Another month gone and some more books read. Why not share? Building off the epically popular “January Reading” post, clicked on by an entire 11 people who weren’t me, I’ve decided to expand the Internet a bit and add a post for February’s books.
As a result of life circumstances, I didn’t get as much reading done as I was hoping to this month, though some books definitely gave me a lot to talk about. How about you? What have you been reading? As for myself, here are the texts this post will be talking about:
- Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
- The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott
- The Visit by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
- Radon Journal Issue 2
- Sustainable Superabundance: A Universal Transhumanist Invitation by David W. Wood
- The Actual Star: A Novel by Monica Byrne
- The Idea of the World: A Multi-Disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality by Bernardo Kastrup
Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
My main response to having completed this book was, “Good riddance, I’m done with this series.” I suppose I could have stopped at any time, but I’m stubborn, so I insisted on reading all seven books. (Though this was the fifth one written, I read the two subsequently published prequels first.)
Of all seven books, this was my least favorite. It felt like Asimov was just phoning it in to complete his contractual obligations. For one, the previous books had various plotlines that inevitably intersected in clever ways – even if Asimov never mastered the skill of showing not telling. Yet this book only had one plotline from which we never veered, and it frankly got boring. What added to the boredom was that the plot was essentially all about an individual seeking to verify a decision he had already made in a previous book. Four-hundred pages about double-checking your answer is not the most inspiring of tales.
One upside of the book was a deep dive into a planet called Gaia that seemed to be inspired by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the noosphere, for which I have a soft spot in my heart. The possibility of extrapolating lessons from that form of consciousness did give value to the text. On the other hand, there were the usual drawbacks – Asimov’s sexism, predominantly. In addition, this novel heavily featured intersex characters who were treated with opprobrium, disgust, and misgendering, adding another disturbing layer to Asimov’s embrace of heteropatriarchy.
Overall, I would not recommend this book, nor would I recommend this series except for those interested in it as a historical artifact.
The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott
A son gets kidnapped by a dragon and a mother and her superpowered crew go off to get him back. To do so, they traipse through various realms, spending most of their time in a place called the “Beyond” that reminded me a lot of the “Upside Down.” Most of the text is dedicated to the project of worldbuilding, and there is plenty of that to go around. Frankly, it was a confusingly built world, with many different locations, specifics, and rules that made it difficult to keep track of or feel a part of or invested in.
I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book and am grateful it was short. Everything from the action to the characters; the dialogue to the plot, felt clunky and forced, like jigsaw pieces that just wouldn’t fit together properly. Little felt genuine, engaging, or even entertaining. While the author had creative ideas, I felt they didn’t congeal into a workable whole. This is not a text I would recommend.
The Visit by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
EDIT: I just learned that the author is a TERF, as such I can’t recommend this book or suggest supporting her work. I’ll leave my original, uninformed review below.
A feminist speculative short story ironically featuring two men as the protagonists. The plot examines the lives, thoughts, actions, and interactions of these two old friends as they spend a day together navigating a heteromatriarchal world that is just as oppressive as our current heteropatriarchal one.
The role reversal at the center of the story does a magnificent job of bringing forth both the banal and extreme forms of repression and alienation that manifest under heteropatriarchy. But, as during the course of the story, these events are experienced by men, the oppressively mundane suddenly becomes the outrageously absurd. As a cis male, I found this story engaging, thought-provoking, and inspiring of reflection. I agree with those who say the ending could have been stronger, but overall, I would recommend this quick, impactful read.
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
The story told here is important – one of slavery, genocide, racism, colonialism, capitalist extractivism. The manner in which it is told leaves much to be desired. It is a liberal, general audience, novelesque, non-analytic text written from a white man’s gaze, and contains/lacks what one would expect from a book written from such a perspective.
The biggest drawback is one that the author himself partially acknowledges: the lack of actual Congolese voices in a history of the Congo. But the remedy is problematic as well. Instead, what we have are chapters framed almost universally around singular white men and their terrible or terrific deeds. The ten million lost souls seem muted in a text ostensibly about them and what they were subjected to. Even the few Congolese sources or actors that are present receive secondary treatment in the midst of the greater narratives of the central cast of European and U.S. characters. For a book about the Congo, the Congo often feels extremely absent.
While perhaps I am accustomed to reading academic non-fiction, I was surprised at the severe lack of analysis contained in this text. In telling the story without interrogating the story, it seemed to be actively occluding what should be obvious but dangerous questions and answers, in particular about race, slavery, Blackness, and the Human. In a recent journal article on the anti-Blackness of the discipline of history, Afro-pessimist academic David Ponton writes, “For scholars, the Human seems never to appear as an object of knowledge except when the social death of Black folks becomes so glaring that it threatens to deconstruct that category entirely. History, in turn, rallies in humanity’s defense—reconstituting the Human and the codes that constitute its content.” This is what reading the book felt like – the social death of the Congolese was so threatening a topic, the author had to save the Human by focusing on all the good that various humans [read white Europeans] did regarding the Congo amid the bad. It also explains the author’s frequent referencing and drawing of equivalency between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and “indigenous” slavery on the African continent, as well as his exculpation of colonialism for Africa’s [writ large] current predicament.
If you’re looking for a non-challenging, unthreatening read about an appalling chapter of Europe’s colonization of Africa, then this book is a good choice. If you’re looking for something that dives deeper to truly interrogate the construction and functioning of systems such as anti-Blackness, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism that facilitate(d) the horrors in the Congo, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.
Radon Journal Issue 2
So, this isn’t a book but a journal of short stories and poetry, but I include it here as a recommendation. As it says on their homepage, it’s all about anarchist, dystopian, transhuman science fiction. Some very powerful stories in here, as well as solid poetry. My one critique is the same as that of Issue 1, in that I wish there were pieces that dealt more explicitly with race.
Sustainable Superabundance: A Universal Transhumanist Invitation by David W. Wood
It’s hard to review a book about transhumanism without wanting to dive into a general discussion of the theme as a whole, as there is certainly much that can and needs to be said about the topic. However, here I’ll try to stick to Wood’s arguments. In this short text, Wood optimistically postulates that given the right set of political, economic, social, and technological circumstances and decision-making, the future can be one of “sustainable superabundance” for all. That if “we” make the right choices, “we” can have access to an excess of clean energy, food and water, material goods, health and longevity, intelligence, creativity, and collaboration/democracy. To his credit, he does also warn that this is a big “if” and that things could go terribly wrong, possibly resulting in mass death. The chapters go more in-depth on each of the themes presented, along with the possible outcomes.
Wood’s argument is appealing in many respects. He is trying to create a “big tent” transhumanism aimed at uplifting humanity as a whole; of trying to envision a manner to collectively and responsibly direct processes already underway towards the most beneficial outcomes. In many ways, this text reminds me of an amped up, liberal version of Murray Bookchin’s “Post-Scarcity Anarchism.” Indeed, in Wood’s vision we will end up not needing to work and can instead spend our time pursuing fulfilling and nourishing endeavors. But there is also plenty in the text that is not appealing, or at least that is an impediment to his vision.
For starters, while Wood includes acknowledgement in every chapter of the fact that profit motive currently drives decision making when it comes to energy, food, health, etc., he refuses to abandon capitalism. In his worldview, there is still room for the free market, corporations, nation-states, and hierarchical electoral politics. As such, I see his vision as doomed to failure, for so long as capitalism, nation-states, and hierarchies exist, there will exist forms of oppression, such as white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, nationalism, etc., as well as forms of profit-driven competition and the race to the bottom that have brought us to the current crisis we are facing: the racial capitalocene.
Wood counters that by acting rationally and with greater emotional intelligence, we can change our ways and thereby make sound social, economic, and political decisions that will trump the drive for short-term profit. Call me cynical, but I do not see that happening so long as capitalism exists. Additionally, I am skeptical of his call to technologically augment our emotional intelligence as a means to accomplish this task.
Finally, along with all of the above objections, there is a foundational one that is captured in the title itself: “Universal.” The notion of something being universal is very much a view wrapped up in modernity, humanism, and Western thought. The idea that what is good for one is good for all, or that we all have the same desires and aspirations is a line of thinking that leads to hegemonic impositions precisely like those such as racial capitalism and nation-states. I would much rather live in a future where multiple liberatory lifeways flourish, rather than a one-size-fits-all model of transhumanism.
To conclude, I would cautiously recommend this book to those interested in transhumanism and in reading about one particular vision of a potential future. I think many of the questions and issues he poses are important and worthy of consideration, even if I do not fully coincide with his politics or aspirations for the future.
The Actual Star: A Novel by Monica Byrne
Wow, I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in a long time. Beautifully, engagingly written. Three stories, roughly oriented around so-called Cayo, Belize, each intriguing on their own, spanning 2,000 years, masterfully combined into one with nimble nuance. An entire futuristic political and social system inspired (as noted in the acknowledgements) by Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. Le Guin. A future system that also manages to link back to Maya cosmovision and a richly imagined pre-Columbian world, all intersected by the contemporary present. A text that encourages reflection about time, place, relations, and belief. A book that pisses off conservative reviewers due to its critiques of whiteness, tourism, colonialism, climate change, cisheteropatriachy, and more. What else could one ask for? (Well, some editing of their Spanish would’ve helped, but they also get points for creatively ungendering the language.) Highly recommended.
The Idea of the World: A Multi-Disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality by Bernardo Kastrup
tl;dr: Kastrup argues for idealism as the ontology of reality.
In ten academic essays written with their publication as this book in mind, plus additional materials, Kastrup puts forth a systematic defense/advocacy for his case that the ontological primitive of reality is universal phenomenal consciousness. In five parts, he levels his critiques against physicalism – the currently predominant ontology of reality, builds out his idealist ontology, supports his ontology against common rebuttals, lays out the neuroscientific evidence in support of idealism, and finally takes a parting shot at physicalism while contemplating the potential significance of idealism to our lives.
While to grasp the full range of his argument, one should read the book, in short, Kastrup claims that “that which experiences” is universal consciousness. Humans and all other forms of metabolic life are dissociations of that universal consciousness who exist in our own worlds which are impinged upon by one another and universal consciousness. Most controversially, the result of this argument is that objective matter does not exist, phenomenal sense perception founded in consciousness is all that is, and what appears to be objective matter – including our own bodies and the device you are reading this on, are the extrinsic manifestational boundaries of the mind/consciousness.
Now, I am not widely read on the ontology of reality, I find the ontology of being to be a more fruitful endeavor, but my sympathies do tend to reside more with idealism than with physicalism. This is both as a result of personal experiences and scientific developments in cosmology and quantum mechanics. If I were forced at this moment to state what I thought the ontology of reality is, I would say cosmopsychism, which is closely related to idealism. Indeed, in reading Kastrup, I found echoes of thinkers whose works resonate with me, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and Brian Thomas Swimme, in addition to folks that Kastrup himself quotes, such as Carl Jung and Richard Tarnas.
As such, I enjoyed Kastrup’s text. Overall, I found his arguments compelling. The format of relying on academic essays was also helpful in that it led to the repetition of his arguments, making his line of thought easier to trace. My main reservation is the jump from universal consciousness to personal consciousness via dissociation. That seems like quite a leap to make. As well, I do wish there was more space dedicated to the significance of this ontology to us meaning-making beings. He does argue that idealism provides for a hermeneutics of the world, which is true, but expanding on that would have been beneficial, or at least of interest to me, when it comes to the question of, “OK, so now what?”
Ultimately, debates over the ontology of reality seem moot from a certain perspective. Regardless of if we’re in a computer simulation or a part of universal consciousness, I still have to get up every day, take care of the kid, figure out a way to make money, deal with life in general, etc. Knowing the nature of reality isn’t going to change one’s material circumstances. (I do concede that it may, however, enrich one’s inner life, which could lead to societal change as we reflect on ourselves as the consciousness of the universe folded onto itself and reflecting on itself. However, I am also skeptical of teleological claims.) Additionally, it strikes me as a combination of quaint hubris and curiosity to even attempt, as beings with the limited intellect which we have, to claim to know what the nature of reality is, especially as we are a simple product of that reality.
Having said all that, if discussion of the ontology of reality is of interest to you, especially if you have a sense that we’re more than just objective matter, this is a book – though challenging at times – that I’d recommend picking up.
In addition to books, I also try to keep up on academic articles. Here are some that I read this month that I think are of interest, and may interest you, too. (If you need help getting a copy, just let me know.)
- “Territorial Dispossession in Mexico: Mining and the New Latifundism,” Latin American Perspectives, by Aideé Tassinari
- “Post-modern Slavery and Post-human Souls: New History for Old Political Theory,” Political Theory, by Jonathan Floyd
- “The State, Accumulation, and Oaxaca’s Earthquake Survivors: Three Mechanisms of Inequality,” Latin American Perspectives, by Alessandro Morosin
- “The ruse of impurity: Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and the politics of hybridity,” Cultural Studies, by Marzia Milazzo