was the only survivor). This quest leads the young man into the Greek and eventually Roman war against Phillip the Fifth of Macedon, who has designs on the whole of Greece (and possibly the whole Mediterranean).

Rome is still a Republic, and during the course of the novel (albeit offscreen) Hannibal is finally defeated, while closer to center stage, Phillip and his pirate lover Dikaiarchos wreck chaos across the Greek peninsula. The last novel I read, David Anthony Durham's The Risen tells the story of the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome; it happens a bit after this novel, and I swear that there is way more explicit raunch, gay and straight, in Durham's novel than in Winters'. The latter is far more interested in Hellenistic philosophy than in gay sex, but Paul Winters tells a good story. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

#StayAtHome: Spartacus, Corona, Cuboniks


Two of these books are among my best reads of the year. David Anthony Durham's The Risen is a novel of the Spartacus uprising during the Roman Republic. It is written in short chapters, each conveying the perspective of a different character who was part of the Spartacus movement. You get to see how the movement and individual characters evolve over time. I had dinner with David once (and with Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson) 12 years ago or so, and it is amazing to see how his career and Nnedi's have progressed. David is best known for the Acacia fantasy trilogy, but now that I have read "The Risen", I want to read another of his historical novels, Pride of Carthage, which is about Hannibal. This was my best read of 2020 to date; I read it slowly over the summer and fall. Like all really good books, finishing it leaves a bit of a hole.

Andreas Malm's Corona, Crisis, and Climate Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century was the other great read of 2020. It looks at the intersections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. It asks some difficult questions, like why did (most) states respond very aggressively to COVID-19 while choosing not to respond in significant ways to the climate crisis, which has been killing 150,000 people a year for the last four decades. The book makes a persuasive case that climate change is a primary driver of pandemics, as local habitat disruption forces pathogen-carrying species to migrate. Malm revises radical disaster theory (which emphasizes social factors as the drivers of disaster) by showing how capital in fact drives climate crises and in turn drives biological crises like pandemics. (Note that while the text engages with James O'Connor, one of the founders of Ecological Marxism, it fails to engage with other compelling radical ecologies, such as the Marxist eco-feminisms of Vananda Shiva, Maria Mies, and others. More on the exclusion of non-European thought in a bit.)

Malm's solution is a call for war communism to address the dual crises of pandemics and climate crises. This requires the exercise of state power, so anarchism is out because it rejects using the most critical tool. Similarly, social democracy is out, because it is ineffective in crisis periods. His deus ex machina is that simultaneous Leninist revolutions will happen in multiple countries - somehow. Because he doesn't engage with capitalism as a world-system though, there is no theory behind how these "simultaneous" revolutions might occur, or how they will stay true to their original goals once state power is taken. Here he relies on Adorno and Trotsky to keep the revolutions true. 

You can't get more magical thinking or more Eurocentrism in one serving, and given the terrible track record of Trotskyism in the real world (zero successful revolutions, almost zero traction outside Europe and North America) this is a really self-defeating place to land. Still though, there is a lot of exciting food for thought in this small book, and much of the text left me very hopeful that positive, rapid change on a world scale still might be possible. Malm creates the sense of urgency for the change, and a sense of possibility; it's just that his analysis and prescriptions really need to step outside the European and Western Marxist frames.

Then there is The Xenofeminist Manifesto by the five-country collective Laboria Cuboniks. I read it in about an hour on the exercise bike, and you can too. The point of the text is a bit drowned out by its graphic design, but I gather the main points are to put forward xenofeminism as an anti-essentialist, pro-science, trans-friendly revolutionary feminism for the digital age. None of this is bad. 

What is bad is the way that the text is absolutely smothered by the design. It reminded me a lot of the cover and interior of the Swedish old-school metal RPG Mork Borg ("Dark Fortress"), which came out 2 years after The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Which images below come from the manifesto, and which come from the RPG? Choose your own adventure, but no more of this, please!

Sunday, November 15, 2020

#StayAtHome: Tillie Walden's "On a Sunbeam" and "Cosmic Slumber Tarot"


The art above comes from Tillie Walden's SF epic graphic novel On a Sunbeam, which tells the story of a group of women and one genderfluid crewmember who travel the stars repairing abandoned space relics. Not relics as in spacecraft, but relics as in "old palaces" or other mysterious and long-abandoned structures hanging alone in the built environment of deep space. The starships we see are giant koi, and there are elements of space magic in the graphic novel. At 500+ pages, the story takes a while to "take in" and includes two storylines: the protagonist's school days, and her present life as part of a travelling architectural repair crew. Think about the design intent of the RPG Diaspora, remove all men from the picture (it totally passes the Bechdel test), and add space magic and you have some sense of the promise of this graphic novel. It also has one of the nerviest borrowings from classic SF: in particular, from Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day".

During the North Country Gaylaxian's discussion of the Walden book, we discovered that she has also created the Cosmic Slumber Tarot. This is a full-sized, full-color Tarot deck with two extra cards representing day and night. The art is very reminiscent of  the author's illustration  style in On a Sunbeam, in particular once we reach the vivid, mysterious and magical world known as The Staircase. The deck is charming and beautiful, and comes with a small hardcover guide to the deck. The cards and book come in a hard double box with a magnetic close. It is very reasonably priced at $25.