What I’ve been reading and writing: June 2022

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read that Seattle author Neal Stephenson, who invented the idea of a metaverse in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, has partnered with a blockchain company to create a real-life metaverse. The disappointment comes from the fact that I’m a big fan of Stephenson—I nominated him for a Genius Award in Literature nearly ten years ago, after all. But my lack of surprise comes from the fact that he’s always been a bit of a libertarian, and I wrote in this very newsletter just a few months ago that he’s been way too appreciative of billionaires in his last few books.

You could say that the warning signs have always been there. I’m not one of the many fans who got burned by Stephenson’s involvement in a Kickstarter to create a sword-fighting video game system that basically returned nothing to its backers. But Kickstarter has always been a disappointment factory, and I just assumed that Stephenson’s enthusiasm for the project had blinded him to what was possible.

This, though? Stephenson’s most recent novel, Termination Shock, is about the global devastation that climate change will cause, and so his involvement in a technology that is apocalyptically terrible for the environment is doubly disappointing. And of course Snow Crash, which I read and loved in the 1990s like most book nerds my age, felt at the time like a cautionary tale about exactly the kind of technology that he’s actually creating.

I don’t think I can in good conscience continue to read Stephenson’s books. I just can’t support an author who profits from the monstrous ideas that he once tried to warn us about. I’m also shaken by the fact that Stephenson willingly went into business with Peter Vessenes, a serial crypto investor who has left a swath of dissatisfied customers and partners in his wake.

I might reinvestigate Snow Crash in order to determine if I completely misinterpreted the book when I read it decades ago, but I can’t really see myself giving Stephenson any more of my money or attention aside from that. I’m done.

I’ve been writing

Any month in which you get a chance to interview Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a good one, right? Talking to Dr. Kendi was an honor. I’m always a little blown away when I meet someone who speaks in complete, perfect sentences and paragraphs. Part of that skill, of course, is because Dr. Kendi is a brilliant man. But I also had the sense when I interviewed him that he was very careful about what he said because he knows that if he were to accidentally drop a single word out of place in an interview like this one, his enemies—by which I mean white supremacists—would immediately use the quote as a weapon against him. He’s aware of the tremendous responsibility that he carries, and I deeply respect his strength.

I also wrote about Vashon Bookshop for my Neighborhood Reads bookstore profile column. What a lovely bookstore—it’s partly a vacation-friendly island bookstore for tourists to pick up beach reads, but it’s also a vital community hub for Vashon’s year-round residents. I’ve watched the shop evolve over the course of my many visits to Vashon through the years, and it’s just a pleasure to learn about the store’s history.

For Insider, I wrote about a new study showing that nations around the world which worked to shrink income inequality also reduced political divisiveness. The head of the UN-sanctioned group that performed the study makes a policy recommendation that she believes would help resolve both political and economic disparity in America. And the piece I wrote about why childcare is an absolute necessity for working moms reads a little different on publication, because it was written before, but came out after, the Supreme Court’s shameful decision to overturn Roe.

I also wrote about an interesting theory from an author: The idea that the invention of public policy grad schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively made public policy worse, because the standardization required in “rating” policies meant students and teachers measured prospective policies through economic terms. The most cost-effective policies are now deemed the “best.” But by those same measurements, the best policies in America—Medicare, Social Security, etc.—would never have been adopted.

I’ve been reading

I realized when I read Bainbridge Island author Jon Mooallem’s excellent new book of essays, Serious Face, that I miss regularly reading good magazine writing—by which I mean non-fiction essays that run for thousands of words and don’t feel rushed to get to a point. Mooallem is one of the best non-fiction writers in the state of Washington, and this book—full of eccentrics, scam artists, historical weirdos, and literal Neanderthals—is a showcase of his many talents. There’s even a celebrity profile of sorts, in the form of a long and self-referential interview with the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that gets hijacked by the early days of the pandemic. This book would be a great vacation companion—the kind of book you can pick up, lose an afternoon in, and then throw in your bag as a guest on your next adventure.

I found a pristine copy of Tananarive Due’s The Good House in a Little Free Library on one of my walks, and by the time I fell asleep that night I was a hundred pages in. It’s a story about an intergenerational curse in a small town in Washington state, and though it takes a while to get started, Due knows how to pay off a slow burn. The next time you’re getting ready to pick up a bottom-tier Stephen King novel just because you’re bored and in the mood for a horror fix, do yourself a favor and pick this one up instead.

Tripp Mickle’s book about Apple’s tumultuous years following the passing of founder Steve Jobs, After Steve, is full of juicy corporate gossip. Unfortunately, Mickle frames the narrative as a battle for the company’s “soul” between number-crunching new CEO Tim Cook and art-loving design guru Jony Ive. Based on the detailed quality and unbalanced quantity of anecdotes about Ive, though, it’s obvious which “side” of the “struggle” most of Mickle’s sources are on. And the very premise that Apple has a “soul” to lose represents a dangerous kind of corporate anthropomorphization that I believe a journalist shouldn’t indulge. If, like me, you’re interested in an insider account of how giant corporations get things done, there’s plenty of gossip here to enjoy. But you also have to be careful to continually keep the source in mind, and interrogate the narrative for secret agendas.

Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust is a complex novel about a tycoon and his massive business empire in the early days of the 20th century. It’s sharply written, and it smartly avoids the trap of trying to be an overstuffed DFW-style “everything novel,” which it easily could have been. Unfortunately the narrative is broken into several discrete chunks, and those structural choices sapped the narrative of some necessary velocity.

Biloxi, a novel by Mary Miller, is a simple story about an unpleasant old man who has made an incredible mess of his life. Then he gets a dog and things start looking up, until he realizes that the dog belongs to someone else. Biloxi is really an exercise in voice—a damaged, prickly man who is aware of, and desperately wants to fix, about half of his toxic traits. I really enjoyed it, but I could see the unlikable narrator turning a lot of people off.

Amy Bloom’s memoir In Love, about her husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis and their joint efforts to seek out legal assisted suicide for him, completes my recent reading trilogy of nonfiction books about marriages and relationship disasters. (I wasn’t crazy about Foreverland, but I enjoyed Heartbreak quite a bit.) It’s probably not surprising that Bloom’s book is my favorite of the three, but be warned—it’s a totally heartbreaking exploration of what it means to be the partner who has to not only say goodbye to the one they love, but also help shepherd them through to death. It’s shot through with wry humor and optimism, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in a tender emotional state.

Seems like there’s a little bit of a clone trend happening in popular culture. From the gorgeously contemplative Mahershala Ali film Swan Song to the action flick Dual, creative people are investigating the idea that clones are something disposable. Edward Ashton’s novel Mickey7 is a sci-fi thriller along those lines—the story of a clone on a deep-space colony whose only job is to die on dangerous missions, be cloned, and keep doing the dangerous work until he dies again. Of course, something goes wrong and Mickey7 and Mickey8 come face-to-face, even though strict and vaguely religious colony rules forbid “multiples.” The narration suffers a little too much from the wiseass-in-space vibe that has plagued sci-fi since The Martian‘s massive success, but it’s an interesting read, and if you’re at all interested in the high concept you’ll want to read this book now: it’s apparently set to be adapted as Bong Joon Ho’s followup film to Parasite, starring Robert Pattinson.

That’s all for this month

Just above, I wrote about a new storytelling trend I’ve noticed in sci-fi books and movies: clones becoming sentient, breaking free from their disposable fate, and transforming into their own autonomous beings. I’ve been wondering why this particular story is floating around in the collective unconscious right now.

Of course, America loves a story about a worker drone who self-actualizes themselves into free will. It appeals to our national idea, the concept that if we just work hard enough, we will somehow make enough money that we won’t ever need to worry about money again. But this clone craze feels a little more pointed than just the usual bootstraps narrative, and I have a theory about why.

From Spider-Man (live-action) to Spider-Man (animated) to Doctor Strange to Loki to the Flash to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, a lot of our blockbuster brain space right now is keyed into the idea of the multiverse. And setting aside Everything, Everywhere, All at Once for a moment—which truly feels to me like a generational achievement in filmmaking and a deeper exploration than all the others—the idea behind these multiverse stories is that no matter what you do or where you go, you’ll always wind up in some version of the life you live now, albeit with endless cosmetic variations.

I’ve always disliked the Destined Chosen One narrative because it ultimately doesn’t have any drama to it, and I think the multiverse narrative is just a slight twist on the Chosen One narrative without a climactic (franchise-ending) battle.

It’s a little surprising to me that Spider-Man has become the premier multiversal superhero, because to me it takes some of the specialness away from the character. I like Peter Parker because he’s just some kid who found himself thrust into a role that demands every ounce of his attention. And no matter how likable Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire are, I think Tom Holland’s Peter Parker feels a little less special when he’s on screen with the others. When you get a bunch of Spider-Men together, being Spider-Man shifts from a complicated moral choice to yet another version of the destiny narrative—a role the universe forces him to play. (And note that I don’t include Miles Morales in this Too Many Spider-Men argument. Miles’s whole thing is that he’s someone who has chosen to respond to Peter Parker’s choice in his own way—he’s a unique take on the Spider-Man story, and not a blurred photocopy.)

All of which is a long way of saying that I wonder if all this clone pontificating is a pushback to the disposable multiversal variants we’re seeing in superhero films and TV shows right now. We can be more than just a background character in a multiverse-spanning epic, these stories argue. We can be whatever we want. We have free will, and we can make better choices. There are a lot of problems with that narrative, too—libertarians love it for a reason—but I would choose to be the protagonist of a Rogue Clone story over a Multiverse story any day of the week.

Anyway, this is a long one. Sorry. In conclusion, please enjoy a photo of Obie and Wally, who have been absolutely loving their occasional warm and sunny walks.

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