Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Über and the Flaws of Economic Purity

So it’s true I avoided using Über for as long as humanly possible. But it was also true that my truck was seven miles away, across an unfamiliar town, up and down fairly hilly terrain, in ninety-degree heat. Funny how solidarity with the working class and all that other undergraduate Marxism goes out the window when faced with odds like that. So I downloaded the Über app and hailed a ride, because the alternative felt too horrible.

I’ve mustered dozens of reasons why I avoid Über: I already have a vehicle, or I distrust drivers who aren’t licensed and bonded for liability, or their presence in my medium-sized community is too small, or I’ve read horror stories of Über drivers abusing their power over defenseless passengers, especially women. Blah blah blah. Truth is, I researched their business model, and I dislike it. It centralizes control, diffuses overhead onto drivers, and structurally prevents organized labor action.

Reading into Über’s business structure, I’ve seen how they control driver access to customers, and vice versa, through a digital algorithm located God-knows-where, controlled by God-knows-whom, and drivers can accept or reject the terms. Unlike locally owned cab services, who know their dispatcher and the other drivers, Über workers are anonymous, even to each other. Workers who never meet one another can never organize for better wages: according to one report, Über pays poverty wages.

This epitomizes the problem underlying American, and increasingly international, capitalism: we’ve found ways to work around market forces and drive wages down for people who actually create value. The person who drives people from place to place, who returns me to my truck so I don’t have to walk ninety minutes, and can use that time for something productive, gets paid less than the person cooking my burger. I don’t value his labor.

Libertarian economics considers this perfectly normal. A product or service is worth exactly as much as people willingly pay for it. If we’re unwilling to pay more for this driver’s service, that sets the market floor; and if that floor stays too small to pay the drivers’ bills, well, they voluntarily affiliated with Über, they can voluntarily disaffiliate themselves. That’s how markets work.

I object to this reasoning because it treats markets like a universal constant, much like how Isaac Newton treated gravity. That just isn’t true. As economist Hernando de Soto writes, market forces derive from a system of laws, regulations, and traditions so intricate, we often cannot see them. This invisibility works to the advantage of those who profit from that system, because they can pretend they’re beneficiaries of the Invisible Hand, and not winners picked by the state and by fellow plutocrats.

Thus the system always keeps costs low and prices high. Labor, materials, and time have values which can be controlled. The lower we can push these values, while keeping floating prices high, the more uncontrolled profits we can muster. If the Martin Shkreli catastrophe taught us anything, it’s that capitalists citing “the market” demand profit margins that would make Colombian drug barons blush. Fiddling expenses like labor throw impediments in the path of such runaway disparity.

Okay, we know all that. We know it. And yet I still called an Über.

Because I know economics devalues work. I know market forces reward the already well-rewarded, while those who actually create value get punished. Yet it was still hotter than hell, and my truck was a ninety-minute walk away. And if I stood on principle and accepted my personal disadvantage so the rich couldn’t profit of some poor fella’s labor, it wouldn’t make that guy’s need for money go away. Somebody else would still disadvantage him.

So yeah, in a moment of physical discomfort and economic malaise, I paid somebody poorly to do difficult work for me. I joined a system of exploitation I’d eagerly rail against in a bar somewhere (while a waitress making minimum wage replenished my drinks). Because while market forces are artificial, one natural fact remains: one person’s momentary need is another person’s opportunity.

Sitting in another person’s car, listening to his Spotify feed and watching an unfamiliar city roll by, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my choices. I know what I believe, but you can’t eat beliefs. Moral purity is a fleeting illusion in this world. And, dammit, very hot days make sticking to your guns impractical. Deep down, economics is a human enterprise. And like humans everywhere, I am a flawed and beautiful beast.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rebecca Roanhorse's Bloody Homeland Blues

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning: the Sixth World

Maggie Hoskie lives in a trailer on the margins of the  Diné (Navajo) homeland, nursing her hurts while awaiting… something. A former apprentice of her people’s most respected monster hunter, she lives at the dawning of the Sixth World, when gods and monsters of Diné myth return in force, so yeah, there’s plenty of monsters to hunt. She just doesn't feel ready. But duty calls, she steps forth, and she faces something all her training never prepared her for.

Native American myths occur frequently in urban fantasy, but usually as a side plot, driving themes of anti-modernism. Indians live in a supernatural time warp, unaffected by technology or, y’know, changing social mores. New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse takes a different tack: rather than the past, her characters occupy the near future, a dystopian hellscape familiar from recent novels and movies. Yet it also feels unfamiliar, because mose white readers don’t know Diné tradition.

Jolted from her maundering, Maggie confronts a monster that doesn’t resemble the past. It looks human. So she consults her people’s greatest medicine man. He saddles her with his grandson and apprentice, Kai, a handsome, urbane gentleman as alienated from Diné mainstream as herself. She doesn't want the partnership. But the monsters come from somewhere, and are clearly man-made, so she needs the help. So he holds her nose and proceeds.

Though this is her first novel, Rebecca Roanhorse is already an award-winning writer for her short works. That experience shows. She creates a fully realized alternate reality, which she describes to readers without that shopworn trope, the Respected Sage Explaining Reality To Everyone. Roanhorse eases us into the Sixth World, providing as much information as readers need, when we need it. it feels like we step into a story already happening, rather than getting the introductory data dump.

Rebecca Roanhorse
Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, didn’t rise against its subjugation so much as survive while the United States fell. When the Big Water happened, washing away North America’s major population centers, white government was unprepared, and billions drowned. Dinétah stepped into the vacuum, defended its people, and became a nation. Except then, the monsters came. The Diné found themselves thrust into a world of mythology, magic, and divine chess. Maggie is just another pawn.

Maggie doesn’t want to fight monsters anymore. But something has to pay the bills. So she commences a quest that takes her from Dinétah’s biggest city (which uncannily resembles Mos Eisley), to the fringes of her homeland, including regions she’s never seen before. Her journey has a Philip K. Dick-like quality of passage through dreamland, where ordinary rules of physics and society are suspended. Anything can happen, and often does. And Maggie bears awestruck witness.

Roanhorse does something I really appreciate. Before page thirty, she backs her heroine into a corner, where Maggie must do something desperate: she kills a child. Sounds bad when I say it, right? It’s even worse when it happens. Too many writers follow the advice to establish their characters’ heroism by doing something selfless, like saving a puppy, in early chapters. Roanhorse demonstrates her protagonist’s lack of heroic qualifications. Maggie doesn’t have virtues, only guilt.

This guilt motivates Maggie’s continuing journey, though. She clearly hopes to expiate her guilt through accomplishment, and possibly regain the attention of her former mentor, the immortal Neizghání. Maggie remains vague what that attention means. She isn’t the little girl who once waited patiently on her mentor’s teachings anymore, after all. Yet somehow, she remains fearful about the commitments that adulthood would entail. Like her people, she occupies a liminal space between freedom and colonialism.

Maggie attempts to discard Westernized standards of Good vs. Evil, and live her people’s traditional morality, but she can’t. She admits her language remains inflected with the vestiges of Treaties and other compromises with power. That makes Kai’s intrusion into her world especially confounding. He’s a medicine man, versed in his people’s tradition, but he’s also Westernized in his values. He represents admixture that Maggie, and the Diné generally, try to purge. They just can’t.

This combination of ancestry and modernism, of oral tradition and technological progress, characterizes the immersive reality Roanhorse has created. Her characters live the conflicts, and they invite us to join them. By the end, little is resolved; even the monsters prove less important than the human influences that let them into our world. Yet even without some pat resolution, we feel like we’ve undertaken a hard journey. Roanhorse’s characters brought us somewhere. But where, exactly?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Batman Movie We Need Right Now

Our first glimpse of Victorian Batman

Two shadows have fallen over Victorian Gotham. One, a human-sized bat, has most criminals running, scared of its theatrical violence and bleakley absolute moral code. The other is Jack the Ripper, doing what Rippers historically just do, terrorizing those the state least cares to predict, especially poor, destitute women. Street justice and moralistic judgement personified. These forces will inevitably come into conflict; they must. Our only question is, which will ultimately represent Gotham’s beleaguered soul?

The 2018 movie Gotham By Gaslight copies the premise, but not the story, of Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s 1989 comic of the same title. Resetting Batman in America's Gilded Age, the time that most resembled the economic inequality which birthed Batman, lets artists play around with bat mythology, keeping the core story intact, but stretching it to encompass larger themes. This movie is about Batman, but like good art everywhere, it’s also about us.

Batman launches his crime-busting enterprise by bringing the pain to a Fagin-like ringleader. So yeah, he initially aspires to simply fight street crime. But within moments, pained cries redirect him to a gruesome, precisely targeted murder. Batman quickly crosses paths with a female vigilante who shares his morbid interest in this crime. But the equally mysterious Selena Kyle has no patience for Batman’s theatrics. Women are dying, women like her, and someone needs to act.

Zach Snyder’s DC movies have faced much-justified criticism, including mine: their lack of heroic optimism, characterized by opponents as “cynicism,” seems to violate what superheroes do. This tone made sense in movies like Watchmen and 300, which dealt with desperate people in hopeless circumstances. But superheroes essentially require belief that something better than the present could potentially exist. Steampunk Batman apparently knows the difference between gritty realism and amoral nihilism, which Snyder’s antiheroes have forgotten.

Steampunk Batman and Selena Kyle square off, after intruding on one another's investigations

Animation director Sam Liu presents a deeply principled Batman, aligned with municipal charities, steering street orphans to a local activist convent, picking fights with law enforcement when they’ve forgotten the meaning of justice. Remarkably, Liu also shows Batman getting his ass kicked: both Selena Kyle and the Ripper are equally prepared for a fistfight. Worse, as we increasingly realize, the Ripper’s ethical motivations run as deep as Batman’s, making both men’s violence equally, brutally incorruptable.

Batman’s appeal has long centered on the fact that he doesn’t have to care. Rich and opulent, he could relax in the luxuries his money could afford, as many did in the 1930s, when the character debuted. This alternate universe makes clear this still applies: in a Gotham so impoverished that men turn to theft, and women to prostitution, just to eat, the city’s wealthy look forward to a richly appointed and cosmopolitan World’s Fair.

Yes, Bruce Wayne need not care. He need not let anybody into his inner circle. But he does: besides employing street urchins and permitting conspiracy theorists to spout their crackpot theories in his ear, Wayne’s closest ally is a nun, Sister Leslie, who has nurtured countless Gotham foundlings. When poor, desperate women are murdered in alleyways, Wayne takes their deaths personally. Unlike Snyder’s gratuitously brutal Batman, this Batman cares, even though he doesn’t have to.

Because Batman cares, he inspires others to care too. Near the beginning, as stated, Batman rescues three urchins from their Fagin-like ringleader. These urchins are named Dickie, Jason, and Timmy—a deliberate reference for comics aficionadoes. When Batman rescues them, they’re desperate, scared thieves, and they quickly return to that life, because it’s what they know. But it doesn’t take long before they’re participating in Batman’s crusade, even when common street wisdom says to run.

Bruce Wayne gets handed an important clue by Dr. Hugo Strange

This doesn’t come without contradictions. Supporting characters lavishly praise the World’s Fair (and Bruce Wayne’s financial support) in early scenes, that veteran fans realize, by the end, it will burn. The only question is how. The thing Wayne’s money has created, Batman’s pulp justice must destroy. In the end, one of Batman’s young Robins says: “It was all phony anyway. We'll make somethin' new, somethin' better.” And we, the audience, think: yeah, we probably will.

Comic-book mythology generally has one underlying ethic: a pure heart, backed with well-placed violence, can restore justice, eventually. That’s what Steampunk Batman does, too, bringing the beat-down in honor of those abandoned by society and economics. He identifies an enemy and pummels him into submission, restoring hope to Gotham's hopeless.Yet he does more, too. By caring when he doesn’t have to, and fighting when he could lose, he gives us permission to believe again.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Gothic Forest in the New Millennium

Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild: a Novel

Young Maisie Cothay can kill or resurrect at a touch. Not just humans, either: she has accidentally resurrected winter-killed grass, taxidermy, and roadkill. Because of this, her widowed father raised her in her family’s ancient stone-walled manor house, in almost complete isolation, since birth. But at age sixteen, she finds herself without a guardian, scared and truly alone. So, like girls everywhere, she prepares for an epic quest.

Debut novelist Julia Fine creates a sort of Modernist Gothic tale, a story about a girl who cannot exist with society, but whose coming of age makes her desperately lonely. It has all the classic Gothic components: mysterious old house full of relics, dark forest, moving pathways, evil inheritance. Fine combines these elements with a dawning adulthood, with all the complexities that entails, in a symbolic Mulligan stew that’s remarkably unsubtle, but nevertheless pretty satisfying.

Maisie’s father raises her in Urizon, a massive, labyrinthine house that’s been in her late mother’s family for generations. She grew up with only books for companions, which explains her strange, Jane Austen-esque manner of speaking in the early 21st Century. Maisie’s only friends were Mrs. Blott, a grandmotherly woman from town, and a dog named Marlowe, the only living thing that resists the mortal effects of her touch.

Urizon overlooks a mysterious, trackless forest. Local legends abound of villagers who wandered into the forest and emerged, days or weeks later, gibbering deliriously about how the pathways move behind them, so they cannot find their way out. Despite encroaching modernism, the forest remains a primeval source of terror. We know, though Maisie doesn’t, how seven women in her matrilineal genealogy wandered into this forest… and are still watching her.

Julia Fine
It’s tough to review books like this. Fine deliberately defies Rule Number One of postgraduate writing workshops: hide your sources. It’s impossible to read this novel without noticing how the Brontë sisters, Daphne du Maurier, and Shirley Jackson have influenced Fine. Ambitious readers could profitably do a source study on where this novel fits in Goth-Lit history. Fine’s biggest contribution is moving her main story into a world of smartphones and GPS.

This placement within a literary continuum could be criticism or praise. Reading this novel, I never stopped noticing Fine’s genre influences. However, I never stopped noticing Fine’s genre influences, yippee! Though it’s possible, even easy, to identify where Fine appropriated plot elements and character types, she handles them well, constructing a story where the pieces fit smoothly, without a sense of being stitched together.

Fine keeps the novel’s setting fairly ambiguous. The Elizabethan manor house, overlooking a village straight from The Wicker Man, suggests England, as does the gradually revealed family line, dating back to the Iron Age. But certain cultural markers, including Maisie’s generous use of Americanisms, suggest a North American setting. Such ambiguity of place reflects Gothic tradition: the story is usually set everywhere and nowhere, to literary sticklers’ chagrin.

I can muster one definite criticism. Around the one-third mark, old age takes Mrs. Blott (what a perfectly Dickensian name!). Her role—old, maternal, vaguely sexless—transfers to her university-age nephew, whom Maisie can’t help noticing is handsome, with his runner’s physique and curly hair. This leads to Maisie’s nascent sexual awakening, which Fine describes in terms of her body: breasts, thighs, and other chicken parts. She sounds uncannily like a male writer.

So yeah, spoilers but not really: Mrs. Blott dies, Maisie’s father evidently wanders into the forest that sometimes takes people, and Maisie finds herself without guardians for the first time. But she gains her first connection with a human being near her own age. Maisie and Matthew resolve to rescue her father, though they don’t know where to begin. This commences Maisie’s symbolic rise to adulthood, in which sexuality inevitably plays a part.

Of everything Fine addresses in this novel, the one thing I wish she handled more subtly was Maisie’s sexuality. Other parts of her relationship with Matthew, and others, flow naturally, especially for a girl who experiences life primarily through books. The fantasy aspects never seem pasted onto the coming-of-age narrative. Fine is realistic where realism works, and Gothic where supernaturalism serves her story’s needs.

This book primarily appeals to readers who already appreciate the Goth-Lit tradition, who understand how Fine’s consciously anachronistic storytelling serves a purpose. Audiences unfamiliar with Gothic tropes may find her choices confusing. But for the correct readers, Fine creates a supernatural story just realistic and relevant enough to add something new to the tradition.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Flames of Passion, and Their Smoldering Remains

Catherine McKenzie, Smoke

Elizabeth Martin awakens one Tuesday in September to the smell of smoke. A career wildland firefighter, she swings into well-programmed Emergency Mode; but her husband Ben reminds her she’s retired for the sake of their marriage, and needs to act like it. Naturally, Elizabeth ignores her husband and races headlong into danger. There she discovers this man-made disaster has joined the long list of things threatening her illusion of domestic bliss.

Across town, Mindy Mitchell tries to get her friends, the Coffee Boosters, to do something generous for the fire’s first victim. Once Elizabeth's best friend, Mindy fell out with her a year ago, and now follows a group of manipulative suburban harpies she dislikes but can’t leave. To her horror, Mindy learns her son Angus has fallen in with a similarly dysfunctional peer group. Worse, Angus’s group may be responsible for the fire that's one shifting wind away from overrunning their entire town.

Veteran author and Montreal attorney Catherine McKenzie writes about the ways people fail to communicate, and how far our intentions fall from our consequences. Elizabeth and Mindy face the Cooper Basin Fire from opposite directions, but both stand to lose everything. The symbolism is unsubtle, but effective. The solution lies one conversation away, if the women can overcome their differences and talk.

These two women each want what they think the other has. Deferential, conflict-averse Mindy admires Elizabeth's apparent confidence, while Elizabeth, childless approaching forty, admires Mindy’s domestic stability. Elizabeth and Ben have agreed to divorce before page one, but still sleep in the same bed. The reason for their estrangement develops incrementally throughout the book. Mindy, meanwhile, marches listlessly through married life without much talking to her husband or kids.

Catherine McKenzie
These women’s difficult domestic situations evolve for readers against the unfolding backdrop of the Cooper Basin Fire. After a hot, dry summer, conditions are perfect for a sudden flashover event in the grasslands surrounding the mid-size, touristy resort town of Nelson. McKenzie is resolutely vague on where Nelson exactly is. Elizabeth, originally from Ottawa, gives hints it might be in Canada, but evidence suggests it’s probably in Wyoming.

Nelson’s city fathers want desperately to contain the fire, not only to preserve their community, but to protect easy tourist dollars. Wait, wasn’t that the backstory of Peter Benchley’s Jaws? Yes it was, and much like there, McKenzie uses the contrast between human facades and natural disaster to explore how fragile society actually is. The beauty, art, and commerce Nelson’s leaders preserve, come at the price of sweeping injustice under the rug.

Reading this book, I feel torn in multiple directions. The three relationships which play centrally in this novel—Elizabeth’s marriage, Mindy’s family, and the women’s friendship—could all heal nicely if people just spoke to one another. And the forces they fight against, particularly Elizabeth’s boss in the county attorney’s office and Mindy’s bitchy friends in the Coffee Boosters, come across as venal villains recycled from postwar Hollywood screwball comedy.

Yet I read this book, cover to cover, in two sittings. Analyzing the individual pieces, they seem initially pretty low-stakes; why can’t everybody ignore their baggage and remember there’s a massive grass fire threatening their town? But that’s the grad-school writing workshops talking, where everything has to be somehow massive. This novel’s parts coalesce into something stronger, the battle being for what narrative the characters accept as real.

Because real life often appears low-stakes, doesn’t it? The individual moral compromises we make to maintain our relationships, do our jobs, and not be alone in the world?  Only when they come together, when we realize each individual compromise has contributed to a mountain, does life have the momentum we associate with drama. McKenzie has written a story we cannot analyze for its elements, which appear boring separately; we must consume the whole thing together.

Elizabeth doesn’t talk to Ben, nor Mindy to her family, nor the women to one another, because humans fall into patterns of avoidance. The most important topics in our lives are also the ones we most assiduously resist discussing, because the emotional resonance rings too hard. Instead, we fall into preordained patterns of work, domesticity, and meaningless friendship. Only when something threatens to burn it down to we change.

This book wouldn’t pass a postgraduate writers’ workshop. Having been trained to overanalyze my own work, I realize I’ve fallen into doing that to others. Yet reading its parts together, this novel has a much more complex, sophisticated texture than its individual parts. I’m glad I swallowed my reluctance and kept reading, because this novel proved much greater than I had any right to expect.