To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2017

Are you a transhumanist? I am not. I reject transhumanism for the same reason I reject religion – both unrealistically crave immortality. The faithful feel their soul will leave their body upon death and move into another dimension. Transhumanists believe technology will someday copy their soul to a machine or clone body. Science has never found any evidence for souls. I’m confident our conscious self-awareness can’t be separated from our bodies. In fact, I believe our body is essential in creating our consciousness.

That said, I find transhumanism to be a fascinating philosophical topic. Transhumanism is a very popular theme in 21st-century science fiction, and a goal embraced by many in our high-tech culture. Religion is the old way people hope to escape death. Transhumanism is the new way of fulfilling that old hope. I think both reject the reality of our finite lives. Transhumanism is just another belief system that lets its believers avoid who we really are.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellTo Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell is a book about the future of humans I just finished. O’Connell, a journalist from Dublin traveled the world exploring transhumanistic endeavors by men and women whose goals feel more like science fiction than science. O’Connell is a skeptic of transhumanism, and so am I. However, wherever O’Connell went, he found brilliant, often eccentric people working hard on exciting projects. I thought it would be fun to find links to each of those endeavors and people he describes in the book.

I envy journalists who get to see in person the exciting events and people they write about. That’s why I love a good documentary. Seeing is believing, and O’Connell got to meet many far-out prophets of transhumanism. O’Connell’s book is well worth reading because he applies contextual history and philosophy to a growing belief system emerging our of technological culture. The men and women O’Connell interviews are the John the Baptists of Transhumanism.

Anyone who is interested in the future should enjoy this book, but especially science fiction readers and writers. I’m going to go chapter-by-chapter providing links to what O’Connell writes about. I envy him for being about to wander the globe to check out cutting-edge research.

System Crash

This first chapter deals with death and transhumanism. Transhumanists are people who seek everlasting life with the help of technology and not waiting on any promises from theoretical entities.

An Encounter

A Visitation

This was my least favorite chapter, about people who freeze themselves in hopes future medicine might give them life again, or transfer the contents of their brain to a new body or machine. We might eventually invent some kind of suspended animation, but I flat out disbelieve we can copy our conscious minds to another body.

Once Out of Nature

A Short Note on the Singularity

Talkin’ AI Existential Risk Blues

A Short Note on the First Robots

Mere Machines

Science and Invention 1924 May interior art

Biology and Its Discontents

Faith

Please Solve Death

The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life

JWH

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

The Shock of Suprise Medical Bills

by James Wallace Harris,

Having great health insurance doesn’t mean you won’t get billed for bankrupting procedures. Hospital stays are a frenzy of billable codes. True costs are revealed after the bills come in. Expensive procedures are sometimes done by non-networked doctors while you’re unconscious. You can be told to do things your insurance won’t cover. The costs of drugs are skyrocketing. What if you need medicine that drains your bank accounts? Do you choose poverty or living?

An American Sickness by Elisabeth RosenthalI’m reading An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal. Rosenthal carefully chronicles how medical costs have risen since the advent of health insurance. Most people won’t read this book because they don’t worry about the future. They won’t start worrying until a certified summons arrives via FedEx from a collection agency lawyer notifying them of their court date.

I worry about the future all the time, which is why I love books like An American Sickness. It bothers me that my country is so third-world when it comes to healthcare. Conservative scream about the dangers of socialized medicine, but they are only mouthpieces for the plutocrats who make billions off of the healthcare crisis. So many other nations around the world have practical healthcare policies that are affordable. Americans are told other countries have horrible healthcare, but that doesn’t appear to be true. The United States has premier medical treatment if you have the money. Since plutocrats have money, that’s all they care about. They don’t care about us.

Reading An American Sickness is about the unfairness of our system. Our healthcare system is based on greed, and most folks ignore this outrage as long as they don’t see it on the bills they receive. The medical industrial complex is in cahoots with the health insurance industry. Both are making obscene amounts of money. As long as we’re not personally billed for those huge costs we choose to ignore their crimes.

Doctor, hospital, and drug costs are now growing too big to ignore – so we do need to look at what they’re doing. And some of those costs are being passed onto us. Rosenthal has done a great job of packaging what we need to know in one easy-to-read volume. Her book is painful to study because it will make you feel helpless. Our system is thoroughly corrupted. However, she does offer knowledge and advice that can help in little ways at the personal level.

Interestingly, the corruption works within the rules. The unethical audacity of the greedy scam the system usually within the laws. But like Wall Street, they are clever about finding loopholes, getting laws changed, or buying off congressmen (in perfectly legal ways). The reason why Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to repeal Obamacare is that they don’t want medical costs contained. Healthcare will generate trillions in wealth if we allow the greedy free reign. Great for fat cats siphoning off wealth from everyone else, but rather hard on us ordinary tabbies.

Elisabeth Rosenthal is the Editor-in-Chief for Kaiser Health News. Here’s a sample of her writing online:

If you aren’t ready to read her book, here are some useful articles to read online. But they just scratch the surface compared to the coverage in the book.

I have a feeling this subject is boring to most people. Worrying out healthcare costs is like worrying about identity thief. I asked a bunch of my friends what they were doing about the Equifax brouhaha and most said nothing. I think we tend to put things off until a crowbar slams across our hands. We’re already in a crisis and its starting to pain many. The Republicans are once again trying to repeal Obamacare. Don’t wait until it’s too late to react.

JWH

 

My Favorite 100 Books Out of 1,004 Read

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 17, 2017

I’ve read 1,004 books since 1983 when I began my second reading log. I kept another log in the early 1970s where I read 495 books during an 18-month period when I dropped out of college trying to find myself. I read then mostly a mountain of science fiction which provided little enlightenment. I often read a book a day during my K-12 years. I wish I had kept a reading log of them. I guess I’ve read between 2000-3000 books since 1962. But how much did they add to my life? I’d guess 10% affected me in a lasting way. Which suggests I could cut out 90% of my reading, but I’d truly miss another 10-20%.

Looking over my current log I find many forgettable titles. A few hundred were great books, and another few hundred were entertaining page-turners, but the rest were time wasters. My father often yelled at me when growing up, “Get your goddamn head out of that goddamn book and go out and goddamn play.” He was probably right most of the time.

My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul has a book out, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues where she writes about her reading list. Bob is “Book Of Books.” I wish I had written a book about my reading history. She started her list in 1988, so we cover roughly the same time period. I haven’t read My Life with Bob yet because I’m waiting on the Audible edition that comes out on the 26th. From reading the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon, and reviews I can tell we’re kindred spirits. I’ll be listening to her book at a great time because I’m reevaluating my own life-long reading habits.

I’m trying to develop a refined approach to reading and buying books. I’m choosing to read fewer books. I love being a bookworm, but I need to use my time wisely, now that my supply of remaining years is dwindling.

I’ve been studying my list of 1,004 books and I have reduced them to the 100 titles that mean the most to me. Some books are written by favorite authors and represent a jumping off point for many additional titles. Even though I read these books from 1983-2017, they really represent time traveling across the last two centuries.

There were another fifty books I wanted to cram into my Top 100, but I was ruthless. I could write a blog post or chapter of a book about each of the novels below. In fact, I started to do just that, but then I realized I would have taken me months. So, all you get is a list.

The titles below represent who I am. Reading them is how I’ve programmed myself since my early thirties. I’ve read many books by most of these authors, and I’ve read some of these titles below more than once, some many times, and will reread them in my waning years. I’ve listened to most of them on audio.

There are a few titles that made a great impact on me years ago. I just had to list them, but I won’t reread them because they are dated. Over time this list will distill into another list because my memory can only handle so many books. In five years it might only run 75 titles.

The biggest surprise was in an early draft I had six books by Bart D. Ehrman on Christian history. I’m an atheist. But those six books model studying history wonderfully. If I had drawn up this list in the year 2000 it would have been mostly novels, and most of them would have been science fiction. My soul is slowly shifting to nonfiction and classics.

[I’m going to link certain titles to essays I’ve written or books on Amazon which explain why these books are worth reading, or just a link to the book on Amazon.]

 

Daniel DeFoe Robinson Crusoe 1719
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice 1813
Mary Shelley Frankenstein 1818
Henry David Thoreau Walden 1854
Charles Dickens Great Expectations 1861
George Elliot Middlemarch 1871
Jules Verne The Mysterious Island 1874
Anthony Trollope The Way We Live Now 1875
Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina 1877
Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island 1883
H. G. Wells The Time Machine 1895
Bram Stoker Dracula 1897
Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie 1900
Edith Wharton The House of Mirth 1905
Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes 1912
Zane Grey Riders of the Purple Sage 1912
L. Frank Baum Patchwork Girl of Oz 1913
Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises 1926
D. H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover 1928
Olaf Stapledon Last and First Men 1930
George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949
George R. Stewart Earth Abides 1949
J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 1951
Ralph Ellison Invisible Man 1952
William Golding Lord of the Flies 1954
Isaac Asimov The Naked Sun 1957
Jack Kerouac On the Road 1957
Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit-Will Travel 1958
Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1958
Philip K. Dick Confessions of a Crap Artist 1959
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird 1960
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar 1963
Jerzy Kosinski The Painted Bird 1965
Larry McMurtry The Last Picture Show 1966
Paul L. Briand, Jr. In Search of Paradise 1966
Robert Sheckley Mindswap 1966
Samuel R. Delany Empire Star 1966
Charles Portis True Grit 1968
John Brunner Stand On Zanzibar 1968
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five 1969
Robert M. Perzig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 1974
Stephen Weinberg The First Three Minutes 1977
Gregory Benford Timescape 1980
Tracy Kidder The Soul of a New Machine 1981
Stanley Karnow Vietnam: A History 1983
Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera 1985
Ken Grimwood Replay 1986
Richard Elliot Friedman Who Wrote the Bible? 1987
Dan Simmons Hyperion 1989
Alexei and Cory Panshin The World Beyond the Hill 1990
Harold Bloom The Western Canon 1994
Philip Pullman The Golden Compass 1995
Mary Doria Russell The Sparrow 1996
Robert Zubrin The Case for Mars 1996
Barbara Goldsmith Other Powers 1998
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 1999
David Sedaris Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim 2000
David Hajdu Positively 4th Street 2001
Sue Monk Kidd The Secret Life of Bees 2001
Yann Martel The Life of Pi 2001
Steven Pinker The Blank Slate 2002
Richard E. Rubenstein Aristotle’s Children 2003
David Maraniss They Marched Into Sunlight 2004
Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus 2005
Jared Diamond Collapse 2005
Bill Bryson The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 2006
Lee Smolin The Trouble with Physics 2006
John Matteson Eden’s Outcasts 2007
Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Black Swan 2007
Malcolm Gladwell The Outliers 2008
Ellen Ruppel Shell Cheap 2009
Gail Collins When Everything Changed 2009
Kristof and WuDunn Half the Sky 2009
Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl 2009
Robert J. Sawyer Wake/Watch/Wonder 2009
Edmund de Waal The Hare with the Amber Eyes 2010
Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns 2010
Oreskes and Conway Merchants of Doubt 2010
Oliver Sacks The Mind’s Eye 2010
Rebecca Skloot The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 2010
David McCullough The Greater Journey 2011
James Gleick The Information 2011
Jo Walton Among Others 2011
S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon 2011
Lawrence M. Krauss A Universe from Nothing 2012
Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve 2012
Alan Weisman Countdown 2013
Doris Kearns Goodwin The Bully Pulpit 2013
Elizabeth Gilbert The Signature of All Things 2013
Atul Gawande Being Mortal 2014
Celeste Ng Everything I Never Told You 2014
Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction 2014
Naomi Klein This Changes Everything 2014
Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century 2014
Kim Stanley Robinson Aurora 2015
Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me 2015
Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens/Homo Deus 2015
Nancy Isenberg White Trash 2016
Peggy Orenstein Girls & Sex 2016
Susan Faludi In the Darkroom 2016

JWH

Medicare-for-All Two Years At A Time

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 15, 2017

I’m surprised Christians can call America a Christian nation when looking at our healthcare system. It’s greed over compassion. Our current system is built around profiteering on misery. The poor are left to die of neglect, and folks in the middle-class are being extorted at scalpel point. And rich get richer on the sick and dying. Big Medicine, Big Pharma, and Big Insurers are in cahoots with Congress to produce Big Billionaires while avoiding any kind of Christian or humanistic values and forcing doctors to corrupt their Hippocratic Oath.

medicare_card_larger

The rising cost of healthcare is going to bankrupt society, both individually and collectively. Republicans are hell-bent to keep this Ponzi scheme going at all costs. It’s time to rethink the rules of the game.

I’m reading An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal. She reports, “Medicare uses 98 percent of its funding for healthcare and only 2 percent for administration.” Private insurers are nowhere near this efficient. And Rosenthal’s book gives a history of how private healthcare insurance corporations are escalating medical costs for both individuals and for the GDP.

Many people are now talking about Medicare-for-All. Of course, politicians have no idea how to fund it or phase it in. I suggest we do it slowly, two years at a time. One year at a time for children while concurrently pushing the traditional enrollment age for adults earlier one year at a time. This would give private insurers time to either come up with a truly competitive system or be phased out. If in 20 years private enterprise can’t provide an effective alternative we go 100% government run.

The schedule would look something like this, phasing in these age groups:

2020 1 64
2021 2 63
2022 3 62
2023 4 61
2024 5 60
2025 6 59
2026 7 58
2027 8 57
2028 9 56
2029 10 55
2030 11 54
2031 12 53
2032 13 52
2033 14 51
2034 15 50
2035 16 49
2036 17 48
2037 18 47
2038 19 46
2039 20 45

JWH

How Should We Act After Reading A Great Book?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 11, 2017

How should we act after learning something deeply important? If we read about evil, what should we do? Just start reading our next book? Should books change the way we live? Books teach us about reality, but what can we do with that knowledge?

I was emotionally shaken by reading In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. The book had a tremendous impact on me because I read it just after the violence in Charlottesville and much of In the Darkroom deals with the history of the extreme right in Hungary before WWII and the resurgence of extreme right nationalism in modern day Hungary. Like Charlottesville, In the Darkroom reveals extremely ugly aspects of reality.

On the surface, this book is about a daughter learning that her estranged father has become a woman. Her father, Steven, a Jew from Hungary barely escaped being exterminated by Nazis as a teen, returns to his childhood homeland, just as anti-Jewish fervor was again reshaping Hungarian politics. The parallels to our current political landscape are horrifying.

I often find when finishing a great book I want to know more. I want to use what I’ve learned. I even wrote an essay about this craving for Book Riot, “Researched Rereading.” In the Darkroom left me with many unanswered questions. So, this essay will try to illustrate what I do after reading a specific book. Usually, it’s little more than read about the same topic, recommend the book to friends, or review it here on my blog.

In the Darkroom is so complex and rich that this is my fifth new draft attempting to capture my exact feelings. None of the earlier versions succeeded. I’m not sure this one will either. I believe In the Darkroom may require writing a book length reply to do it justice. Sadly, I don’t think it’s getting the attention it deserves, even though it was on many of the best-book-lists of 2016.

I keep wishing I could list all the important themes in the book but I don’t know how to phrase each for a bullet point. To say it’s about a man becoming a woman is misleading, although that’s part of the book. Faludi’s story is deeply psychological. It’s about identity and survival. Faludi’s Jewish father survived the Nazis sometimes by pretending to be a Nazi. Many times in his long life he pretended to be someone else to survive.

How do we survive our mundane lives, do we pretend too?

After reading In the Darkroom I wasn’t sure if Stefánie Faludi was a woman or pretending to be a woman to survive the final decade of his/her life. Steven became Stefánie, but her story is not like the typical transgender people I’ve met or read about. Susan Faludi’s father is a unique person that defies analysis. In the Darkroom is a case history of a psychological condition that is endlessly revealing but impossible to define.

Most reviewers focused on In the Darkroom being about a woman discovering her father having gender reassignment surgery at 76, and then writing a book about her dad’s life. And, In the Darkroom is part memoir and part biography. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Susan and Stefi Faludi

Because both the father and daughter are named Faludi, I’m going to sometimes use their first names to reference the two. Because her father had three names and two genders in his/her lifetime, I’ll use the name from the period being discussed. Susan’s father was born István Károly Friedman on November 1, 1927, in Budapest, Hungary. Susan’s father died Stefánie Faludi at 87, in Budapest in 2015. Susan was born in Queens, New York in 1959, and knew her father as Steven. Susan’s parents divorced in 1977 and she saw little of her father after that until 7/7/2004 when she got an email from her father saying he was now a she and living back in Budapest. In the Darkroom is about Susan’s many trips to Budapest between 2004-2015 getting to know her father, an enigmatic person who did everything possible to hide his/her identity.

Susan grew up knowing Steven, a highly competitive very masculine man. She did not know of István, or his Jewish heritage and extended family. So her book is about Hungarian family history in the 1930s and 1940s, and 21st-century Hungarian history and culture.

As I read In the Darkroom I wondered if Susan’s father was a psychopath, but Susan doesn’t explore that issue. I did find this paragraph from Psychology Today that fits István/Steven/Stefánie quite well:

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

But István/Steven/Stefánie defies any singular labeling.  Susan’s detective story to unravel her father’s secrets is far more than just a story of having a transgender parent. Susan’s father had a profoundly complicated and fascinating life that perfectly illustrates that fact is indeed stranger than fiction. In the Darkroom contains countless seeds for novels and nonfiction books if other writers wish to spout them, as well as a goldmine for grad students wanting Ph.D. dissertation ideas.

In the Darkroom by Susan FaludiThe hardback edition does not include photographs. The photograph shown above is widely used on the internet, and I assumed it was released for the publication of the book and safe to copy. Faludi writes for the NY TimesIn My World, Photographs Lie,” which includes a slideshow of photos that are now in the paperback edition. They are not enough! And they do lie. But words deceive too. Susan constantly describes photographs throughout the book which I’m sure most readers crave to see too. When I finally saw some of those photographs they weren’t like I imagined. Steven was a photographer and cinematographer, so it seems odd to leave out photographs in a book about that part of his life. And the book uses the word “darkroom” from the title as a multidimensional metaphor. However, no amount of Googling has provided enough photographs to fill my desire to see what Susan wrote about.

Ultimately, In the Darkroom is about identity and not just transgender identity. István/Steven/Stefánie never says she felt female from childhood like other transgender female memoirs I’ve read. And most of the book is really about István/Steven/Stefánie conflict between being Jewish and wanting to be Hungarian, even Magyar Hungarian. Magyars persecuted the Jews before and during WWII, and again today. Read Susan Faludi’s “Hungary’s sharp rightward turn is a warning to America” in The Guardian. Jobbik is an extreme right political party in Hungary whose success should scare Americans, especially after what we saw in Charlottesville.

In the Darkroom could be a supplemental text for any graduate course about current day fascism or how racial and nationalistic hatred overwhelmed Hungary in WWII. I could imagine a professor asking students to list similarities between German and Hungarian nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, and what we see with the Alt-Right today. Just read Susan Faludi’s piece in The Baffler, “Pity, O God, the Republican.”

One of the constant ironies in the book is Susan’s feminism in conflict with her father’s concept of being female. Joy Ladin at Lilith, a Jewish feminist publication, wrote, “What’s Wrong Here? One Daughter’s Rendering of Her Dad’s Gender Transition,” and felt Faludi might be misleading readers about transgender psychology because Susan doesn’t warn readers her father is atypical. Ladin worries Faludi is presenting anti-trans stereotypes. Faludi does profile a transgender woman that cared for her father after surgery, and who had doubts of about choices she made. Faludi also includes research on transgender people who end up being unhappy. However, Faludi is very careful to explain how her father did an end-run around all the psychological guidelines used for people electing gender reassignment surgery. Stefánie is so unique that nothing should be generalized about her story.

Even though In the Darkroom is a masterpiece, it left me wanting to know more. Of all the family Susan interviews and profiles, why did she leave out her mother and brother? Faludi chronicles her encounters with her father like a journalist carefully documenting evidence and sources, yet I don’t feel we get Susan’s reactions and feelings. And why is she maintaining dual citizenship with a country that was so horrible to her family? We get hints that Susan is like her father, and like her father, she hides her identity too. And like her father, I wonder about the inner identity that Susan hides from us readers.

István/Steven/Stefánie is a master manipulator of people, (the reason I wonder if he/she was a psychopath). Susan constantly shows the reader how her father tried to manipulate her and everyone else. I believe Ladin’s worries are unfair. Susan Faludi does an excellent job separating her father from the typical person, be it male, female, Jew, American, Hungarian, etc.

The real question is whether István/Steven/Stefánie Faludi knew himself/herself. István/Steven/Stefánie was so obsessive-compulsive his/her whole life about secrecy that it’s hard to accept what we do know. Somehow István/Steven/Stefánie was able to drag a lifetime of possessions with her over three continents. When Susan visited Budapest she found rooms recreated that she had seen in America as a child, as if István/Steven/Stefánie was the curator of a museum devoted to his/herself. I wished Faludi had included photographs of all these rooms and possessions, and from the time Steven was a photographer in Brazil in the 1940s.

The hardest part of the story to grasp is István/Steven/Stefánie feelings about being Jewish. At one point, Stefánie describes herself as an “overdressed shiksa.” She has chosen to be a woman and appears to identify as a Magyar. Both identities that have persecuted István/Steven/Stefánie over a lifetime. This is rather amazing because Stefánie has overcome two physical barriers – gender and ethnicity – to create an outward appearing identity of her own making. In the dark room of her mind, she invents what she wants people to see, even her daughter.

It’s a shame István/Steven/Stefánie didn’t keep a journal, but then, that would have been too revealing.

Reading In the Darkroom makes me wonder about my own identity. I don’t think about gender, race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity when it comes to my identity. I side with scientific and liberal thought. I might tell people I’m a liberal or atheist, but what does that mean? I’d guess the best one-word description for myself is bookworm.

Books have to stand on their own, and In the Darkroom does. However, any great book should introduce the reader to a new path into reality to explore. And In the Darkroom does that too. My craving to know more really boils down to wanting to ask all the people involved my own questions. But I can’t. The best I can do is look for interviews other people have done.

All of these are polite interviews which are typical for authors while doing book promotion. Faludi is famous for writing controversial books on complicated subjects, including Backlash and Stiffed. In the Darkroom has fathoms of depth to it. I’d love to read an academic anthology collecting essays that dissect it, but it’s unlikely such a book will ever be assembled.

But I still haven’t answered my title question. A great book should change us so we act differently. The reason I was so upset at reading In the Darkroom is the same reason why millions got upset over the news from Charlottesville. What can we do about people who hate? Susan Faludi’s book is about what her father did. He survived where many in his family didn’t. I don’t want to survive the Alt-Right by his method. The tragedy of In the Darkroom is Stefánie is not a likable person even though she is incredibly remarkable. I don’t want to change myself, I want the people that hate to change. Is that even possible?

JWH

A New Kind of Bestseller: WE ARE LEGION (WE ARE BOB)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 8, 2017

[reprinted and slightly updated from Book Riot]

Digital technology is again disrupting the rules of book selling. Ebook self-publishing allowed Andy Weir, Hugh Howey, E. L. James, among others, to become best-selling authors. Now Dennis E. Taylor has written an under-the-radar bestseller by selling first to Audible.com with his science fiction novel We Are Legion (We Are Bob). The book is relatively unknown because Taylor is still selling self-published printed copies on Amazon, but it’s a huge hit on Audible.

We Are Legion We Are Bob by Dennis E. TaylorWe Are Legion (We Are Bob) came out 9/20/16 on Audible. As of 9/8/17 has 36,360 ratings, with an average score of 4.7 out of 5 stars. It’s sequel, For We Are Many came out 4/18/17 and has 22,635 ratings with an average of 4.8 out of 5. The final book in the trilogy, All These Worlds, before it was released on 8/8/17 was at 5th place out of 27,980 science fiction titles at Audible based on sales, just after Ready Player One, The Dark Tower, A Game of Thrones, and The X-Files: Cold Cases, all titles with movie tie-ins. In comparison, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, just a few titles above the current position of We Are Legion (We Are Bob) has 29,484 ratings with an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars. 1984 by George Orwell only has 13,851 ratings with a score of 4.4 out of 5 stars.

What the hell did Taylor write to create such a success? The book is a lot of fun! It’s not a literary masterpiece, doesn’t really have a plot, and most of the characters are the same person. Yet, it works very well as entertaining science fiction. Ray Porter, who narrates the trilogy on audio, is pitch-perfect for the job. I expect he’s a major factor in the success of the Bobiverse trilogy.

I’m also wondering if Audible and audio books are changing the way bestsellers are created. I was recently doing statistics on the way books are rated on Goodreads, Amazon, and Audible (all companies owned by Amazon). Generally, Goodreads has the most ratings for books by far, but that’s to be expected. It’s a site for collecting and rating books. But books on Audible generally get way more ratings than Amazon. Are more bookworms listening than reading? Then I realized that people listen to books on their smartphones. When a book ends empty stars pop up to rate the book – almost impossible to ignore. It’s just more convenient to rate books on Audible. Far few readers go back to Amazon to rate a title.

Still, how much does Audible influence the success of books? We Are Legion (We Are Bob) proves Audible by itself can create a bestseller. Of course, it takes a good book too. Again, are more bookworms listening to their books than reading them?

I bought We Are Legion (We Are Bob) because I told my friend Mike I was in the mood for a new science fiction novel that would be as fun as the science fiction I first discovered as a teen fifty years ago. He said he just bought We Are Legion (We Are Bob) for that very reason. Overall, I got a big Sci-Fi kick out the story. Mike thought it was fun but slight, but he’s more of a critical thinker than I am. There is something very definite about We Are Legion (We Are Bob) that’s likable.

My guess is the book was written to push all the buttons science fiction fans have for loving science fiction. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is science fictionally recursive. (You might need a high Geek score to understand it.) Dennis E. Taylor is the James Thurber of science fiction, turning all of us into Walter Mittys imagining ourselves having Bob’s Big Sci-Fi adventure. Of course, it’s the Jimiverse in my mind. And even though this story has a male POV – there are damn few women characters – plenty of women readers love the book at Goodreads. Evidently, women readers have no trouble renaming Bob after themselves for their own personal fantasies.

The book only gets 11,834 ratings with an average score of 4.33 out of 5 stars at Goodreads. One of the few books I found with fewer ratings at Goodreads than Audible (32,137). I wonder if that’s because more of the people rating the book at Goodreads only read it. Around 120 people are adding this title to their Goodreads library each day. Compare that to New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, a recent SF book that’s getting a lot of mainline press. It’s adding around 60-75 titles a day currently, and several hundred a day just after it came out.

So Dennis E. Taylor is doing extremely well.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) has a serial problem-solving plot like The Martian by Andy Weir, and tons of geeky pop culture references like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Does that mean there’s a chance that We Are Legion (We Are Bob) will be made into a movie?

Taylor’s story has just about every science fictional idea known to science fiction. I don’t want to list them all because it might create spoilers. But yes, I think the Bobiverse could be made into a movie, and should.

JWH