Sunday, June 20, 2021

Three on Climate

 


Andrea Hairston's Master of Poisons is set in a fantastic version of West Africa besieged by an ever-worsening climate crisis. Poison winds blow from the east, gradually eroding and poisoning farmland, cities, and even the ocean.  This is Hairston's first full-on epic fantasy, but her writing style is as vivid and at times bewildering as in her earlier novels. Short chapters of 4-6 pages are written from the point of view of Djola, an exiled member of the ruling Council of the Arkhysian Empire, or Awa, a girl who is in training to become a griot or storyteller. 

Djola is on a quest to end the climate crisis; he searches for a magical cure that will prevent the collapse of the Arkhysian Empire. He loses his family, and eventually gains terrible magical powers. Awa is sold by her impoverished peasant farmer father to the itinerant Green Elders, who are gender nonconforming travelers, shadow-warriors, and mystics who live in the wilds to the east of the Empire. Awa has the ability to enter the Smokelands, which are a layered, spiritual otherwhere which faces an ecological crisis of its own. Gradually the stories of Djola and Awa come together as ecological, social, and political crises converge.

This novel was the June selection for the North Country Gaylaxians Book Club. As far as I know, I'm the only book club member who finished the book. Hairston's style in each of her novels is fragmented and demanding. The payoff doesn't happen quickly. In my case, I had to get to around page 250 before I felt certain I would read all 507 pages of the story. However, I am glad that I did!

***


One of the recurrent challenges for Hairston's characters is whether - and when - to use violence. They are trying to save their world from poison sands and from opponents who are only too willing to use violence (conventional or magical) to expand their power and to "control" (and sometimes hide) the crises their world is facing.

Andreas Malm's How to Blow Up a Pipeline is no "Ecologist's Cookbook"; people who are looking for practical advice on how to carry out eco-sabotage won't find anything useful here. Instead, Malm presents an ethical argument for the use of violence by the environmental movement. His argument will be pretty familiar to people who were active in CISPES in the 1980s. For both the Central America solidarity movement, and for the Salvadoran revolutionary movement, there was a recognition of the need for strategies that broaden the movement (i.e., bring more people into active participation) and strategies that radicalize the movement (i.e., the adoption of bolder, more militant strategies and tactics that advance the movement and take political ground from the enemy).

While the environmental movement of the 1990s certainly had elements that espoused and used violence (in particular Earth First! and proponents of the reactionary ideology of Deep Ecology), by the 2000s, the environmental movement had largely eschewed such tactics. Malm's concern is that the environmental movement doesn't present a serious challenge to fossil capitalism and climate change; we won't be able to stop climate change unless activists "raise the stakes" through tactical use of violence.  

The examples of violence he uses are symbolic protest actions such as damage to private property (for example, letting the air out of SUV tires, and then leaving a note for the driver warning them that they have a flat tire, and why) and sabotage of oil pipelines (such as drilling holes in the pipes). The latter tactic is very similar to sitting on railroad tracks serving the munitions industry, or hammering in the heads of missiles. We've seen this before, and it is somewhat surprising that there isn't more of this going on in the contemporary environmental movement. 

Malm isn't talking about cyberattacks that temporarily or permanently damage polluting infrastructure, or targeted assassinations of corporate officers or board members of polluting industries, which is somewhat surprising as there is not much in his line of argument that would suggest that these kind of actions are not in line with radicalizing the movement in the way he suggests needs to happen.

***


Nick Estes' Our History Is The Future provides ample reason to carefully consider the ramifications of violent tactics for the environmental movement. Estes' book is partly a history of Dakota resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), partly a history of the Dakota people and their struggle against European settler colonialism, over several centuries, and partly a history of indigenous social movements for human rights, treaty recognition, and environmental justice. Because so many frontline struggles for environmental justice today are happening on sovereign native land, and because U.S. settler colonialism has repeatedly shown no respect for native lives and sovereignty, and a great propensity to use violence and terrorism against native people, the struggles that indigenous activists have led against DAPL, the contemporary Line 3 project in Minnesota, and others are decidedly focused on using non-violent tactics. 

Estes documents just how much force and violence police, paramilitaries, and the oil and construction industries have directed against native communities and activists. One can only imagine the repression that would occur if indigenous activists actually used Malm's methods in their environmental activism. This is something Malm's book fails to address in any way.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

#StayAtHome: Mao Zedong's "On Contradiction" Study Companion

 


Mao Zedong's "On Contradiction" is one of Mao's five really important philosophical essays. Originally presented in 1937 as a lecture at the Anti-Japanese Military and Political College in Yanan, "On Contradiction" explains how things change according to dialectical and historical materialism. 

I'm also reading Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness at the moment, and while they are both texts about historical materialism, and both owe a debt to Hegel, Mao's "On Contradiction" is much more in the Engels tradition in that he sees dialectics as explanatory in the realm of nature and science, as well as for history and human society. Strictly speaking, Mao's essay is a work of dialectical and historical materialism, whereas Lukacs confines dialectics to historical processes only, by which me presumably means humans-in-nature as opposed to all nature.

The edition I read, Mao Zedong's "On Contradiction" Study Companion, published in 2019 by Foreign Languages Press (Paris) is just that: 84 pages of text, with the left hand page being Mao's original text, while the right hand page is commentary on the text prepared by the Redspark Collective. The text is followed by three pages of footnotes from the original essay. 

Redspark Collective's commentary is quite useful. It explains many of the early 20th Century historical events that had happened or were in the process of happening at the time the essay was written. Commentary also explains various philosophical currents in the ancient world, Europe, the USSR, and China that have influenced or are referenced in Mao's text. Finally some comments focus on more recent events, including the dogmatism of some followers of Shining Path outside Peru (for example, some Maoists outside Peru took up the Sendero policy of printing all brochures with red covers!), even pointing out that the revolution in Peru ended for all intents and purposes in 1990.

More apposite to contemporary concerns, the Redspark Collective commentary also points out where Mao got things wrong in light of factors like climate change and the persistence of antagonistic contradictions within socialist societies. I read the entire book yesterday, and will probably read it again once I finish Lukacs.  


Sunday, March 14, 2021

#StayAtHome: J. Sakai's "Learning from an Unimportant Minority"


 J. Sakai is a Japanese American radical who is best known for his book Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern. This book, Learning from an Unimportant Minority: Race Politics Beyond the Black/White Paradigm (2015) is the transcript of a talk he gave as part of the Festival of Anarchy in Montreal in 2014. It's a small book, and short at 118 pages; I read it in a few hours last night.

The title is sarcastic. Sakai doesn't really think either Asians or Japanese Americans are an "unimportant minority", but that is how they are often treated within a paradigm that looks at race as primarily Black/White. He's interested in this problem not as an academic exercise in critiquing binaries or dualism, but based on his life experience. But the talk opens with the case of a white man in Chicago who attacked several Asian men while they were fishing by Lake Michigan. The white guy got a reduced sentence because his companions included a white woman and a black male, and because he belonged to an anti-racist skinhead group. That's the context for Sakai's immediate concern with Asians as an "unimportant minority."

In the talk he relates his family's experience after leaving a WW II concentration camp for Japanese Americans. They moved to Chicago, and he learned how to interact with white people ("the rules") around age 9 from African American kids of similar age. He observes the ways in which Japanese Americans in Chicago "bargained" with a white power structure, as well as about his own (and other Asian Americans') activism in solidarity with African Americans and American Indians.

One of the most exciting stories he tells is about an American Indian armed occupation of vacant housing in Chicago,

Sakai doesn't think that race antagonisms will go away when capitalism is put down. He points to conflicts between the Japanese American community and other racial groups, and to class differences within the Japanese American community, and suggests that "contradictions among the people" will persist for some time after a revolution.  



Saturday, March 13, 2021

#StayAtHome: Suldokar's Wake, Periodical Release Issue #1

 


Suldokar's Wake is a science fiction RPG by Christian Mehrstam, the creator of Whitehack. Readers may know about Whitehack: it is a brief, extremely flexible reconstruction of a d20 RPG. Whitehack introduced one of the favorite features appropriated without attribution by Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, referred to as double roll/half roll in the mechanics of Whitehack and Suldokar's Wake.

What we have here, in Suldokar's Wake, Periodical Release Issue #1: Aeonic Evil Returns is Mehrstam making something explicit that he believes is implicit with many RPGs. It is typical with many RPGs to release a core book or players' guide, followed by "supplements". So many, many RPGs are in fact serial publications. Christian Mehrstam decided to intentionally release an RPG as a serial product with a number of issues. It's an experiment to see what happens when you get intentional about this publication format.

The first issue pictured above is a gazetteer of sorts. There is a brief explanation of the publication strategy, a description of what you need to play, some content about design philosophy, information about dice mechanics used in the game, and then about 40 pages of setting description. That is followed by some explanation of mapping conventions used in the game, and a glossary of mechanical terms and in-world words.

The setting is interesting. It has a lot in common with Numenera, except that the author has taken the effort to present a coherent history of the world, something lacking in Numenera. The parts of the world hang together here, because the author chose to present a world with a history. It is a long history, with the rise and fall of human and non-human civilizations. There is a time abyss, such as we often see in fantasy and science fantasy, but it has concrete elements that hang together in a coherent way that leaves one wanting more information, while walking away with the impression that there is plenty of space for GMs to write new content for the game. 

Back to the setting. Post-scarcity, long-gone ancient civilizations, and recently fallen starfaring civilizations. Human(ish) people, aliens, droids, solid-light holograms. An isolated planet, stargates no longer functioning. Crashed starships and generation ships. A planetary holointelligence. Pervasive nanotechnology, much of it gone wild. A subterranean world, with another planetary intelligence, this time fungal. Ruins to explore and pillage. Makers (replicators) no longer very programmable, with reproduction templates that can manufacture many goods while rendering the land around them barren: the makers strip resources from their immediate environment to construct their valuable products.  

There is a lot to work with here. I read a lot of Numenera into this, but there are certainly other influences including Babylon 5, especially with all the hints of an ancient Shadow evil that is about to return, and STALKER, with people delving to recover inexplicable alien artifacts. 

My edition of the product is 80 pages. The editing is spotty, but that's what happens when you buy a print on demand book right after its release.

You could run this game setting with Numenera, Fate, or Mutant Year Zero but if you are patient (as I was over the last couple of years) there was the promise of supplements. These supplements now exist:

  • Issue #2: Anatomy of  Zira-Kaan Character has the rules for character creation (this is a light d20 system, with some intrinsic weirdness based on the author's interests) in 128 pages.
  • Issue #3: Rules of Inverted Reality has the game mechanics in 128 pages.
  • Issue #4: Depths of Devnull is huge. It clocks in at 330 pages, has all the rules and resources for GMs, as well as a 50 page adventure.
  • Issue #5: The Screen That Wasn't is a 19 page optional that summarizes all the key rules. Think of it as a GM screen in booklet form. 

Links to order any of the books can be found at the Suldokar's Wake blog.

I'll be starting in on Issue #2 tonight. I ordered Issues #4 and 5 earlier this week, and look forward to their arrival!

#StayAtHome: J. Moufawad-Paul's "The Communist Necessity"


I purchased J. Moufawad-Paul's The Communist Necessity back around 2014, when it came out in its first Kersplebedeb edition. There is a second edition from Kersplebedeb out now, which is about 10 pages longer, and you can download a free PDF of the first edition from the very fine independent Maoist publisher, Foreign Languages Press, right here

J. Moufawad-Paul is a Maoist philosopher, the publisher of the M-L-M Mayhem! blog, and a frequent contributor to online discussions hosted by the Foreign Languages Press. It's unfortunate that it took me so long to read his book, but on the upside, in recent years I have read a good number of the texts he critiques in the The Communist Necessity, including Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis, Jodi Dean's The Communist Horizon, and the Invisible Committee's The Coming Insurrection.

The Communist Necessity critiques each of these texts as an expression of movementism, which is a similar concept to that expressed by Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti as activistism: the species of anarcho-magical thinking born of WTO protests and Occupy, which holds that the sheer momentum of action by diverse social movements is sufficient to bring about sweeping social change, and may even be sufficient to cause capitalism to disintegrate or just go away, without need any overarching revolutionary movement, party, leadership, or organization. So far, so good.

The next level of critique is directed at the theoretical apparatus used in these texts, in particular their over-reliance on philology ("the word 'communism' comes from the Latin words X,Y, Z," etc.), as well as a variety of post-structuralist critiques of grand narratives, end of history, etc., all tools that lack explanatory power in the real world.

These approaches are described as being a form of idealism. They are perhaps sentimentally tied to notions of socialism and communism, but they are utopian socialisms of the kind already critiqued and rejected by Marx and Engels. So why revert to rhetorical strategies that have already been rejected by historical social movements?

Perhaps part of this rejection comes from the fear of being asked to defend (or be seen as defending) various historical moments in the history of socialism and communism, such as the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and the Cultural Revolution. Moufawad-Paul makes the point that past revolutionary cycles and theories have of course had their disappointments and shortcomings; he makes it clear that for him there is no need to hypostatize Leninism as a fixed form or universal, transhistorical political solution. 

But why ignore recent and contemporary political struggles of the people's war variety: the Shining Path in Peru, the Naxalites in India, the CPP-NPA in the Philippines? The lack of engagement of these authors with those Third World movements is an interesting question, and it is easy to see the elevation of various forms of Theory (Lacan, Deleuze, Zizek, etc.) as just more eurocentrism. That is hard to deny. Like Trotskyism, the New-New Communists (my term) have a distinct lack of interest in and engagement with the Third World, both in terms of revolutionary theory from the periphery, and revolutionary practice there.

And that's where necessity comes back into the picture. The communist necessity is the demand for better lives and new forms of social relations being raised by movements in the periphery. Actual communist movements. Labor and social movements in the core countries of the capitalist world economy feel less sense of this necessity, and their movements embrace theory that doesn't recognize that necessity. 

The critique of New-New Communists could be advanced further through a deeper awareness of world-system analysis. That area of study grew out of a critique of development theory, and has stayed close to Third World revolutionary theory and struggles. Over the last 40 years, it has also developed a strong understanding of the limitations imposed by the world-system on any revolutionary movement that takes state power. There are constraints on revolutionary agency that come from the inter-state system and the capitalist world economy, which is why practically all revolutionary movements that take state power fail to achieve their maximum program, and usually achieve far less. 

While world-systems analysis is quite weak with respect to agency, it does bring attention to the challenges that revolutionary movements and states need to face, as well as to the challenges in internationalizing a revolutionary movement. This is especially important to consider with respect to people living in smaller states. Autarchic development is possible in large states with big populations and plentiful and diverse resources. Both the USSR and China demonstrated that. But it won't be an option for smaller states. That needs a lot of careful thought, but that is a project for a different book.

I intend to read some of J. Moufawad-Paul's more recent work, as The Communist Necessity was a provocative and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

#StayAtHome: Rivers Solomon's "The Deep"

Rivers Solomon's The Deep is a great novel about the pain of the Middle Passage, and how people deal with historical trauma, individually and collectively. I am a big generation ship fan, and really liked Rivers' first novel, A Kindness of Ghosts, but this novel went a lot deeper for me. It probably helps that the novel is strongly suggestive of West African and Afro-Caribbean spirituality, and in particular belief in Ginen, and the lwa La Siren (a mermaid being). The novel is brief, disjointed, and powerful, and I am confident that it will reward rereading. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

#StayAtHome: William Hope Hodgson's "The House on the Borderland"

 


Imagine Lovecraft, but without the racism. That's what William Hope Hodgson puts on offer with his novel, "The House on the Borderland".  Hodgson's book was published in 1908, and his work was in fact an influence on Lovecraft. And that influence is easy to see: a big chunk of the novel is exactly the kind of investigation into the weird that Lovecraft wrote. Another chunk of the novel is visionary travelogue, a cosmic journey into the far, far future.

In this novel, two men go on a fishing trip in the Irish countryside. They decide to follow a river trail for a bit. The river goes underground, and then emerges into a chasm. Near the chasm they find the ruins of an ancient estate. There, they discover a manuscript, and set to reading it. 

The first part of the manuscript relates the narrator's discovery that his home is under siege by Swine-Things. These seem to have emerged from the chasm, although as he sets about the defense of his house, he discovers a mysterious well plug in his cellar that seems to connect to the chasm. The Swine-Things have mesmeric abilities, and much later in the novel, we discover that they have the ability to deal wounds that glow green in the dark, and eventually feed some nasty form of fungal life.

It's worth noting that the Swine-Things (or creatures inspired by them) have made an appearance in other SF ranging from Doctor Who ("The Daleks Take Manhattan") to the Revelation Space setting of Alastair Reynolds, and Hodgson in recent years became an inspiration for old-school gamers as well, such as here and here and here. I know my friends Jim and Jason have read a fair amount of Hodgson, but I suspect many of his other fans have not. There is a lot more to the world than the weird tale as constructed by Lovecraft, and Hodgson offers new directions that gamers can pursue in their storytelling, such as the game, Casting the Runes.

In the second part of the novel, the narrator travels to the far future. The sun shifts to red, and then to black, and then a new, green star enters the picture. This part felt much like an early SF novel might, in which travel in space and time seems to use a conveyance (the house?), or even astral projection. The time travel sequence was much less interesting and suspenseful (and perhaps a bit tedious), but in reading it I wondered if Hodgson had read the astronomy of his time. I suspect so.

There are other books I am reading at the moment, but I'd like to continue reading this volume, and eventually take on The Night Land.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

#StayAtHome: Yoon Ha Lee's "Hexarchate Stories"


True Confession: While gay military erotica aren't exactly my thing, gay space operatic erotica certainly do hit the mark. Yoon Ha Lee's Hexarchate Stories delivers one of these in the short story "Gloves". More of this, please.

But the entire collection is really, really good. I believe this is Yoon Ha's second short story collection. His first one, Conservation of Shadows, is also quite good. Hexarchate Stories has one story which overlaps that first collection, "The Battle of Candle Arc". That story draws upon real history in the form of the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Shin's incredible victory over a vast Japanese armada in the Battle of Myeongnyang, during the Imjin War. Moral of the story for GMs everywhere: make your space battles  happen on interesting space terrain. Admiral Yi  Sun-Shih used a whirlpool to his advantage to defeat a numerically superior force. Jedao does the same in this story by manipulating both the high calendar, which makes certain weapons more effective than others, and how the high calendar is spatialized in local space. I like this short story and have without a doubt read it more often than any short story by anyone. 

There are a lot of great stories in this collection, and this was my second time reading it, this time for the North Country Gaylaxians' Book Club. While there aren't a lot of authors that I reread (other than Michael Moorcock), Yoon Ha's work really does merit that as there are all sorts of subtleties to the setting and the characters' interactions with each other that come out this way. 

All of the stories in this collection take place in the Hexarchate universe featured in the Machineries of Empire series (which begins with the novel Ninefox Gambit). We get nice insights into the early years of both Jedao and Cheris, and it is nice to meet their families. There are two caper stories within the collection, the pre-Heptarchate "The Chameleon's Gloves" and "Extracurricular Activities", although the long novella with Cheris and Jedao II (Jedao-the-xenomorph) is also a caper story. Readers who have completed the Machineries of Empire series really owe it to themselves to read this collection, and especially the novella at the end, which in a number of ways integrates and completes the trilogy.