Reposted from Fantastic Metropolis, author China Mieville lays out a list of 50 science fiction and fantasy works he feels every socialist ought to read.
When I became a socialist I was also studying Sociology and Philosophy academically. I experienced something that seems to be a trend among many (though assuredly not all) folks who delve into these worlds: a sudden loss of interest in fiction.
Over time I only read non-fiction work and discovered something missing. Reading fiction again had a major impact on me, stimulating parts of my brain that had laid mostly dormant (or only experienced anything through film and TV shows). I feel invigorated from diving back in and also feel better equipped to deal with issues as a socialist (and as a sociologist and a philosopher).
I recommend Mieville’s recommendations because he is himself a fantastic science fiction author. There is a fantastic interview with him at the website of the International Socialist Review. He is the author of such fantastic works as The City & the City, Kraken and his new book that I’m holding in my hand in eager anticipation, Embassytown. Enjoy!
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America does not really want a black middle class. Some of the most bracing portions of Wilkerson’s book involve the vicious attacks on black ambition. When a black family in Chicago saves up enough to move out of the crowded slums into Cicero, the neighborhood riots. The father had saved for years for a piano for his kids. The people of Cicero tossed the piano out the window, looted his home, torched his apartment and then torched his building. In the South, when black people attempted to leave to earn better wages, they were often forcibly detained, and thus kept in slavery as late as the 1950s.
On a policy level, there is a persistent strain wherein efforts to aid The People are engineered in such a way wherein they help black people a lot less. It is utterly painful to read about the New Deal being left in the hands of Southern governments which were hostile to black people, and then to today see a significant chunk of health care, again, left in the hands of Southern governments which are hostile to black people. At this point, such efforts no longer require open bigotry. They are simply built into the system.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The American Case Against a Black Middle Class,” on his reactions to reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns. It really never gets taught in school that one of the ways that FDR got the New Deal to pass to allow significant chunks of it to not apply to black people. The Dixiecrats were a substantial portion of the Democrats’ congressional majorities, and their needs were catered to. Generally pretty quietly.
And it wasn’t just confined to the South. When blacks started moving north in greater numbers, plenty of people who were against the South’s Jim Crow laws weren’t willing to deal with a black family in their nice suburban neighborhood. Cicero was, I believe, a particularly bad example. But there was a general expectation that the creation of the vast American middle class in the decades after WWII was supposed to be the creation of a vast, white, middle class.
I’ve been meaning to write up more anecdotes about my life for this blog, just to have them written down somewhere, and to keep my writing skills in practice. This story happens to fall ten years ago, the end of October and beginning of November of 2002. But I was inspired to write about it for completely different reasons. One of my big interests is studying how cities work. And more recently I’ve been working on reading up the matter from a radical leftist perspective. The weekend before last I swung by the local radical bookstore and discovered a couple books along those lines.
The first, Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution, is decidedly theoretical in orientation. Haven’t gotten to it yet, but Lefebvre seems to have been the first to study urban geography from a Marxist perspective, so I’ve seen plenty of references to his work. The other, more relevant to this story, is Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City, which is all about anti-gentrification praxis. Collected from various zines and other underground publications that Lyle put out, it’s a bunch of tales of years of making San Francisco a more livable place for various sorts of outcasts, and less comfortable for the bourgeoisie. Totally my sort of thing.
On page 23, I ran across a typical sort of passage, describing the history of his late 1990s independent newspaper (distributed free out of stolen newspaper boxes) The Turd-Filled Donut:
But I think our most well known story, besides the Brown interview, was one with morally or politically upgrading benefits, “The 6th Street Treasure Hunt for Beer.” Greta and I hid a 6-pack of beer and the centerfold of Issue #5 featured a big map and clues to find it. It was actually pretty hard, but if you solved it—and all the clues were right on 6th Street—then you would’ve found the beer in a suitcase, floating in the bay, at the end of a rope tied to a ladder on Pier 7! That’s how the beer was guaranteed to be cold; it was in the icy bay! It turned out my bike messenger friends, Ravi and Sean, found the beer within a week, so we put more out there. One day, I went to check on the second 6-pack and I found the rope up on the dock next to a bunch of crushed Tecate cans. Someone had found that one too!
The T.F.D. broke a major story in an election year, and publicized resistance against gentrification ad redevelopment on 6th Street and in the Mission. It was read widely—at both the welfare office and in City Hall. Yet, mostly, when people stop me on the streets to talk about it, they just ask me when I’m going to hide some more beer.
Which is all totally great. But then I realized that, wait a second, I know who the Ravi and Sean he mentions are. That brings back memories. Ravi moved to Boston and worked with me for a year way back when I was a rookie bike messenger. Just to be sure, they’re mentioned in another story trying to extort more beer off the author, with the added description of being from “the laundromat in Oakland.” Ravi used to tell me stories about how they had six punks running a laundromat on MLK Boulevard in Oakland in exchange for living in the unused part of the building. Somewhere, I still have a copy of the zine they put out. Incidentally, the mentions in this book aren’t Ravi’s only claim to fame. He’s also mentioned in the thank you’s of some Shai Hulud albums.
As I said, Ravi was in Boston working as a bike messenger back in 2001 when my company hired him in October. I had started just before September 11th, which had then caused a huge drop in business. I was living at my parents house, having finally given up on college after five years, and this was the first job I had managed to find. And then, week later, there’s no money to be made. Having no expenses, I made it through the worst, and by late October we were actually hiring new people again. Ravi and some crazy older lady who didn’t last terribly long.
Somehow, those of us who were there managed to convince the boss not to hire additional people as things got busier again, simply working harder to cover the increased workload, and, as it’s a commission business, getting paid more. I’m still inordinately proud of how we managed to take a rookie company and turn it into something better. It wouldn’t last forever; bosses have a way of ruining anything the workers do for themselves, but that came later on. And Ravi was a key part of that amazing 2002 tight-knit crew we had. Don’t know how he did it, but we’d look at our numbers at the end of the day, and he was usually the top dog.
And the drinking. We would hit the bars all the damn time. Wednesday night darts at the Silhouette, Foley’s after work any day of the week, the Plough & Stars on Sundays when Matt’s band played. One of my favorite Ravi stories was him leaving a message on the office’s answering machine late one of those Sunday nights, slurring that “I can’t come to work Monday because… rock ‘n roll.” At some point, March of 2002, I think, we also added another amazing individual from San Francisco, Nate. He was friends with Ravi, and we assumed they knew each other from there, but had actually only met in Boston a month or two earlier. But Nate was also amazing, one of the only people (I’m just guessing here) with both a law degree and a full sleeve of self-applied stick and poke tattoos.
So, that was more or less the situation when October of 2002 rolled around, and I can get to the story I said I was going to tell way back up top there. That’s when Ravi’s friend Sean, the one mentioned in the One the Lower Frequencies quote, came to visit Boston for a bit. So, Ravi had hi friend from San Francisco staying with him, and I think he had recently broken up with (OK, got dumped after cheating on) his girlfriend. I don’t recall how Sean had gotten to Boston, but he didn’t have any firm plans for needing to go back home at any particular time.
But then, on a Friday afternoon in late October, I found out that Ravi had decided to move back to San Francisco. The following Saturday. Basically, he had no idea how he was going to pull it off, but eight days later he was goddam well going to be heading to the other side of the country. Hence the need for an “eight-day plan.” One order of business was easily dispatched with while we were all hanging out at the office for the usual after-work drinking. I think the conversation we had was almost verbatim the following:
“So when I move, do you want to take my apartment?”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Neither am I.”
And so, I was finally moving out of my parents’ house. It was about time. I had left college almost a year and a half before, and was pretty sick of it. I don’t know how I was born into a family of morning people. Some cruel joke that the world played on me. In any case, I had once been to Ravi’s place, to pass out on his couch after a night of drinking nowhere near my home, so it wasn’t like I was being entirely reckless in agreeing to move there in five seconds.
Big changes being afoot, let’s end part one of this story here for maximum cliffhanger value.
So why would we insist that the past exists apart from our thinking, writing, and teaching about it?
You might answer by saying that even before historians of class, gender, race, and sexuality built out the archive with new documents dredged from abandoned grottoes, subaltern groups were shaping the past from below, always already making history: workers did this, women did that, slaves and freedmen did it too, and eventually homosexuals got in the act. The relevant facts were always there, right in front of us, we just didn’t notice them. In short, the past didn’t change, our interpretations did.
Bullshit. The past changed because the facts changed because the world changed. You can put these nouns in any sequence you like. The past in question here began changing for good in the 1950s, when the whole history of Reconstruction had to be revisited (“revised”) because the NAACP got the attention of the Supreme Court and the Montgomery Improvement Association meanwhile got the attention of everybody else. When black folk became visible historical agents by organizing consumer boycotts, denouncing apartheid, and demanding the right to vote, the political past looked different, and so did the future, or rather the past looked different because the political future did. In fact, the past was, suddenly, different.
James Livingston, in a rather provocative essay over at the blog of the US Society of Intellectual History. “The past changed because the facts changed because the world changed” is a really interesting concept, challenging the way we think about what history is.
This essay is a clarification and broadening of his earlier essay reviewing (excoriating might be a better word) Paul Murphy’s The New Era, which actually looks to be quite a decent history of US political thought in the 1920s. That review thrust Murphy’s book into the unfortunate role of being the catalyst for Livingston’s rant about the way that history gets studied. The follow-up essay makes his criticisms more clearly, and without focusing on one particular book that he sees as an example of the problem.
Thought-provoking stuff, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.