A Pitkiny Story Is Icumen In!

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After a bit of a dry spell, I’m happy to announce a new Pitkin publication: my story “Nonesuch” has been accepted for an upcoming issue of Black Static, the great English horror and dark fantasy magazine.

I’m especially excited to have this story find such an excellent home. “Nonesuch” was a huge leap for me as a writer, my first attempt at dark fantasy, and definitely one of the best stories I’ve ever written. Watch for “Nonesuch” in Black Static (as well as my new John Demetrius story “Proteus” in Analog) in the coming months!

A Club That Will Have Me As a Member

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I’ve put on a good act that I don’t care much about external validation for my work. That’s really more of an aspirational sentiment than anything else. Like Groucho Marx, I can say pretty breezily that I wouldn’t belong to any club that will have me as a member–however, if you invite me into your club, I’ll turn pretty moony-eyed.

Last year I was accepted into the Science Fiction Writers of America, which cost me $100 and came with this snazzy membership card:WIN_20170326_15_16_34_Pro

Since I joined, I haven’t given the membership much thought or availed myself of the SFWA’s surely awesome services. But this month, SFWA sent me the ballot for the Nebula Awards:

Novel

  • All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
  • Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
  • The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Ninefox Gambit,Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
  • Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)

Novella

  • Runtime, S.B. Divya (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
  • Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “The Liar”, John P. Murphy (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Novelette      

  • “The Long Fall Up”, William Ledbetter (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea”, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
  • “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • “The Orangery”, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary, Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny)

Short Story

  • “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander (Uncanny)
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
  • “Sabbath Wine”, Barbara Krasnoff (Clockwork Phoenix 5)
  • “Things With Beards”, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)
  • “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, A. Merc Rustad (Fireside Magazine)
  • “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)
  • “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station│Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)

Looking at the roster of writers, I realized that I’m the last person who should vote on these awards: while I’m familiar with some of the writers, I haven’t read any of the works on this ballot. One could argue that I’m not much of a science fiction writer if I don’t actually read works of contemporary science fiction. (I do read sci fi and fantasy–at least some–but practically all fiction that I read in any genre is older stuff. In 2016 I didn’t read a single book that was published that year.)

I do know the work of some of these writers–in particular I’m a big fan of Kij Johnson. Without reading all of these folks, though, I probably won’t be voting. I may have time to get through the whole short story category, but I doubt I’ll get far beyond that by March 31.

However, I do want to proclaim these names to you. Have you read any of these pieces? What’s not on the list that should be? Who of these writers would you recommend?

Remake the Electoral College, Part II

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It’s exciting  to see people’s increasing enthusiasm about replacing America’s 18th-century sop to the slave states, the Electoral College. Oregon is currently considering a bill–HB2927–that would join the state to The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. New Mexico and Connecticut are considering similar measures. Oregon friends, now is the time to contact your state representative in support of the bill!

To explain the beauty of The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, below is the repost of my original message on the subject, written last November before the Time of Troubles had actually begun:

Friends all over the place are talking about how and where to support civic engagement with their time and money. The ACLU tops the list for many of my friends–as well as for a whole lot a friends I didn’t know I had.  There’s good reason today to support The Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, The Sierra Club, The Council on American-Islamic Relations–all places to devote your efforts if you are interested in preserving civil society during the Time of Troubles. I’ll be giving loved ones memberships to these for Christmas.

And there’s at least one more that deserves your support, even though the issue it covers–electoral reform–may seem like small potatoes compared to the threats we are facing. FairVote.org has been doing the quiet, patient work of improving the way elections work in the United States since 1992. And, among the many forward-thinking reforms that they have advocated, one of the most timely is the reform of the Electoral College.

Democrats have ample incentive to support Electoral College reform: Democrats have won the most votes in four of the last five presidential elections, yet we’ve had a Democratic president for only two of those electoral cycles. One can be forgiven for believing that, along with persistent gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, the Republicans have used the Electoral College to hold on to power despite being a minority party in the United States.

Yet, the Republicans have just as many reasons to support the reform of the Electoral College. Yes, over two recent cycles (2000 and 2016) the Electoral College has favored the Republicans, but there’s no structural reason that this should be so. Indeed, some of you remember the scenario (and personal fantasy of mine) that in 2004 John Kerry would win the Electoral College in spite of losing the national popular vote. If I remember correctly, he came within 70,000 votes of winning Ohio (and hence the election) that way.

I had hoped in part that the election would swing that way in 2004 because I believed (and still believe) that if the Republicans had suffered the same kind of defeat that the Democrats had in 2000, there would be a bipartisan consensus to do away with the Electoral College.

But for better and worse (mostly for better), it will be extremely difficult to do away with the Electoral College entirely. Doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution, and that’s a pretty high bar to clear: the last amendment to the Constitution(the 27th) occurred nearly 25 years ago, 202 years after if had been proposed in 1789.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way to reform the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution? It turns out that there is such a way. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has just the kind of wonky name that puts people to sleep. However, it’s one of the most fundamental advances we could make to our presidential election system today. And we can make it law without having to amend the Constitution.

Here’s how it works. The Constitution is helpfully vague about how states choose who their electors will be:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…

In other words, individual state legislatures have wide latitude to decide how electors are appointed. And, if a state legislature decides that electors should be appointed on the basis of whoever wins the national popular vote, there’s nothing in the Constitution to forbid it.

Yet, what would be the incentive for a state to give up its influence over the electoral process by choosing its electors that way? That’s a good question, and certainly swing states like Ohio and Florida have little incentive (beyond an interest in democracy) to do so. Those states receive millions of dollars in ad revenue from the presidential campaigns every four years–they have a much greater stake in the status quo. However, the so-called “safe states” like California, New York, and Oklahoma–states which are reliably red or blue in every election–have less influence over presidential elections today than they would have if they simply banded together and agreed to choose electors on the basis of the national popular vote.

And that’s what the compact aims to do. As soon as enough states agree to appoint their electors that way–that is, as soon as states representing 270 electoral votes agree to it–the compact would go into force.

I’ll write more later about the benefits of such a plan, as well as about its constitutionality. But for now, check out the map of states which have already voted to implement the compact. Check out the states where the compact has almost passed–that is, where the compact has a reasonable chance of passing in the future. Check out how many times it took some of the states to pass the compact into law.

One of the beauties of this kind of work is that it is a concrete step for the public good that can be accomplished in state houses, where individual voters can bring more pressure to bear. Friends in Oregon, friends in Colorado, friends in Oklahoma and Tennessee: find out what your state legislator is doing to support this compact–which is to say, find out what your legislator is doing to support democracy in the United States. FairVote.org can help hook you up with this project.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free…of the Car

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I’ve seen the Ford Company’s Super Bowl commercial a few times now–Google has determined that I’m part of Ford’s target demographic when I choose a Philip Glass or Gerald Finzi piece to listen to on YouTube. There’s a shout-out here to electric cars, to new car-sharing economic models, to bike sharing, and to self-driving vehicles–all trends that Ford seems to be trying to get out in front of. And it all plays out over Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” one of the most beautiful and spiritual songs in American popular music. I have to say it’s a remarkable ad, even though Google doesn’t seem to know how much I dislike driving and how unlikely it is I’ll ever buy a new car as long as I live:

Or maybe that’s the point. Ford seems to be selling its brand here to people that don’t consider themselves drivers, or at least not typical drivers. It’s too early yet for me to say whether this particular piece of corporate propaganda is simple greenwashing–think British Petroleum’s laughable “Beyond Petroleum” campaign that aired in the months before the ecological crime they perpetrated with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Is it possible that Ford is really positioning itself as part of the solution to climate change, energy scarcity, air pollution, traffic gridlock–that is, all the problems that Ford hath wrought over the last 100 years?

It’s not impossible to imagine Ford remaking itself for a new transportational reality. Electric cars and self-driving cars are still cars, and Ford seems better-positioned to create them, if they want to, than many other companies trying to enter those markets. It’s a little harder for me to see how car-sharing and bike-sharing fit with the business model of Ford or any extant motor company: the whole idea behind vehicle sharing is that fewer people overall will buy cars. But I suppose there are smart people in Detroit trying to see how they could monetize car sharing in a way that beats out Uber and Lyft–perhaps the Ford of the future will be a massive car (and bike?) owner, a kind of Netflix of vehicles, renting out cars to drivers at a price that makes car ownership seem silly.

A corporation, whether Ford or BP, is an amoral kind of organism designed to do nothing more  than maximize value for shareholders, in the same way that an amoeba is designed to eat rotting organic material until it’s big enough to split, amorally, into two amoebas. I wouldn’t call Ford’s move in these new greener directions a sign of Ford’s goodness, any more than BP’s greenwashing was a sign of corporate evil. Both corporations are just trying to make money for shareholders, and Ford is better positioned to handle the changes coming its way than British Petroleum has been. Solar power and wind power are entirely different industries than petroleum extraction; BP is no better positioned to enter the solar power market than Nike or Coca-Cola are.

And to be sure, Ford hasn’t transformed itself–the ad seems more aspiration than reportage. The ad slips in a decent amount of legerdemain, as when this supposedly green, forward looking new company cuts to a shot of the GT tearing along the freeway with all the subtlety of Chester Lampwick’s rocket car from The Simpsons. But the ad has beguiled my attention in spite of, or perhaps because of, my distaste for the driving experience. If a car company can do that, it’s a pretty neat trick.

The Seeds of Trump’s Undoing

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I’ve been working on a couple of long blog posts that I have wanted to finish for a while. However, I back-burnered them all today as I digested the news of Michael Flynn’s resignation as Trump’s national security advisor. I was reminded of something I told my wife on the night of the election, and which I have repeated many times since: the seeds of Trump’s undoing are right in front of us.

I was not making a prophecy. I had simply been reading the news which was available to us since before the election, such as this groundbreaking piece by Mother Jones veteran David Corn. Many have suspected for months that Donald Trump was receiving aid from a hostile foreign power, a power determined to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election.

There are many Republicans in Congress who have circled their wagons around Trump because he is one of their team, because presumably they see some advantage to themselves in protecting the president. But even within the famously disciplined Republican Party there are increasing calls for investigations, not four weeks into Trump’s presidency, into “what did the president know, and when did he know it?”

The echoes of Watergate are obvious, but facile. Our current national nightmare is a great deal worse than Watergate: we are talking about an enemy state, ruled by an anti-democratic strongman, subverting our electoral process in order to bring a favored candidate to power. And Trump, Putin’s favored candidate, has been artlessly, bafflingly open about his desire to reward Putin for the help.

Today on CNN, Democratic congressman Seth Moulton called out the elephant in the room: the support of an enemy state’s agenda at the expense of the interests of your own country is, by definition, treason.

There is chaos and trouble ahead. In the same way that I wonder about my parents’ and grandparents’ stances in 1974, our kids and grandkids will ask about how we acted, and what we did, during the time we’re living through.

A Tiny, Imaginary Rubicon

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Some years ago I wrote a young adult fantasy novel called Stranger Bird. That book was my attempt to recreate for my young daughters some of the feeling I had reading fantasy literature as a boy.

I hope and believe I have accomplished that much. But whatever other hopes I nursed for Stranger Bird–publication, a wider readership, a little money–have been a fool’s errand: after the coming of Harry Potter and the Harry Potter Industrial Complex (HPIC), YA fantasy thoroughly changed (mostly, though not in every way, for the better). I wrote Stranger Bird to harken back to an older style of fantasy, more mythical, perhaps a little darker: the Earthsea books of Ursula K LeGuin, Richard Adams’ Watership Down and Shardik, the Prydain series of Lloyd Alexander.

For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to find a publisher for a book like that today. Maybe Stranger Bird just isn’t very good. However, I have several indications that the book hasn’t been rejected on the basis of its lack of literary quality. A couple of times the manuscript got to the desk of the head editor of the house, and one small house did in fact offer to publish it if I would change the style of the book (the changes were a bit much for me, so I declined). I’ve gotten some good external validation of my other work, stories that I consider no better than Stranger Bird: 15 of my stories have been picked up for publication;  my work has been anthologized five times; I’ve picked up nice reviews in Locus and SFRevu and elsewhere.

It’s even fair to say that I started writing fantasy and science fiction short stories to try and gin up a name for myself that would attract the attention of an agent for Stranger Bird–the big publishing houses won’t look at anything not represented by an agent (I was late learning that it’s generally harder to find an agent than a publisher). And yet, after trying with seven publishing houses and 23 agents, I’ve not been able to sell Stranger Bird on my own terms.

I realize now that I’ve been too snooty, and too squeamish, about self-publishing.

My goals are modest. I’ll state them here: I want 100 readers for Stranger Bird. I’m willing to work to find them. And I’m willing to work to make them feel special. Any more than 100 readers will be gravy–I will consider the whole business enterprise a success if I can get 100 people to read the book.

I don’t know yet what I will call my imprint. And I know I have a lot to learn about the business end of publishing–that’s a side of things I have little talent for and almost no experience with.

But I’m committed. A couple of weeks ago I turned in my bio for my next story publication (a John Demetrius story called “Proteus,” appearing in Analog soon), and at the bottom of the bio I added a line I’ve never used before: his YA fantasy novel Stranger Bird will be appearing this year. It felt good, and it felt scary, to add that line. Keep watching this space; I’ve crossed a tiny, imaginary Rubicon.

 

Reading in Hood River!

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My Bloggish Friends:

I’m happy to invite you to a reading I’m giving at the beautiful AniChe Cellars tasting room in Hood River, Oregon. AniChe Cellars has dolled up an old Depression-era bank at 301 Oak Street in Hood River, well worth seeing. Come taste some ridiculously good wine in ridiculously scenic Hood River while I read a ridiculous story or two.

Saturday, January 28, at 5:00–I’d love to see you!

The Year In Reading: 2016

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At the end of 2015, I posted a roundup of what I had read that year, with a mini-review of each book. The post went over quite well, so I thought I would reprise this heavy year’s reading as well. Here’s the piebald mix:

Adler-Olson, Jussi The Keeper of Lost Causes.  I’m not normally a fan of mystery stories, but I was entertained enough by this example of Nordic crime fiction to keep reading and to finish it. The conceit of torturing someone through increasing the atmospheric pressure in a cell made out of a pressure vessel was both interesting and creepy, and the vibe of the book spurred my to try writing a sci fi murder mystery of my own. (The draft of that story has been disappointing, but I will see if it’s salvageable)

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles.  This story cycle had a few truly excellent works in it (I’m thinking especially of the first three Mars expeditions). Other tales seemed emotionally lame—either overwrought or full of implausible motivations. Much as War of the Worlds seemed like a meditation on British Imperialism, this book seems like a metaphor for the conquest of the American West, as well as an early work on nuclear apocalypse. I’m glad I read this book—and I feel it gives me some external validation to keep going with my own story series on John Demetrius—but overall I felt a bit flat about the experience.

Calvino, Italo. The Baron in the Trees.  One of the sweetest, most heart-warming books I’ve ever read. Baron Cosimo di Rondo climbs a tree during a temper tantrum when he is twelve years old and he never comes down. For the next fifty-odd years, through the height of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the disappointments of Napoleon, Cosimo reads, philosophizes, carries on love affairs, and corresponds with the great minds of his day, all from his home in the branches. Calvino, for much of his youth a communist, apparently wrote this book as a response to the Soviet repression of the Hungarians in 1956 (an event which caused him to leave the communist party and never join another). It’s a story of how one can keep to one’s philosophical commitments in the face of the many let-downs that the world has in store for us.

Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc.  What an inspiring book: this account of what it takes to run a creative company (in this case, two companies–Pixar and Disney Animation) filled me with ideas for my work at my own college and for my creative work as well. Catmull is big-hearted, generous, modest, and also committed to excellence in his work. I’m so glad my wife put me on to this book; I never would have sought it out myself.

Cline, Ernest: Ready Player One. This gift from my sister was a very enjoyable little read. The writing was in some ways terrible—Cline trades in clichés and underwriting—but the story is quite well-plotted and gave me many geeky moments with its references to D&D, old 80s movies and music, and early video/computer games like Zork. Good fluffy fun.

Fuentes, Carlos. La Muerte de Artemio Cruz. After four attempts over the course of six years, I have finally finished this short, sad work. I’m a very slow reader in Spanish under the best of circumstances, and this work, written with Faulknerian paragraph-sentences, unclear points of view, and unannounced time shifts, really put my creaky Spanish to the test. Yet in spite of its brevity, it’s a monumental novel, the history of Mexico in miniature, a chronicle of thwarted ambitions and broken promises and, underneath all that, an indomitable dignity. The Wikipedia page for the novel claims that the book was heavily influenced by Citizen Kane, and I can dig that, but just as much I see the influence of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. It’s a poignant and unflinching look back at the life of a tough, bad hombre.

Grossman, Lev. The Magicians. I had seen a lot of good buzz around this series, but I found this book pretty hard to like. The characters were so, so privileged and self-involved, so jaded and irresponsible with their powers, that it seemed like nobody had anything on the line in this book. The characters seemed far more Jay McInerney than J.K. Rowling—I just never felt invested in any of them.

Holdstock, Robert: Mythago Wood. While interesting and sometimes fascinating, this book was ultimately a big disappointment to me. I loved the idea of a primeval forest with its own mythopoetic, psychological characters drifting out of it like ghosts. Shades of Solaris, there. However, the dialogue was pretty wooden, and I was shocked at how many plot points were totally contrived or were abandoned so carelessly (I know that the book is one of a series, but still—there’s no excuse for the lame non-explanation of Keeton’s leaving, nor the off-handed dismissal of the three following warriors who had barely figured in the story up to that point). I don’t remember who put Holdstock in the same league as LeGuin, Crowley, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but this book does not lend much support to that claim.

Liu, Cixin: The Three Body Problem. I have mixed feelings about this one. The story is a truly original first contact tale, and I was blown away by the episodes that involved computing (both the episodes in the Three Body game and the creation of the sophon). However, I also found the characterizations wooden and the characters’ motivations at times truly unbelievable. How much of that stems from the translation, or from the different aesthetic of Chinese fiction, and how much of my trouble stems from the weak writing that afflicts so much science fiction?

Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak.  I’m surprised that it has taken me so long to read Parker Palmer, probably the most famous living Quaker in the United States. This book seemed to take the form of half a dozen loosely-related Pendle Hill Pamphlets, most of them inspiring or heartening, and none of them useless. This is a great book about vocation, looking at our work through the lens of how we can best serve others and live out of our deepest identities. This may on the face of it sound totally contrary to the advice of another book I loved, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but I would call these books complementary: Cam Newton’s focus was on building skills and getting paid for them, while Palmer’s seems to be on discernment about what our gifts are and how to use those gifts to serve others. Palmer is a true Hufflepuff—I needed his advice as I struggle with my own Hufflepuffery.

Sorokin, Vladimir. Day of the Oprichnik Near-future sci fi from one of contemporary Russia’s most celebrated authors. In the Russia of the 2020s, a Francisco Franco-esque figure has taken power, re-instituting the Tsardom and the ostentatious rites of the Orthodox Church. The oprichnina—Sorokin takes the name from the secret police of Ivan the Terrible—go about knocking heads, terrorizing people, and taking some weird-ass drugs.  The book is one part Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale one part Gogol’s Dead Souls, with a dash of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange thrown in. Violent, intense, and a solid read.

Stapledon, Olaf. Star Maker. One of the oddest works of sci fi I’ve ever encountered. This read more like an extended essay or history than like a true story. Yet this history of the universe as told through the eyes of hive mind energy beings was quite imaginative and often interesting. I can see how Stapledon influenced Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clarke, and Freeman Dyson, among many others.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina.  One of the great reading experiences of my life. Slower than War and PeaceAnna Karenina took me about three months to finish—but I was amazed by the large-heartedness of the book. There were practically no unsympathetic characters at the end (except for the pharisaical religious woman who insinuates herself into Karenin’s life, I can’t think of a truly unsympathetic character). Even Karenin becomes, halfway through the book, a figure of deep love and pity. I was happy to see the book end—it’s a real emotional drain to read it—but I was amazed by Tolstoy’s powers of characterization here, as well as his plotting (the book reads like a collection of about 40 linked short stories).

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Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds.  So different from the film treatments. But such a story! I can see why Wells was so influential. I love how the narrator characterized himself as a writer “on philosophical themes.” The whole book seems like an allegory for the failings of British Imperialism—one of the best sci fi stories I’ve ever read.

Witwer, Michael: Empire of Imagination. This was a fluffy, entertaining history of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax. I didn’t realize exactly how much of a rockstar Gygax had been in the 80s (nor how much of the rockstar lifestyle he copied). I did know something of the rags-to-riches-to-rags arc of his story, but there were some wonderful details here, as well as a bit of redemption in Gygax’s later years (even if the telling of it seemed a bit contrived). A fun memory trip.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. I wrote a longer review of this book a couple of weeks ago.  While I was familiar with every period Zinn wrote about in People’s History, I don’t think I had ever seen all these periods stitched together into a single overarching vision. Basically, Zinn’s contention is that the true history of the United States is not defined by the actions of presidents and congresses who have worked at practically every turn to enrich a tiny economic elite–by preserving slavery, by massacring the natives, by invading Mexico and Cuba and The Philippines, by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and Iran. Rather, American history is made up of the often overlooked struggles of the oppressed, the working class, the unrepresented. It is a history of people fighting, over centuries sometimes, to be included in the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People.” It’s an inspiring–if sometimes flawed–vision. I believe that what it offers, in a crowded field of history texts, is a truly alternative analysis of the history of the nation.

Readings for the Time of Troubles

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I was surprised to learn that the textbook my daughter was using for her US History class is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I had long been an admirer of Zinn’s lefty outlook on the world from interviews Zinn did in the last years of his life, though I had never read any of his work. Finding out that my daughter is reading his signature book was apparently the encouragement I needed to read the book myself.

While the first edition of People’s History was written nearly 40 years ago and the last edition is over ten years old, the book is timely, and oddly comforting in these last weeks before the inauguration of Trump. I came away from People’s History with two guiding consolations. First, Trump is no aberration. His misogyny, nativism, racism, and venality have deep roots in the history of the United States. If this doesn’t seem like much of a consolation, I might put it another way: the country has been through crises like Trumpism before. Second, for all the suffering the Trump administration will cause millions of people, for all the theft of public goods that is coming, there is a countervailing force of decency in the American character as well. The courage of Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer, of Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, of Daniel Berrigan and César Chávez–and of millions of others–is available to us as well. We can fight, in many small and powerful ways, if decent Americans are willing to give up their self-satisfaction and passivity and security to stand up for our country.

While I was familiar with every period Zinn wrote about in People’s History, I don’t think I had ever seen all these periods stitched together into a single overarching vision. Basically, Zinn’s contention is that the true history of the United States is not defined by the actions of presidents and congresses who have worked at practically every turn to enrich a tiny economic elite–by preserving slavery, by massacring the natives, by invading Mexico and Cuba and The Philippines, by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and Iran. Rather, American history is made up of the often overlooked struggles of the oppressed, the working class, the unrepresented. It is a history of people fighting, over centuries sometimes, to be included in the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People.”

It’s an inspiring–if sometimes flawed–vision. I believe that what it offers, in a crowded field of history texts, is a truly alternative analysis of the history of the nation. Many critics have accused him of bias, though I would argue that what Zinn has done instead is abandon the pretense of objectivity that sometimes smothers the work of other historians. No historian, no human being, can be a thoroughly objective observer of the human experience. In telling any history, we leave neutrality behind as soon as we decide which events we will focus on and which ones we will omit.

And so many history texts, even those informed by the counter-cultural critique of history that came out of the 60s and 70s, still focus the actions of “the great men,” the Jeffersons and Jacksons and Roosevelts, with entire social movements of millions of ordinary people receiving comparatively little mention, or in some cases no mention at all. Zinn’s timely contribution is to argue that US History was not made by the Jeffersons and Jacksons and Roosevelts–that our elected leaders were responding to massive social and economic currents that they could barely influence, let alone control.

Presidents and congresses and supreme courts are led by the people, not the other way around. Unfortunately, according to Zinn, our elected leaders have usually been in thrall to what Occupy Wall Street popularized as “the 1%”: industrialists, financiers, speculators, robber barons. But frequently enough, a demand for justice will rise up from the roots of society with enough force that the elected leaders must listen and the law responds. The end of slavery, women’s suffrage, the 40-hour work week, the civil rights movement–all of these changes came, not from the courage of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Grant, or L.B.J., but in response to the demands of ordinary Americans. Those demands took decades to make themselves felt sometimes, and the success of those demands depended on the tremendous courage of millions of people, but nearly every advance that the US has made in social justice has been led from below, not from above.

One can work towards neutrality and fairness in writing by committing to telling as many sides of the story as one can–a very common, and admirable, approach among the historians I’ve read. But it’s also valuable to have someone standing outside that system, observing from without, making no claim to neutrality–someone who pulls back the curtain on the mainstream view of American history to expose the so-called historical consensus as a fiction. Zinn’s book has helped me see my country in a new way.

And he’s helped me get my game face on for the time to come: if I want a humane minimum wage for Americans, if I want truly public college education and single-payer health care, I have to fight for those things. Not because I expect the hamfisted con man we just elected to respond to my demands, but because he may make enough people angry enough to care. The day will come when we have a free and equitable society, ruled by justice and reason. It’s up to us to make it.

 

Happy Birthday to The Subway Test

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I’ve been sojourning two years now in the blogosphere. And slowly, very slowly, I believe I’m getting the hang of it. “Getting the hang of it,” in my case, means writing more and more what interests me, on the schedule that interests me, rather than trying to use blogging to present myself to the world as some kind of up-and-coming writer, or as a hauntingly original voice about to break through, or some other kind of self-promotional folly.

I’m happy to be here, happy to be publishing a story every once in a while, happy to share insights when they come to me. Thanks for reading, friends.