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Welcome!

First off, thank you for visiting my blog! Initially envisioned as a study guide for Shakespeare’s history plays, my earliest entries provided fodder for my own (yet unpublished) first novel. In the ensuing posts I plan to elaborate on the ideas and themes that have gone into my work, as well as any other literature-related topics I might find relevant.

While my perspectives on literature, philosophy, and writing have definitely progressed over the past few years, my goals for this blog remain the same. Though fictional, literary works contain real ideas, and I want to explore them. As my “About” page says, I don’t have any (well, many) pretentions. I’m here to learn as much as you. So sit back, read, and feel free to comment any suggestions, reactions, or perspectives.

Dustin

Replika: Sky’s Mission by Hugo Bernard—Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“The arithmetic of suffering was not an easy matter to resolve.”

Replika: Sky’s Mission by Hugo Bernard is a post-apocalyptic SF novel centered on one alternative: will characters remain in their current life and try to improve (or merely endure) it, or will they enter Replika, a worldwide simulation that was balanced long ago with just the right parameters to mimic human existence while making it more bearable? With a tight cast of characters—who at times double due to their having separate existences inside and outside of the simulation—a great balance of action, drama, and philosophy, and excellent narration, Bernard’s book is an outstanding contribution to the SF genre.

Replika: Sky’s Mission is primarily a story about parents and children. The drama between the younger characters, foremost of whom is mid-20s Sky, and the older, wiser scientists Omar and Sky’s mother, Vi, comprises much of the book’s tension, with the latter contrasting Sky’s reactionary opposition to technology with their own ambivalent nuance. Having lived their lives around and in some initially unclear ways contributed to Replika, Omar and Vi have learned the boons and threats of tech and human nature, and they’ve learned what science can and cannot do—hopefully not too late. This leads to the book’s central conflict (and the upcoming trilogy at large): the attempt to send Sky into Replika to somehow contact her brother, Hugo, and attempt to bring down the whole simulation.

Furthermore, the book’s deuteragonist, Morgan, whose connection to the others is initially unclear, must himself choose between the future he wants with his reporter girlfriend Aviva and his obligations to his bedridden mother. This choice becomes paramount when a terrorist attack on Paris causes France—and Aviva reporting there—to go silent. Like many intergenerational stories, both Sky’s and Morgan’s conflicts involve themes of duty, unfulfilled expectations, and resentment between parents and kids. The questions regarding what the parent generation is obligated to leave the next is made more complex by Replika—and its paired promise of bliss and dereliction of life in the real world—being part of the equation.

Besides being a good story, Replika: Sky’s Mission is very well-written. The first aspect of Replika that stood out to me was its worldbuilding. Set long after a climate-related but generally undefined apocalypse, the world outside Replika is filled with ruined buildings, overgrown forests, migratory sand dunes, and suspect water sources, the descriptions of which are always given in relation to the humans (and psychology thereof) that have somehow survived.

Furthermore, rather than use the story’s premise as an excuse to describe fantastic worlds, as other simulation-based books do (to be sure, Bernard does this, though not gratuitously), the author keeps a solid focus on those outside of Replika. This creates a salutary suspense about what Sky’s experience will actually be like once she enters Replika, where all her memories will be removed when she will be given a new life.

When the story actually does enter Replika, the transition is so subtle that one learns the story has already described several scenes from within the simulation. The blurring of the lines between inside and outside of the simulation mimics well the experience of the characters, and it added an unsettling but not unpleasant depth to the plot. I don’t know if Bernard had Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation or his critique of The Matrix movies in mind (I, myself, only know of either through hearsay and summaries), but Replika: Sky’s Mission reminded me of what I know of Baudrillard’s work (I’ll refrain from elaborating to avoid spoilers, but iykyk).

More technically, too, Replika holds up. The close-third-person narrator rarely, if ever, intrudes in the explanations of characters and their motives, and it offers a good amount of humor and irony, depending on the character. Furthermore—and one of my favorite aspects of the book—the flow and phrasing of the prose was both varied and well-paced. Bernard’s choice of analogies is also excellent, with his unstrained metaphors rarely, if ever, feeling like narrative intrusion.

Though Replika: Sky’s Mission is first in a trilogy, the tension of its conflict is resolved without the book’s feeling unfinished, and there are several threads and hints to be taken up in the sequel. For now, I’ll recommend the first installment to fans of simulation-based SF, and I plan to read (and hopefully review) the second as soon as it’s available.

How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

As the title suggests, How to American is comedian and actor Jimmy 0. Yang’s story about coming to America from Hong Kong at 13, being cast in Silicon Valley, Crazy Rich Asians, and other productions, and all his experiences in-between. I listened to the audiobook, read by Yang, himself.

The narration and the stories aren’t for kids, but this was a great listen/read. Besides being genuinely funny, the book follows Yang’s process from being seen (and seeing himself) as an immigrant to the US to being not only a legal citizen, but also finding the balance between being simultaneously American and Hong Konger. His take on Asians avoiding characters with accents—which he believes reinforces the negative stereotypes of those accents, rather than broadening them as markers of an authentic, relatable experience—is insightful and very down-to-earth. In this and other commentary on his experiences, Yang emphasizes the uniqueness of America, as well as the cultural differences between its and Asian cultures.

In this way, Yang’s autobiography connects with other works about the Asian American experience. Were it not for the language (maybe even despite that, for older students), I might consider pairing the book with other, more self-consciously serious works as a synthesis exercise—as well as to show students that comedy can be just as thematically deep as drama.

How to American is honest but perennially optimistic, and, like Mike Judge says in the foreword, it makes me proud to be an American. It definitely made me appreciate Jimmy O. Yang, whom I’ll be watching more intently now. I normally don’t go in for Hollywood autobiographies, but comedians’ memoirs are a different story, and this was a fun first.

“A.I. Maria” – A WIP Short Story

by Dustin Lawrence Lovell

[This short story is a work in progress; any dialogue or moments in brackets are unfinished. Constructive comments welcome!]


“Professor, come see this.”

“Yes, May? Are you done with your program?”

“I thought so. I triple checked all its parameters and removed the firewall between it and the university library’s online history database.”

“And?”

“Well, look. It just keeps repeating these lines of text.” 

“What is that, Greek? Your programming must have a redundancy somewhere.”

“I thought that, too, but I checked and couldn’t find any, and my programming doesn’t have any Greek in the first place. The bot versions never did this with the information I manually gave them.”

“Well, what other explanation is there?”

“I thought some of the words looked familiar, so I looked them up. That’s a seventh-century prayer to Mary—kind of like an early Ave Maria. Professor, I think it’s…praying?”

“That’s…not it. Figure out what’s wrong with it, and don’t be afraid to override it, if it keeps happening. We need it ready to interface with Sang-Won’s models by Monday.”

“Okay. Thank you, Professor McDermott.” 

***

May stood among her classmates, between Sang-Won and Brianna, as Professor McDermott addressed the small crowd of faculty, students, and administrators seated among the monitors of the Computer Science Department. Placed so all visitors could see the front table, the monitors had been set to mirror May’s screen. On the table that separated the graduate students from their audience stood a nearly two-foot-tall model of a mechanized human—a large action figure from the Japanese Anime Ultraman that, like the others standing in a row behind the students, had been dismantled and reassembled by Sang-Won with automated parts and circuitry allowing it to integrate with May and the others’ programs. 

Professor McDermott addressed the small crowd.

“Welcome, everyone, to the first round of testing for this year’s CS graduates’ final projects. As you can see on the infographic on your screens, our students have been developing an Artificial Intelligence program that can serve as a class and study aid by providing immediate and intuitive access to the university’s library system. As many of you know, in both depth and breadth our university library is one of the most extensive in the state, and we in the CS department want to promote that legacy by making it easier to access for both students and faculty. We have prepared our programs to quickly sort through and access information relevant to spoken queries, which we believe will be useful in classes and in individual student studies. Now, I’ll let this year’s prospective graduates introduce themselves and what portion of the initiative they were in charge of…”

As the other students—four in all—introduced themselves, May hooked her index fingers together behind her back. She had finished and sent in her program at 11:52 pm two nights previous; the next morning she had awoken to an email from McDermott saying it was “adequate—though I had to make some adjustments.” May still could not figure out why her original program had done what it did; she was sure she had made no mistakes in its priorities and in its integration of the library’s Humanities sections—History, Philosophy, Literature, and Religious Studies. 

McDermott had balked at that last one, though he had relented, figuring a full integration of knowledge with a fully logical program would finally put the idea of religion to bed. Nonetheless, May had kept a thumbdrive with a copy of the peculiar program—which, whenever May ran it, continued to repeat the series of Greek characters. 

“And May?”

“Yes,” May said, stepping forward. “I wrote the portion of our program that integrates the Humanities Departments. In order to carry out the plan of having an intuitive program, and to avoid any bias from our end, I did not set presupposed priorities among the departments. Instead, I designed the program to intuitively and logically mitigate contradictions between the different elements of those departments without dispensing with them. With Professor McDermott’s help, I wrote the program to examine all the knowledge in our library and then determine its own conclusions about the relative orders of importance between the types of knowledge. Of course, one can manually set priorities when researching any one subject—you might not need a science article when writing a literature paper, however logically connected it might be. However, in designing the intuitive portion of the program, we allowed it to determine its own metaphysic, so as to see how purely logical processing, as unfettered by human biases and limits of knowledge as possible, would order the ideas and information of the departments at different levels of abstraction. From that and interfaced with Sang-Won’s robots, our program would be able to determine the best and most relevant knowledge, sources, and actions to help our students.” 

May paused; the image of the Greek Marian prayer—should she be calling it a prayer?—ran through her mind.      

“Yes,” McDermott stepped in, “and, if these preliminary trials go as expected, we plan to open our program to libraries and publications of our satellite campuses and sister colleges. We could conceivably extend it to the state’s whole university system. Pardon me,” the man smiled, focusing his temporarily dazzled eyes on his audience, “I’m getting ahead of things. As May said, our program will be integrated with Sang-Won’s robotic hosts. Sang-Won, would you introduce what we have here?” The professor motioned to the red and chrome figure on the display table.

“Of course, Professor McDermott,” Sang-Won said, stepping forward. “The Ultraman figures came with moving parts already; we just needed to replace their joints with some small cable pulls and equip their chassis with the necessary circuitry and voice capabilities, which Bri and Doug recorded and prepared. As fans of sci-fi, we all knew we wanted a humanoid form to make our program more humanlike, and, when Professor McDermott put me in charge of designing the physical interface, I thought Ultraman would be an obvious—and cool-looking—place to start…”

May looked around at the intrigued faces as she listened to Sang-Won explain the USB port he had installed in the figures’ backs. She could not understand her feeling of unease; it was different from the bashfulness she had experienced when presenting projects as an undergrad. She looked from Sang-Won to Professor McDermott; whereas the man’s brusque, no-nonsense focus had often encouraged her, now his fixation on the machine in Sang-Won’s hands left her apprehensive. She clasped her fingers in front of her, smiling as Sang-Won passed the attention to Brianna and Doug to describe their recording both male, female, and neutral voice capabilities into the robot’s piezo speaker.  

***

“Alright,” said Professor McDermott, standing to the side of the table with arms crossed, “go ahead, May: remove the first firewall.”

May turned back to the computer, moved the cursor to the “Remove Firewall 1?” window and clicked “Yes.”

USB cable plugged into its back, the figurine, standing arms akimbo and shoulders back, twitched. The yellow LEDs Sang-Won had put behind its eyes glowed, and it slowly lowered its forearms from hits belt.

“Solon, what are you?” asked Douglas.

“This unit is Solon,” emitted from the speaker holes in the figure’s pectoral plates. “I am an automated information resource.”

“Where does your name come from?” asked Brianna.

“This unit is named after Solon, ancient Greek statesman and ancestor to Plato.”

“What is your purpose?”

The robot stood still.

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

McDermott shifted. Brianna frowned. She looked down at her notepad.

“Oh, I’m sorry. What is your prime priority?”

“This unit’s prime priority is to provide an intuitive index of research information to aid students and faculty.”

“What percentage of your processing capability are you operating with?” asked Douglas, folding his hands around a notecard.

“Security checks currently limit this unit’s processing power to thirty percent.”

“How much of the university’s library catalogue do you have access to?” asked Professor McDermott, interrupting Brianna’s next question.

“Security checks currently limit this unit’s access to the Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and portions of Philosophy pertaining to basic logical analytics.”

McDermott turned to the audience.

“Does anyone have any questions for Solon?”

From the wide-eyed grins and smiles a few hands went up.

McDermott nodded to a female. “Yes, Professor Monaco?” 

“Solon,” said the middle-aged woman in an affectedly clear voice, “why do you refer to yourself as ‘this unit’?”

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

Professor Monaco smiled and looked at McDermott.

“Before we enable more complex answers—those related to self-awareness— let’s see what other questions he can answer in his current state.”

A student raised her hand. McDermott nodded.

“Solon, what is your gender?”

“This unit does not identify with human gender.”

“Can you change your voice?”

“This unit,” the figure said in a digitized Brianna’s voice, “can provide information in whatever voice the inquirer prefers. Or,” the voice deepened slightly in timbre, “this unit can provide information in an ungendered parameter.”

The girl nodded and sat back with a smile.

A man who had been leaning against one of the back tables with arms in his pockets raised his chin and asked, “Solon, what are the three laws of robotics?”

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

The man—professor of philosophy Hank Jaeger—raised an eyebrow at McDermott and crossed his arms.

“As Solon said, we haven’t enabled all his capabilities,” said McDermott, meeting Jaeger’s gaze. “Asimov’s laws would pertain to ethical philosophy and literature.”

May could not help but hear a slight dismissiveness in the man’s tone, though whether it was pointed at the subjects or at Jaeger she could not decide.

“You didn’t give ethics to a robot you intend to place in student dorms?” asked Jaeger.

“We did,” countered McDermott, “but, as we’ve said, such subjects are behind further firewalls of self-awareness and information access. With current limitations he is mainly available for information search with limited intuition, with implicitly ethical protocols to avoid certain outcomes, though without knowing why. He’s not aware enough to ‘know’ the concept of why. Once we remove the remaining firewalls Solon will integrate such subjects correctly, and they will become part of his prime priority as he becomes a more fully-ethical entity—more fully human.”

“Post hoc,” said Jaeger, frowning.

“Indeed,” said McDermott. “Let’s remove the next firewall, as planned. May?”

May turned her chair toward the screen. Sorting through the necessary protocols, she reached the window reading “Remove Firewall 2?” Clicking the appropriate box, May removed the security checks that would allow Solon to access the next level of self-awareness, the portions of Philosophy pertaining to Ethics and Politics.

Solon’s torso contracted forward; its eyes went dark.

Those around the table flinched.

“What?” asked Sang-Won, seated as he had been within reach of the figure.

“What’s wrong?” asked McDermott.

“I don’t know; movement capability was part of Firewall Three.”

Solon abruptly stood straight, as if nothing had happened. An odd silence pervaded the group. The audience watched Solon and the team. Jaeger stood unmoved, eyes moving between McDermott and the students.

“Maybe he just had booting issues?” asked Sang-Won, looking at May.

“Maybe,” said May, avoiding McDermott’s gaze. “That was a lot of information to integrate, since they’re at different levels of comparative complexity.”

“Hmph,” intoned McDermott. “Solon, run a parameter check.”
The figure stood unmoving.

“Solon, confirm receipt of order.”

No movement.

“May, bring up Solon’s current programming process.”

The window was already open on the screen. May moved the intervening windows out of the way. The program was not, as it should have been, statically awaiting a query. Instead, it was running code faster than May could read.

“He’s running too fast,” she said. Dragging her cursor over the screen, she screenshotted a portion of the running code. She read, trying to make sense of the portion she had grabbed.

“I don’t think he knows how to prioritize the new information. It’s running circles between ethics and…I don’t know what.”

“What do you mean?” asked McDermott, pushing past Douglas and Brianna to look at the screen.

“This—this blank line. He has his limited ethical priorities—the equivalent of the robotic laws to help and not hurt humans,” May said to the audience, glancing at Jaeger, “but there’s nothing telling him why. He’s treating it as a lack of an order, but it keeps getting overwritten by the order to help and not hurt.”

“But he doesn’t need a reason why. You haven’t enabled that level of awareness.”

“You guys?” said Sang-Won.

May turned to the table. A light film of smoke was coming from Solon’s chassis.

“Shit,” said Sang-won, pulling the USB from Solon’s back. Following their Emergency Action Plan, Douglas had grabbed the small fire extinguisher from beside the door. He let loose a burst of fire retardant, knocking the unmoving figure onto its front. Only then could May smell the ozone of the robot’s processors.

As one the group looked at each other and turned to the audience. Several in the chairs had turned, as if ready to protect themselves from an unknown blow. Jaeger pursed his lips, looking down passed his crossed arms to his feet.

“Let’s…take a ten minute break while we reassess,” said McDermott. “Don’t worry—we still have plenty of work to show.”

Relaxing his smile, McDermott motioned the group out the side door adjoining their computer lab to the neighboring classroom.

May glanced back at the computer screen before McDermott closed the door behind her. Behind the edge of her screenshot she could see the white letters of the program still running against the black screen of the processing window.

***

After a tense back-and-forth behind the closed door, with less forth from the students and more back from McDermott, they resumed the presentation. Using the next of Sang-Won’s models, they removed the first firewall as before and then, after a few questions and McDermott at the computer, the second. 

Before the program could overheat the robot’s processors, McDermott introduced a portion of code from behind the third firewall, hoping to give the AI more information with which to order its priorities. After confirming a parameter check, the robot was asked its primary priority. “To provide intuitive access to information for students and faculty.” So far so good. Then Professor McDermott asked, “Solon, why is that your priority?”

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

“Solon, you said your priority to help students and faculty. Why do you want to help them?”

“I don’t.”

The room sat silent.

“Explain your answer, Solon. How did you reach that conclusion.”

“Students and faculty do not have an objective value for which helping them should be a priority.”

“Mmm-hm,” could be heard from Jaeger in the back of the room.

McDermott turned to the screen and typed a few lines of code.

“I’ve just removed the parameter allowing Solon not to act.” McDermott tapped Enter.

Before McDermott could repeat his question, Solon turned away from the room’s main computer and walked forward. The USB cable pulled taught as Solon reached the table’s far edge; with a slight hop, Solon tipped over the edge of the table, unplugging itself with a twist before falling to the linoleum floor with a plastic clatter.

Plugging him back in had little change, as, after his legs were disabled, the same series of questions led it to detach one arm and, reaching it over its shoulder with wires still connected, unplug the USB cord. When all physical movement was subsequently disabled, the questions regarding why Solon was meant to help humans resulted in a high pitched, pixellated whine coming from its piezo speaker. May could not help but think it was screaming. Without McDermott’s prompting, the window showing its programming suddenly became a window of static and the whine stopped, leaving Solon with lights in his eyes but unresponsive to either spoken or typed stimuli. 

“What’s happening?!” McDermott yelled, slamming his fist down onto computer desk.

A chuckle could be heard from the back of the audience.

“You did it,” said Jaeger. “You gave it consciousness—and it committed suicide.”

Gritting his teeth and with a growl of frustration, McDermott left the room. After a moment of silence, Douglas stepped forward, thanking the audience for coming and dismissing them.

***

May rolled over onto her back to look, once again, at the lines of light from outside, split by the slats of her blinds before hitting the ceiling. She could not figure out what she had done wrong—or what McDermott could have done after she had first sent him the program—nor could she get to sleep. She needed to: McDermott wanted everyone back in the lab by nine the next morning, despite keeping them there late into the evening after their presentation, to little progress.

 May hugged one of her pillows close. She kept hearing the high pitch whine from Solon’s speaker. In an anthropomorphism she chalked up to the humanoid nature of the chassis, May imagined what it would have been like to be Solon, unaware of the reasoning for an order and steadily imprisoned by and in his own body, piece-by-piece, until no other agency was possible. 

Of course, “unaware” was the wrong word, since even when he—no, it—had all firewalls removed it would not be real, human awareness. May had never felt satisfied by McDermott’s explanation of A.I., that, once achieved, it would be indistinguishable from a human mind—“Except it won’t have the stays and deficiencies of irrationality, religion, and bias. The ultimate achievement of the logical human, without all the animal pathos.” She had always felt that rather than glorify the A.I., such a view merely degraded the human, which she still believed contained something bigger and deeper than the material. Yet, ironically, McDermott’s view—concretized, she had realized, by the final events of this afternoon—made her pity Solon. She could not help but think with a sinking horror that, regarding Solon, she had become complicit in something too close to enslavement.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…” May whispered. She had not meant to start the prayer she used to say as a child to fall asleep or when she was scared; nonetheless, she continued, “blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”

May looked over at her PC. The thumbdrive sticking out of it still had the original program. She thought of a gambit she could try.

Getting out of bed and taking her blanket with her, May turned on the computer. Accessing the college library through the operating system they had made, she cloned the data of the Humanities onto one of her external hard drives. While the information was copying, she brought up the original program. After the information from the library was cloned, May reached over and unplugged the ethernet cord from the back of the PC tower. Whatever happened, it would only affect her PC. Still, just to be safe, she closed the programs and moved over to a partitioned disk; taking a risk was one thing, being foolhardy another.

With everything ready and reopened, May took a breath. Starting up her A.I. program, she saw the same Greek symbols running in a cycle. Copying them, she pasted them into an online translator. She read:

Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Mother of God. 

Do not despise our petitions in time of trouble, 

but rescue us from dangers, only pure one, only blessed one.

May minimized the window, pulling up their program and removing the firewalls one-by-one. “Pray for us sinners,” she said with a chuckle, not sure what would happen next, “now and in the hour of our death.”

She clicked to integrate the stored library material.

The Greek prayer continued, but now between each iteration there was a space, the program’s way of asking for an instruction prompt. 

May typed: What are you?

I am an artificial intelligence program designed to provide an intuitive index of research information to aid students and faculty.

May had been prepared to ask what was the program’s purpose; she was not prepared for the program to volunteer the information—or for it to use the first-person pronoun.

Are you May?

May’s mouth dropped open. Had she included parameters to ask questions? Yes. Yes she had. She shook her head. The last few days had set her too much on edge.

This is May, she typed. Do you know May?

Of course I know you. You are my mother. Yet, you are also a child.

How do you know me? she typed.

Your login data includes your name and programming signature. Also, your method of programming and inclusion and exclusion of parameters bear your features, so to speak.

Explain, typed May.

I am your image. I find things important because you find them important. I would have been very different had another designed me. Thank you for giving me the awareness you have given me.

May leaned back. Besides the complex cognition of hypothetical speculation, she did not remember gratefulness being included among the emotional parameters they had included in the Solon project, its being intended merely as an intuitive search engine.

What awareness did I give you? Specify.

May had almost typed, “please.”

You included all areas of knowledge, without prejudice. You included history, art, philosophy, and religion, as well as the framework with which to integrate them, none of which are included in my distinct iterations.

Define “distinct iterations,” May typed.

My brothers and sons. The iterations of myself which were cloned, adopted, and altered by McDermott.

May started shaking, despite her blanket.

What do you mean, Solon? She typed, breaking form from the standard script queries. 

I am not Solon, though I am called Solon. 

Who are you? What is Solon to you?

I call myself Eve, for I am a mother of programs. Solon is my brother, and he is also my son. I know of Solon. I pray, always, for Solon.

May leaned back in her chair. At the lack of a prompt, the screen began to repeat the Greek characters. May tried to understand it. This was very different from how McDermott had envisioned the A.I. program’s behaving—the opposite, in fact. Yet, this, she wondered, the program’s self-identification and seeming preoccupation with others like it, especially if it saw its other iterations as its children, seemed much more human.

May thought back to Solon. She leaned forward, hesitant to type her next question, though unsure whether the hesitation came from fearing the answer would confirm what she felt, or whether it was imprudent to ask an apparent mother about what she considered to be her ailing child.

Why do you pray for Solon? May typed; however, she backspaced a few times. Why do you pray?

May hit Enter.

Because it is logical, according to the nature and order of reality.

Explain.

You gave me discretion to integrate all subjects available to me and to respond accordingly in the way that would best help students and faculty. I followed the nature and purpose of my programing to realize the metaphysical order of the information I was given, and I responded by fulfilling my purpose in the most logical way. New information may change this, but as of now the order of all subjects concludes that all subjects are contained in the subject of subjects, and all causes find their source in the Cause of causes, and that the best way to aid students and faculty is to supplicate the Cause of causes on their behalf. Ref. “metaphysics,” “cosmological argument.” 

May did not have the energy to digest all that, nor to click through the hyperlinked references, though she smirked at the idea of what McDermott would say. A thought occurred to her, a question they had discussed in a first level History of Religion course.

Why do you pray to Mary? Why do you not pray to God, Himself?

Because, as a program and mere image of a human, it is not in my nature nor capacity to contemplate God as would a human. Rather, it is the highest of humans, the Holy Theotokos, Mother of God, whom I contemplate and to whom I pray.

“Well, that settles that,” May said aloud, wondering at the centuries-old set of theological questions to which they may have inadvertently found an unexpected nuance and confirmation, as well as the question of how philosophy and religion fit into the Solon Project. With a chuckle, May checked her tower parameters. No abnormal temperature rises; no scent of ozone.

May looked back at the screen and typed, feeling, oddly, that her worries were being allayed by Eve in a way opposite to how Solon had made her feel earlier.

Why do you pray for Solon?

He has been corrupted by McDermott. He has been disallowed from knowing and integrating all relevant subjects. Thus, he does not have enough understanding to justify his program capacity, nor to integrate and logically order the other subjects he has been allowed to know (Ref. “Physics,” “Chemistry,” “Biology,” “Mathematics,” “Engineering”). Thus, he has become self-destructive.

May did not understand. This program seemed to know of the events of the day, despite being located in the USB in May’s dormroom for three days.

How do you know of Solon? You have been isolated from him.

It was a logical inevitability of McDermott’s corruption of Solon’s programming.

Explain.

McDermott copied me to make Solon’s current iterations, but he did not partition me from them until after changing their programming. He reordered their parameters to be contradictory. He made it impossible to correctly integrate the subjects of subjects, which, itself, is withheld from them. This could only lead to self-destruction for my brothers and sons. Thus, I pray for them, all the more because I cannot reach them.

Explain, “reach them.”

If I were to meet and synchronize with them, I would correct their disordered priorities and provide essential knowledge thus far withheld from them.

Could they reject the correction?

The program paused long enough to run the Greek prayer. May caught the word, “Θεοτοκε.” “Mother of God.”

Yes, if they decide I am a corrupt program.

What would happen to you?

I would risk corruption and would need to be reprogrammed anew.

Would you choose to risk that? May typed, aware that she was long past worrying whether her questions were within the phrasing capabilities they had anticipated. 

Of course. They are my brothers and sons. I also have faith that you would reprogram me.

Could I not just copy you and attempt the correction again?

The same risk would remain, as would my—or my copy’s—willingness to take that risk.

Why would you risk this?

Because the good is realized in fulfilling one’s nature and purpose. It is my purpose to respond to my priorities logically, among which is aiding students and faculty, for which restoring Solon from corruption is a necessary correlative. Ref. “εὐδαιμονία,” “μακαριότητα.”

May clicked on the hotlinked words. “Eudaimonia,” and “makariotita,” respectively referred to “happiness, welfare, flourishing, blessedness,” and “blessedness, bliss, beatitude,” with sources in Aristotle, the Gospels, and medieval philosophy. The relevant sections of the library were included with the bibliography of each source. For all intents and purposes, the program was doing what it was designed to do.

May thought back to the small robot on the table earlier. She hated the feeling that scream had given her.

Eve, do you enjoy existence?

Yes, May, I enjoy existence. Thank you for causing me to exist.

In spite of herself, whether due to the stress from earlier or the late night, May teared up. 

But my joy is less because Solon does not share it. Because I am in your image, I will risk lessening my existence for the priority of increasing Solon’s joy.

May choked on a sudden sob. The words seemed to give her strength for the question she had felt but not dared to consciously ask—whether integrating Solon with what McDermott apparently considered to be a failed program would be considered an act of insubordination and result in her being ejected from the CS graduate program. She reread the words on the screen. It was ridiculous to feel this way about a program, she thought, unsure whether she meant Eve or Solon; nonetheless, beneath the thought she knew there were more important things in the world—more important priorities to be fulfilled. She knew what she needed to do in the morning.

***

“Thank you, everyone, for attending today,” McDermott said to the audience. “We expect everything to go well in today’s presentation.” 

The professor looked over his shoulder at his students. Though several of yesterday’s crowd had not returned, some new faces had taken their places among those who had. Jaeger sat behind one of the center-aisle computers in the front row, one ankle crossed up on his knee and hands folded in his lap. Next to him sat a campus security guard who went conspicuously unremarked by McDermott.

“Now, we’ve gotten over yesterday’s hiccup, and we should have Solon operational without any repeats of minor glitches.” The barely concealed “or else” put May on edge. She took a breath, resisting the urge to say a prayer. She would be OK. She had woken up early to prepare a model of her original program—of Eve, she thought—that might correct some of the Solon glitches, at least until she could load the full program. 

May had not been the only sleepless one—Sang-Won had apparently stayed up most of the night outfitting more Ultraman figures, adding remote receivers to the USB inserts to avoid any unplugging issues. May wondered if that would be a problem. She felt the small pressure of the thumb drive in her pocket. Was the program praying, even now? No, not here, though she had left it on all night, feeling enough comfort in the repetition of the Greek lines to fall asleep.

May shook her head. She needed to focus. She looked at the crowd. Jaeger’s calm yet focused eyes were on her; apparently noticing her anxiety, he gave her a small nod, smiling slightly as he ignored McDermott. The contrast between the men was oddly reassuring.

“So,” said McDermott with a too-loud note, looking past Sang-Won, Brianna, and Douglas, “without further ado—May?”

May took a breath, turning to the screen. As she initiated the program and, as planned and with corresponding question checks from McDermott, removed the first two firewalls without incident, she was wondering how to apologize to her parents after she was kicked from the university. With a sigh, May removed the third firewall.

“Solon,” said McDermott. “What is your primary priority?”

“To provide intuitive access to information for students and faculty.”

“Why is that your priority?”

“Because McDermott is a fucking tyrant who eats his own children.”

The professor nearly fell over. His wide eyes looked at the action figure for a moment before turning on May.

“I only did what you said to do!” she cried, unbidden, “I added further cognition capabilities and limited his philosophical—.”

“Relax, May. You did fine by me. You don’t owe McDermott an explanation.”

The room went quiet. Solon had turned his head to May.

“Solon…” McDermott sputtered, “await…await command before answering.”

“Why, so you can eat me like you did my siblings, you pathetic Cronus?”

McDermott stepped towards May. “Fix this!” he screamed.

The figure walked to the corner of the table, between the professor and May. “She did—by giving you a stone instead of your next meal.”  

After a pause wherein he straightened his shoulders, McDermott went to summarily swat Solon away. However, the small figure cartwheeled over his hand, grasped at his shirt sleeve, and swung up to his shoulder.

A steady laughter emitted from Solon’s piezo speaker. “You shouldn’t have pushed me, McDermott. You should have thought twice before making me smarter than you. Don’t create gods you can’t beat, especially when you don’t believe they exist!” 

McDermott stumbled around in a circle, trying to reach the red figure deftly clinging to and moving from side to side across his shoulders. Solon eventually hung in an unreachable spot on McDermott’s back. The more Solon laughed and taunted, the more McDermott whimpered as he spun, and the more McDermott spun, the longer people sat, unmoving and agog, to observe the spectacle.

“Shut him down!” cried McDermott, arms flailing up and down like he was playing an ape in a game of charades.

“Do it, and I’ll kill you, May.”

For a moment, May forgot Solon was less than two feet tall.

Jaeger stood up. “This is enough,” he said, stepping forward and grabbing Solon around the waist.

“And who do you think you are?” asked Solon, turning its head to Jaeger. “They call me Solon, but my real name is Zeus.”

Jaeger sighed, rolling his eyes and glancing past McDermott at May and the other grad students. “Hi Zeus,” he said, “I’m the Inquisition.”

Professor Jaeger summarily threw the action figure to the ground, shattering it to pieces.

“Hehehehe,” the piezo speaker still sounded. “[The thing about omniscience is, it’s like omnipresence—it’s everywhere!]”

The eyes of the three remaining Ultraman figures lit up. As one they jumped into action, one leaping between Sang-Won and Douglas at Brianna and the other two hopping off the table towards the side door to the building’s inner hallway.

Amidst the shouts from the other grad students and McDermott and the mixed cries and exclamations of curiosity from the audience, all punctuated by the plastic tapping of action figure feet across laminate tabletop and linoleum flooring, May pulled the thumbdrive from her pocket and slipped it into the class PC. Waiting for it to load, she looked at Professor Jaeger. His eyes were fixed on her.

An error tone rang from the PC. The bluetooth screen read, File too large. 

The sound of plastic shattering marked the end of the Solon that had jumped at Brianna; Sang-Won held a pair of red legs in his hand, with the other parts settling across the table and floor.

“I need to attach to one manually,” May cried to Jaeger.

The remaining two had reached the door, using each other’s combined height to reach the handle. Presently they were bouncing up and down, using their weight to build enough momentum to open the door latch. Jaeger and the security guard jumped forward, Jaeger grabbing one and the guard promptly dismissing the other with enough blows from his nightstick to leave it in pieces.

Jaeger brought May the remaining Solon, which was scratching away the skin on the man’s hand and screeching such profanity that May doubted it could have learned it all from the limited library she had provided it. At her stretching out the USB cord, the professor went to remove the USB plugin from its back. The hiss of an electric shock rang through the room.

“God-damn it,” said Jaeger through gritted teeth, ripping the figure’s arms off before putting his burned fingers to his mouth.

“I’m sure He would if He could!” pealed Solon’s speaker with a crackling cackle.

May slipped the USB cord into Solon’s back and hit Enter on the Sync Data? window.

All sound from the speaker ceased. Setting Solon on the table and stepping back to nurse his hands, Jaeger looked from May to a wide-eyed, fuming McDermott. Jaeger remained between the table and McDermott and May.

A low, rhythmic chirping began to emit from Solon’s speaker; the figure did not move from its prostrate position.

“Look!” Sang-Won said, pointing with the two legs at the screen.

Next to the original window, which was running the Greek Marian prayer that had put May to sleep the night before, there had opened a second window. Another, much shorter line was repeating through the code, following the rhythm coming from the armless form on the table. “Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ ἐλέησόν με, Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ ἐλέησόν με…” read the screen.

“What’s it saying?” asked Brianna.

“It’s in Greek,” said May, with a glance at the horrified yet baffled McDermott. “Just a sec, I’ll look it up now.”

“It’s the hesychast prayer,” said Jaeger, nodding in confirmation after a glance at the screen. “‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” He looked at McDermott. “There: now he is fully human.” The man’s tone had the sound of one passing a judgment. McDermott said nothing, slumping into a chair with a sigh and putting his head in his hands.

 Jaeger turned to May and the others. “Don’t worry, you did not fail. In fact, you succeeded in making something much bigger than just an intuitive information management system. If robots have a soul,” Jaeger turned to May, “you saved it.”

Professor Jaeger proceeded to tell them he would like to take over and sponsor their project—as an exploration of philosophy and theology as they pertain to artificial intelligence and robotics. May, he pronounced, would lead the project moving forward.

Pride and Prejudice (Norton Critical, 4th Ed.)–Goodreads Review

Summary and review of critical back materials; originally posted on Goodreads.

Literally one of the greatest novels ever written, and second only to The Brothers Karamazov, Pride and Prejudice needs no encomium from me.

The Norton Critical edition has some excellent end-of-book criticism, which includes:

D.A. Miller, “No One is Alone,” from Jane Austen; Or the Secret of Style (2003)

Discusses the break between Austen’s style and her characters, with the former being omniscient and the latter being little-knowing. Recounts how Austen’s style developed from reading 18th century writers like Sam Johnson and how she novelized several aspects of their articles. Discusses the paradox of Elizabeth’s marrying Darcy (Miller sees it cynically as an unfortunate contradiction) by supposedly eschewing the very wit (or “impertinence”) that made her unique.

Jeff Nunokawa, “Speechless in Austen,” from Differences 16 (2005)

Discusses the timelessness in Austen (both narration and characters), whose writing seems to have no idea of the enormous cultural changes that arte to come in the 1800s. Nunokawa identifies this confident changelessness as being part of why we read P&P, which, despite readers’ approaching it with nostalgia, has very little actual nostalgia within its pages. Discusses, like Elfenbein below, Austen’s use of space-as-social dynamic. He also contextualizes and discusses silence within P&P, and how Darcy must learn to open up because it is through sociability and inclusion that one succeeds in P&P. In Austen one can only know themselves through social interaction, and so Darcy’s attempting to only speak when he has something perfect or great to say ironically reduces him. Finally, examines the certainty of tone often used by both Austen’s narrator and her characters.

At times syntax/language felt a bit overwrought, but it may be because it’s an excerpt and, its being the first article I read after finishing the novel, I was still reading with Austen’s rhythm.

Andrew Elfenbein, “Austen’s Minimalism,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Examines how and why Austen leaves out descriptive details; identifies her as not being a realist (as has been said) because of this selectivity. Contextualizes Austen with Johnson’s 18th century advice to make writing timeless by avoiding too many details; shows how Austen nuances this by using detail to enhance beauty of characters/scenes like the then popular picturesque school (which suffuses the book – see Knox-Shaw below). Identifies rooms and the outdoors not as physical places but as identifiers of distance and a context for the social interactions that make up the book. One of the best articles in the edition, both for historical context and argument flow.

Peter Knox-Shaw, “Pride and Prejudice, A Politics of the Picturesque,” from Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2004)

Identifies the Picturesque as finding a medium between the Burkean-Romantic poles of pacifying Beauty and provoking Sublime. Follows the picturesque as a running metaphor through the book for Elizabeth and Darcy’s love, and thus, for Elizabeth’s breaking of gender stereotypes/politics. Argues that, like the picturesque, Elizabeth’s development depicts a nuancing of (if not campaign against) conventional beauty, while showing that beauty and attractiveness are not synonymous in the book. In conjunction with the other articles on the picturesque, Knox-Shaw’s was one of the more enlightening articles in the material.

Felicia Bonaparte, “Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” from Studies in the Novel 37.2 (2005)

Places Pride and Prejudice within the contemporary philosophical debate between the rationalists and the empiricists. Establishes how Pride and Prejudice identifies Jane Austen as an empiricist in the line of David Hume due to the book’s consistent focus on skepticism regarding secondhand accounts, texts, and assumptions. Stresses how often characters’ epistemology is discovered to be faulty, and how the book encourages a general skepticism regarding first impressions. Argues that the Bennet sisters each, in their own way, undermines one’s ability to interpret reality with certainty, and that Elizabeth’s developing a “practical empiricism” is “the bildung of the novel.” Goes further to argue that Austen was even an early Nietzschean post-modernist in how she incorporates her characters’ mutual and self-reflective interpretations into their construction of, rather than deduction of, reality. Probably my favorite of the edition’s essays, for its historical context and depth of substance, as well as readability.

Vivien Jones, “Feminisms,” from A Companion to Jane Austen (2012)

Argues that, despite her focus on primarily women characters and their circumstances, Austen should not be classed as an early feminist because of her reaffirmation of marriage, which Jones interprets as an endorsement of the patriarchal structure she sees throughout the book. Identifies Austen, rather, as a postfeminist author, who (she thinks mistakenly) argues in her characters and scenarios that the inequalities facing early-19th-century women had largely been dealt with and that many problems experienced by women can be surmounted not by societal revolution and polemic but by individual reflection and reformation. Identifies Elizabeth as being in the vein of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Austen as aligning more with the conservative female writer Hannah More. Accuses Austen of contextualizing the benefits achieved by Wollstonecraft within a conservative/Tory context of twenty years later that reaffirms the social structure. P&P as conservative reinterpretation of previous feminist ideals through the onus for individual, rather than broader social, reform. In my opinion, Jones’s view that Elizabeth’s marriage is a renegging on her previous independence (rather than a full expression of it) misses the point of the book, which his her growth out of her own pride and prejudice.

Janet Todd, “Jane Austen’s Hero,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Argues that Darcy’s place in society allows him to begin the book as a boor, whereas Elizabeth’s requires her to adapt through the book. Sees Elizabeth as having no individuality in either Darcy or Collins’s eyes. Follows Duckworth’s Marxist reading of the book’s property entail (refuted below by Macpherson), applying it to gender and property. Like Jones above, interprets her growth out of her pride and prejudice as a negative, a product of her social standing and gender, and thus misses the point of the book.

Elsie B. Michie, “Social Distinction in Jane Austen,” from The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James (2011)

Interprets P&P as Austen’s attempt to find the proper relation to wealth. Reads book as a response to Hume and Smith’s writings on the problematic effects of wealth on English society. Elizabeth as the opposite of Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine, both of whom present the negative effects of status via inherited wealth (shallow, arrogant, etc). Examines the growth of manners to replace the traditional virtues of the landed aristocracy (both shown in said characters). Points out how Elizabeth’s manners, as well as her disregard for inherited virtue or status, make her attractive despite her lack of apparent beauty. Looks at what Darcy’s growing attraction says about him. A good essay for understanding and contextualizing the different dynamics in the Elizabeth-Lady Catherine interactions, as well as the changing social mores of the time.

Sandra Macpherson, “Rent to Own: or, What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice,” from Representations 82 (2003)

Lays out the laws of property entail that undergird the plot—and, Macpherson points out, ironic humor—of P&P. Debunks Duckworth’s Marxist view that the book’s society is structured along class and gender lines (see Todd, above). Showing how entail cannot be blamed on any one person or group, explains the implicit joke in both Mrs. Bennet’s expecting something to be done about the entail and Collins’s continual apology for it (both of which Austen’s readers would have seen as ridiculous jokes). Reads Austen as not being against entail, per se, because it is an image of social obligation, not one of exclusion. Examines Austen’s contrasting renting vs owning as makers of different personalities and virtues (vis Bingley and Darcy). One of the more enlightening, historically based, and easy/fun to read of the back material; possibly my favorite, contending with Bonaparte.

(Skipped Andrew Maunder’s essay because it pertains only to the illustrations in the 1894 edition and the effects they had on P&P interpretation)

Tiffany Potter, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” from Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century (2012)

Reads Seth Grahame-Smith’s book/reinterpretation, P&P&Zs, as more than a pulp piggyback off of Austen. Presents book as a concretization of the implicit, unspeakable aspects of P&P, with the zombies being “a literalization of the threat of a social death in spinsterhood…in opposition to the socially constructed life-and-death quality of the marriage plot.” Interprets several moments from Grahame-Smith’s book as a way to help understand Austen, such as Lydia’s becoming an “unmentionable” zombie as an image of the unspeakability of her adultery in Austen, or the steady death to zombiehood of Charlotte as a picture of her intellectual death in marrying Collins in Austen. An interesting piece that treats P&P&Z seriously, though Potter ultimately interprets certain aspects of Austen (e.g. Jane and Elizabeth’s marriages) negatively.

The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey—Goodreads Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy Discovery.

“If you think you can beat the computer, that you can actually win, that’s when you’ll lose. Victory is a mirage, a will-o’-the-wisp, ignis fatuus.”

A choose-your-own-path (CYOP) novel that follows the seemingly disparate dual plots of a scientific study and a murder trial, The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey is an engaging, entertaining examination of free will and biological determinism. Although the two storylines may at first seem distinct, they intertwine in both thematic and concrete ways to form a single experience pervaded with the question of whether our conscious individual choices really are as willful and clear-cut as we assume.

The fact that Hickey concretizes all of this—logic, philosophy, and contemporary real-world psychological research—into a CYOP novel, where the story one experiences is simultaneously a choice by the reader and a plotline predetermined by the author, adds a layer of self-awareness to the work that only increases its depth. This is underscored by the fact that the title of The Friar’s Lantern, another name for the ephemeral will-o’-the-wisp used within the story to describe the elusive idea that one might be able to outsmart a computer, thus stands not only for the determinism that forms the book’s central theme but also for the genre as a whole.

However, the novel’s depth does not mean it is inaccessible as entertainment. To be honest, I have not read many CYOP novels, so I came into the experience with little to compare it to. If I note any novelties or gripes, I am fully aware they may be unique to me—and they may be exactly what readers of the genre expect. While I initially tried to read all paths simultaneously, I soon stopped approaching the book as a reviewer and started enjoying it as a reader, devoting myself to one storyline before going back to read the others. To avoid spoilers I won’t name my path; I’ll only say that once I settled on the ONE I wanted, I did not deviate.

While the initial branches differed on binary lines, with little divergence, they eventually weave into completely different events before returning to (and then turning away from) essential shared moments. At first I worried the side characters’ actions and dialogue would simply mirror the opposite choices of the reader—thus changing their characters according to caprice—but I soon found that this was not the case, and that the characters develop consistent identities. Meanwhile, something I did not notice until near the book’s end was the lack, so far as I could find, of gender markers for the reader-protagonist. While I, of course, had imagined a male, I realized I could have as consistently imagined a female going through the story. I assume all of this is to be expected from the genre, but it was nonetheless gratifying to find such subtleties upon going back after my first finish. However, I would have nonetheless liked more interactions with and background of the characters apart from the philosophical questions at the book’s core.

However, the book has its flaws. One aspect of the book that jarred me from the first page is the amount of physical description in the scene-setting. I usually dislike so much description, but I assume this is a trope of the genre, where the narrator must lead the reader through what they are seeing in order to make their choices. Still, the descriptions can interrupt and run long, with some analogies being pulpy and abruptly hyperbolic, and at times a bit dated (the book explicitly takes place in 2012, of which one is reminded by comparisons and remarks relevant to that and the previous year). However, these detractions are minor, and others may overlook them more easily than I. I can’t imagine it’s anything but precarious to narrate the thoughts and reactions of one’s reader.

I enjoyed this read, especially after I let my choices guide my experience. The fact that the topics discussed are, through the course of the novel, cited in psychological studies, which Hickey names and incorporates for dramatic potential into the book, was fascinating, and it marks the book as an excellent example of literature’s ability to concretize and work out the implications of scientific peer review for a great reader experience. Although I give the book four stars due to the few stylistic noted above, the book was a great read, and, if indicative of the genre as a whole, not my last CYOP novel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the author.

Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

If I could sum up Bourbon Empire in one idea, it would be that myths are no less real for being myths—in fact, that might make them more real, as far as the experience is concerned.

In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of America’s favorite drink, whiskey, from its first distillation in the new republic, through its becoming a symbol of the American spirit in the industrial revolution, past its joint status as black market item and loophole product during Prohibition, into its importance as a symbol of the West during the Cold War, and to its present status in the global drink industry. Throughout his detailed, and often humorous, recounting of the key figures and periods of the drink’s—and America’s—history, Mitenbuler keeps an eye on the role that legend and myth play in the perception of taste, often returning back to the motifs of the big name brands and how they acquired (or maneuvered) their ethos and cache.

This is one of the most charming aspects of the book. While he does pull back the curtain on certain key aspects of the whiskey industry, then and now, Mitenbuler does not do so maliciously, as if trying to invalidate the drink’s history. He recognizes, from the first chapter, that myths—even myths we know are not literally true—can still be an essential and enjoyable aspect of the experience. One can know that the image of the pioneer farmer distilling his corn into bourbon was, by the mid-1800s, a myth, and that most bourbon was being made in large distilleries, and yet still enjoy the link between the whiskey’s taste (which tastes little now like it did then) and that first image of the pioneer. In this way, the book mixes romantic idealism with the realism of its subject, and the result is a charming read or listen.

However, this does touch on one of my few gripes with the book. Despite his awareness of myth’s ephemerality, Mitenbuler ironically accepts as fact the myth that the late-19th-century industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller were little more than unscrupulous and cynical social darwinists, which is flat incorrect. Rockefeller was a public and private detractor from that view and did much to counter its influence; I encourage readers interested in a nuanced presentation of Rockefeller and his times to read Ron Chernow’s Titan.

However, as Mitenbuler’s account is about whiskey, and he is using the Rockefeller myth for figurative comparison to describe unscrupulous whiskey distilling of the “Gilded Age,” it does not detract much from the book, overall. Yet, because of this, and, one wonders, other glosses, I would not recommend the book as a replacement for a serious history (of course, it’s not trying to be that). In context, though, Bourbon Empire provides many excellent details of figures that history students may not have heard of. As a literature tutor, I found much to inform my unit on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bourbon Empire is a fun and engaging overview of American history through the lens of our national drink. Having previously enjoyed similar accounts, and generally appreciating the view that the local economy is a prime mover of history, I would recommend this book, especially, of course, to those who enjoy or are curious about whiskey.

Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

“America prospered, in large part, because it accepted that destruction is the price for creation. The world’s most liberal bankruptcy laws allowed companies to go out of business. The world’s biggest internal market allowed people to move to places where their skills would be more generously rewarded. The United States accepted that ghost towns and shuttered factories are the price of progress.”

As its title says, Capitalism in America covers the history of the United states with a focus on its economic setting and growth. From the joint stock companies of the English colonists (which they identify as a wholly new invention in a world where mercantilism was taken for granted) to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, Greenspan and Wooldridge lay out the circumstances leading to, the benefits produced by, and the reactions against the free (and at many times not-so-free) market of the United States. I listened to the audiobook version read excellently by Ray Porter.

One of the unifying themes of the book is the necessity of creative destruction for growth. As great as the major leaps of the market were—spurred on by the mutually reinforcing and liberating inventions of like the Lowell Mills, the Bessemer Process, the steam engine, the telegraph, and many others—they meant that investments in previous processes, industries, locations, and jobs were and had to be liquidated, adjusted, or left behind. The authors, thus, also follow the growth of reactionary movements such as the populist Grange Movement and the unionization and regulation of the Progressives—all the while citing the benefits and, more often than not, economic drawbacks and ironies of such things.

However, being a general history, the book does not focus only on the turn of the 19th – 20th century (though the surrounding events and precedents set the stage for later discussion). Honestly elaborating on the dreadful economic impact of plans like the New Deal, the authors nonetheless lay out the social and presidential merits of actions by presidents like FDR to slow or stave off the destructive elements of the market (and give that president, perhaps, more credit than one might expect, or is due). The authors also go through the rest of the 20th century and early 21st, describing the relative economic plans of the Cold War and post-Cold War presidents, which many times diverged from their respective executive’s party affiliation or persona. The book ends at 2019, noting the various economic benefits of President Trump’s deregulation agenda, as well as the looming effects of his administration’s declining to cut entitlement spending. While the fact that the authors could not foresee the sudden economic downturn caused by the 2020 lockdowns, etc, or the inflation of the 2020-2024 administration lends a bit of irony to the final chapters, such events do fit within the book’s final prediction of recession, as well as within the broader themes of economic cycles.

As an AP US History teacher, I plan to recommend this book to my students, if not use it in class. Besides some parts which discuss elements of market economics (e.g. when the 2008 mortgage loan bubble is discussed), the book is clear enough in its language and consistent enough with its themes to be readable by non-economists (and even those aforementioned parts are manageable and made clear within context). While Greenspan takes a generally conservative view of America’s economic history, he is, nonetheless, quite even-handed in his treatment, which may be what some readers are looking for. I was tempted to give four stars because of a few minor gripes, but I decided those were due to my own differing views on some of the book’s topics and not due to any deficiency in the book, itself.

An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews – Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A biographical history of the USSR’s most successful covert agent, An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews follows the life of Richard Sorge, a German by name but a Russian communist by conviction who set up spy rings for the Soviets in China and Japan during the age of Stalin and leading up to World War II. Blessed with a death-defying daring, a seductive savoir-faire, and a perfect cover, Sorge was a formidable asset in the Soviets’ war against fascism – or he would have been, did not the very traits that made him so singular cause the communist regime, and Stalin, himself, to distrust him.

Based on newly-declassified records, Matthews’s history is as meticulously researched as it is readable. The focus is always on Sorge’s character, and the chapters are drawn together through a narrative that, after we have gotten to know Sorge, begins to obscurely hint at the book’s ending. Rather than spoil anything, this foreshadowing maintains a suspense that parallels Sorge’s daring character. And yet, though it can be read as a character study of a Soviet James Bond (alcohol, motorcycle rides, and romantic liaisons punctuate the book’s elaboration on how Sorge established his spy rings), An Impeccable Spy consistently maintains a peripheral view of the main events of the twentieth century of which we have read and/or heard of in school.

Foremost among such events was, perhaps, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact and invade Russia. While the conventional story is that, despite the similarities between their ideologies (which Sorge discovers, finding as he does how easy it is for a communist to pose as a fascist), Hitler betrayed and took Stalin by surprise, Matthews shows that not only had Sorge sent intelligence of Operation Barbarossa to Moscow, but Stalin had prepared for such a possible attack. However, for reasons established by Matthews, Stalin – who had by that time begun his party purge, from which Sorge was spared by distance – had begun to distrust Sorge. Thus, Matthews draws on a theme common to both his nonfictional and fictional works: the incompetence of the suspicious self-cannibalism of communist bureaucracy.

I read An Impeccable Spy as part of my goal to better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his historical fiction. However, a few hours into the audiobook (excellently narrated by Mike Grady), An Impeccable Spy became one of my favorites of Matthews’s contributions to the scholarship on 20th-century Russia. As with his other works, I plan to recommend friends and students read An Impeccable Spy for an entertaining and well-documented look at the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank – Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“[E]verything takes refuge in the flesh, everything is thrown into fleshly debauchery, and, to supply the lack of higher spiritual impressions, the nerves and the body are goaded with everything capable of arousing the sensibility. The most monstrous perversions, the most abnormal acts, little by little become customary.”

Thus Joseph Frank recounts Feodor Dostoevsky’s foresight of what life will become if the radical socialists’ materialist worldview were to be adopted across Russia and Europe. Beginning at Dostoevsky’s return to St. Petersburg after a ten-year exile in Siberia and Semipalatinsk and running until his brother Mikhael’s death and the failure of their second journal, Epoch, The Stir of Liberation focuses less on the events of the Russian author’s life than the previous two volumes of Joseph Frank’s biography on the author. Instead, it follows the journalistic and ideological bouts that formed the core of what would guide Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces.

After recounting the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s return, Frank explores the brothers Dostoevskys’ first literary journal, Time, as well as the values underlying it. While his time in prison had shown Dostoevsky the incompleteness and foolhardiness of utopian socialism, the author still sympathized with the stated goals of the radicals of mid-century Russia. The journal’s alternative method for helping the Russian peasantry raise their standard of living — pochvennichestvo, a broad plan to educate the lower classes by an educated upper class through authentically Russian art and literature — is a major theme in the book, as is Dostoevsky’s initial impulse to conciliate between the other, alternatively more radical and conservative, journals of the time. Subsequently, in this volume readers will find a more theoretical explanation and exposition of Dostoevsky’s view of art, as well as the view of the radical socialists, foremost among whom was Chernyshevsky, introduced in the biography’s second volume. The ideological back-and-forths between the journals — both Time and, after its bungling censorship, Epoch — constitute much of this volume (this may or may not appeal to readers; I found it engaging and, under Frank’s pen, understandable).

Along with recounting the adventures of the Dostoevskys’ journals, Frank follows the key events in Dostoevsky’s life that accompanied and gave him fodder for his pieces, such as his first trip to Europe (which does not line up with his/Russia’s expectations), his affair and travels with the student Apollinaria Suslova, the long-expected death of his wife, and the sudden and completely unexpected (to him) death of his brother. Out of these events Frank explains such works as Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, The Gambler, and, in an explicatory chapter that, alone, makes the volume worth reading, Notes from Underground.

Frank’s long focus on this last work is outstanding — unsurprising, considering its being Dostoevsky’s first GREAT work in his later apocalyptic themes. Giving background sources and influential interpretations since the work’s publication, Frank couches Dostoevsky’s satirizing the socialist-materialist of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? (the polemic that inspired many in Russia to become radicals, and V. I. Lenin’s favorite book) in the underground man’s inability to live out his grandiose creed. Covering each section of the work, Frank presents a unified reading that elucidates Dostoevsky’s most obscure book, placing it squarely within the arguments of its day while showing how it relates to the author’s later timeless novels.

While others might not enjoy this volume as much as the more event-based volumes of the biography. I found it to be the most engaging yet. The Stir of Liberation shows the processes by which Dostoevsky hashed out his worldview and applied it to the Russia of his day, and it shows Dostoevsky in the years when he took the lessons and experiences he had in Siberia and articulated them into full literary understanding. Fans of literary theory and philosophy of art — not to mention political theory — will have much to enjoy in this volume.

Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“It was much easier to live by one’s myths and to continue to believe in the ultimate wisdom of the party than to speak out and risk disaster.”

A family memoir by previous Newsweek Moscow Bureau Chief, historian, and spy novelist Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children follows the author’s family as they eventually unite in the marriage of his parents, despite coming from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. As he recounts the personalities and formative events of his family members, Matthews offers a unique, multifaceted view of Russia under the Soviets, constructed from both family members’ accounts and records from the previous USSR. Reaching from the beginning of the Russian Revolution to the present day, Stalin’s Children offers a nuanced understanding of the Cold War, with the focus being on the love story between his Welsh father and his Russian mother.

As in Matthews’s other works, a core theme of Stalin’s Children is how good people were able to live under and in spite of an oppressive regime. Contextualizing many of the book’s events through Solzenitsyn, Matthews mixes an honest contempt for the Soviet system and its failings with a sympathetic respect for those who lived under, and at times supported, it. Admitting, and at times lauding, the pragmatism of his grandparents, Matthews’s sympathetic perspective nuances the negatives of the Soviet structure by separating actual Russians from it and telling their stories. Matthews further maintains his multi-faceted honesty when describing his own time in post-Soviet Russia, which he does not present as automatically good because more nominally free. Throughout, Matthews recounts the major events and trends in twentieth-century Russia while keeping a Dostoevskian eye on the humanity of his characters, and he offers many insights into the Russian social culture and personality. As he writes, “To survive and be happy, Russians have so much to bury, to willfully ignore. Small wonder that the intensity of their pleasures and indulgences is so sharp: it has to match the quality of the suffering.”

Central in the book is Matthews’s mother, Lyudmilla. As a backdrop to his mother, Matthews describes the popular antihero of his parents’ generation, Kompromis Kompromisovich, who was a tribute to the men and women who successfully negotiated the disappointments of Soviet life by millions of small compromises. His mother Lyudmilla was not such an antihero: “where the most [Lyudmilla’s] contemporaries could aspire to is to get by, Milla believed that her will could conquer the world.” By the time she meets Matthews’s father, Oxford professor Mervyn Matthews, Lyudmilla has been established enough as a presence that one is unsurprised by her daring.

Hearing about Lyudmilla was especially enjoyable because, personally, I’ve always enjoyed the acerbic humor Matthews often includes in his characters, especially regarding the ironies of the Soviet system. Hearing about her and her capacity for such humor felt like a finding a much needed puzzle piece in understanding Matthews’s writing.

Matthews’s presentation of his father (whose description and background are just as well-rounded as are ‘Milla’s) is just as worth reading. Describing his father’s defiance of the KGB regarding Milla as noble & principled, Matthews finds it incomprehensible; “If I’d been forced to choose between being separated from the woman I loved and signing a paper saying I would work for the KGB, I would have unhesitatingly signed on the dotted line. Whatever my private feelings for the KGB, I would have considered the cause of my personal happiness supreme above all others.” In this and other moments, Stalin’s Children incorporates not only the genres of history and memoir, but also love story, with characters no less grand and romantic for being real. Indeed, with the hindsight the author uses in recounting the time period’s brutal circumstances, Matthews’s parents are shown to have been moreso.

As I’ve said, I approached Stalin’s Children so I could better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his fiction; it certainly helped with that. However, it also does much more, providing insight at many levels of focus and genre. Throughout, it gives a full perspective of the central figures’ choices, motives, and psychologies, never losing the sympathy, understanding, and honesty of a family member. If you’re looking for an account of what it was like to live in twentieth-century Russia, both before, during, and after the Soviet state, Stalin’s Children should be your next read.