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Non-West European nationalists don’t tend to like Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment (HA) database.

For instance, as relates to Russia: Why is Marconi propped over Popov? Where is Lodygin? Where is Bulgakov!?

Let’s answer that very last question.

It would certainly be very useful to see Murray’s assessments of the most eminent Russians correlates with Russian assessments. If the correlations are low, then perhaps the critics are correct about his alleged Western Eurocentrism. If, however, the correlations are high, though, then he should probably be taken seriously. Especially if these correlations are attained in more “subjective” fields such as literature, which are separated by a language barrier (e.g. Pushkin is far harder to translate well into English than Dostoevsky) and 70 years of fraught international relations.

Fortunately, I came across a list of the most influential Russian writers as tallied by the Russian Book Chamber (RBC), the national bibliographic agency.

This allows us to compare Murray’s list to one compiled by a major institutional authority.

A few years ago, the RBC tallied the relative shares of publications accruing to literary authors from 1917-2012. Here is the correlation with the HA:

murray-rbc-eminence-russian-writers

And yet despite all these problems, there is a remarkable r=0.79 agreement between the two lists. Including on Bulgakov’s absence from both!

Yes, there are many things that I myself find strange about both lists. The absence of Kuprin and Esenin from HA is somewhat unexpected. The absence of figures such as Nabokov, Sholokhov, Babel, Ehrenberg, and Zamyatin from the RBC list is even weirder, as is, for that matter, Nabokov’s very low rating on HA. (The absence of Derzhavin and Lomonosov from the RBC list would be strange, but RBC does state that it only only covers 19th-early 20th century writers). And the absence of Bulgakov from both lists is genuinely absurd.

Even so, the numbers are what they are, and so far as I’m concerned, it confirms the legitimacy of Murray’s assessments with respect to Russian accomplishment.

***

HA & RBC Lists Compared

Author RBC HA
A.S. Pushkin 10.29% 30.05
L.N. Tolstoy 7.93% 40.53
M. Gorky 7.05% 18.82
A.P. Chekhov 5.48% 24.01
A.N. Tolstoy 4.15% 7.30
N.V. Gogol 4.08% 26.03
I.S. Turgenev 4.00% 24.30
M.Y. Lermontov 3.58% 12.48
F.M. Dostoevsky 3.10% 40.20
N.A. Nekrasov 2.34% 5.84
I.A. Bunin 2.29% 5.01
V.V. Mayakovsky 2.23% 16.29
V.G. Korolenko 1.64% 3.15
A.A. Blok 1.57% 11.31
N.S. Leskov 1.49% 7.30
A.N. Ostrovsky 1.42% 5.34
V.Y. Bryusov 1.40% 4.93
B.L. Pasternak 1.39% 11.76
K.D. Balmont 1.18% 2.48
F.I. Tyutchev 1.15% 3.38
A.A. Fet 1.11% 2.71
I.A. Goncharov 1.11% 7.95
A.A. Akhmatova 1.07% 4.73
A. Bely (Bugayev) 1.00% 7.70
L.N. Andreev 0.86% 5.42
F.K. Sologub 0.86% 3.15
V.M. Garshin 0.83% 2.01
A.K. Tolstoy 0.83% 2.38
A.S. Griboedov 0.80% 4.82
E.A. Baratynskyi 0.66% 1.93
O.E. Mandelstam 0.65% 2.29
A.I. Herzen 0.65% 5.46
N.G. Chernyshevsky 0.58% 4.43
M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin 0.44% 6.12
D.S. Merezhkovsky 0.43% 6.15
A.V. Koltsov 0.41% 2.49
A.F. Pisemsky 0.13% 2.28

Appear Only in HA

Author HA
Karamzin, Nikolai 6.52
Ehrenberg, Ilya 5.00
Babel, Isaak 4.33
Derzhavin, Gavril 4.25
Lomonosov, Mikhail 4.19
Zoshchenko, Mikhail 4.11
Lenz, Jakob 4.07
Sholokhov, Mikhail 4.04
Krylov, Ivan 3.94
Fedin, Konstantine 3.77
Zamyatin, Yevgeny 3.51
Fonvizin, Denis 3.09
Aksakov, Sergey 2.91
Nabokov, Vladimir 2.68
Radishchev, Alexander 2.42
Katayev, Valentin 2.31
Olesha, Yuri 1.52

Appear Only in RBC

Author RBC
A.I. Kuprin 2.42%
D.N. Mamin-Sibiryak 2.01%
S.A. Esenin 1.24%
V.A. Zhukovsky 1.00%
I.F. Annensky 0.88%
N.S. Gumilev 0.88%
P.P. Ershov 0.87%
M.I. Tsvetaeva 0.81%
V.F. Odoevsky 0.79%
I.S. Shmelev 0.71%
Z.N. Gippius 0.66%
V.I. Ivanov 0.64%
D.I. Harms 0.62%
M.A. Kuzmin 0.60%
M.A. Voloshin 0.52%
A.A. Pogorelsky 0.47%
N.G. Garin-Mikhailovsky 0.44%
V.F. Khodasevich 0.38%
A.M. Remizov 0.35%
G.I. Uspensky 0.35%
D.V. Grigorovich 0.35%
P.A. Vyazemsky 0.28%
K.N. Batiushkov 0.28%
A.I. Vvedensky 0.28%
G.V. Ivanov 0.27%
I. Severyanin 0.27%
O.N. Klyuyev 0.24%
B.K. Zaitsev 0.20%
V. Khlebnikov 0.20%
A.V. Druzhinin 0.17%
A.B. Mariengof 0.14%
R. Ivnev 0.13%
N.G. Pomyalovsky 0.12%

.

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Human Achievement, Literature, Russia 
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Note: Major spoilers through to and including the fifth ASoIaF book.

This series is commonly considered to be the archetypical Crapsack World , in which life is short, nasty, and brutal, and hardly anybody “bad” ever gets their just desserts while the innocent suffer.

However, if you really get to thinking about the various deaths and fates of A Song of Ice and Fire – illustrated in morbid elegance for the show by the Beautiful Deaths series – you quickly realize that there such an astounding degree of poetic justice that if anything it is closer to a traditional morality tale than the grimdark nightmare it is so commonly believed to be.

Consider.

Robert Baratheon is a drunk, fat, stupid pig. He gets killed by a pig. He even appreciates the humor of the situation before he dies.

Viserys suborned everything to his goal of becoming king, becoming cruel and insane in the process. He ended up getting crowned, though not quite in the way he expected to.

Balon Greyjoy dreamed of returning to the old ways, and put those plans in action once the Seven Kingdoms fragmented. He met his Drowned God sooner than he anticipated.

Lysa Arryn, paranoid towards everyone, was murdered by the one person she trusted; and in the same way she had executed dozens of others at the whim of her mentally ill son.

Khal Drogo. A steppe warlord in his prime brought down not by arms or sorcery, but by a common infection of a minor wound.

Joffrey, the Mountain, Vargo Hoat – grade A psychopaths one and all – meet exceedingly sticky, humiliating, and painful deaths.

Eddard Stark. Even this pillar of “white” morality in a sea of “gray” and “black” ultimately fell to karmic blowback. He got executed on a misunderstanding. Where did we see that before? In the prologue, where he disbelieved Gared’s stories and summarily executed him as a deserter. Recall that he did not even attempt to verify his story with the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Both were ultimately undone for being unable to handle a dark secret – and both died by the same blade, Eddard’s Ice.

Tywin. The man who regards guaranteeing the survival and future prosperity of his House as his ultimate goal in life, and lets no ethical concerns get in the way of it, ends up getting murdered by his own son and leaving no clear successor to Casterley Rock. He won many battles, but lost the war of his life – a “war” at which the vast majority of people succeed at without giving it much thought at all.

Even those characters who survive (for now), surprisingly frequently, get appropriate comeuppances.

Tyrion murders Tywin. In the process, he confirms himself as a kinslayer beyond any lingering shadow of a doubt – but it is all the more ironic that it’s quite possible he saved the father he hated so much from a much more agonizing death, if the popular theory that the Red Viper had poisoned him before his duel with The Mountain is correct. In the process, to add to the irony, he “rescued” Tywin from the consequences of his own cruelty and brutality many years ago.

Jorah trafficked in slaves. He becomes a slave. And all because of oneitis.

Theon was in a difficult situation, between a rock and a hard place, an unwilling Third Culture Kid in a world of savage tribal loyalties. But he could have perhaps managed to navigate himself out of it if it were not for his overweening ego and superiority/inferiority complex. His fate is to have his personality, his ego, erased – and at the hands of Ramsay Snow no less, who like Theon is also a self-obsessed “outsider” – if an immeasurably crueler and more malignant one.

Sansa was giddy for a man she didn’t know, overlooking the numerous signs he was a grade A psychopath. Her award was to get to know him entirely too well.

Jaime defined himself, in large part, through his skill with the sword. He lost his right hand – the same hand he had used to push Bran Stark out of a window while a guest at Winterfell. Cersei, among other pathologies, had a ridiculously inflated sense of self. She got paraded naked around King’s Landing.

Jon Snow. As with Ned Stark, this may elicit howls of outrage downvotes, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. He executed Janos Slynt for treason and insubordination. Slynt, of course, was an excessively nasty man, and there were no tears shed for him; in any case, it was an entirely legal and indeed the correct thing to do. But then he wanted to get involved in political squabbles that were, strictly speaking, not of the Night’s Watch business. But too bad for him, the Night’s Watch is an exceedingly strict organization, and unlike his first attempt to return to politics south of the Wall, this time he didn’t limit that involvement just to himself, but invited all who would follow along with him. And for this he got a half dozen daggers in his guts. Of course, we know the caveats, we still sympathize with him… but even here, at some level, what happened to him was not really “unjust.”

At least by what passes for justice in Westeros.

tl;dr: A Song of Ice and Fire is commonly viewed as a deeply cynical series in which heroes die, the innocent suffer, and evil prospers. To the contrary, in a remarkably large number of cases – more, even, than in many much more “optimistic” works – people do get what they “deserve.” Or if not, then at least the principle of “what goes round, comes around,” is frequently demonstrated.

GRRM is a sort of Jigsaw.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Fantasy, Game of Thrones, Literature 
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So we hear from the blog that is not a blog that The Winds of Winter isn’t going to be finished before HBO launches its sixth season this April and decidedly outpaces events in the books.

This should not have come as a surprise and here is the graph – so far as I can tell originally posted last year on /r/dataisbeautiful – that demonstrates why:

page-counts-of-popular-book-series

Accoring to the graph, the anticipated date of The Winds of Winter was 2017. So getting it finished by the beginning of 2016 was always going to be a longshot. It is however the case that Books 4-5 were marked by an artificial delay due to timeline consistency problems, so we can still be reasonably optimistic for delivery sometime this year. (If I had to make a New Year-style prediction on it I would say 60%; and 80% by 2017).

You don’t any particularly convoluted (Great Forks) or pessimistic (he lost interest) theories to explain why this is happening.

First, the books George R. R. Martin writes are BIG. The original A Game of Thrones is also the shortest at 704 pages, the latest A Dance with Dragons is 1056 pages in the mass paperbacks. It is also worth mentioning that both The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring are projected to be 1,500 pages in length, or more than 50% bigger than the average ASOIAF novel to date.

Second, they are extremely complex from a narrative perspective, made all the more so by writing each chapter from the perspective of individual characters. Balancing timelines must be a nightmare, especially since GRRM is a “discovery writer” who doesn’t tend to plan his books in detail beforehand. But he does have a high regard for consistency which forces him into a lot of revision and rewriting. It is clear that this started taking a toll from the third book onwards. But it appears that this is something that afflicts the vast majority of fantasy series, including much simpler ones like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (which incidentally moved forwards barely any quicker nonetheless!). The only big exception I can think of is Brandon “Robot” Sanderson. But then again even he has for the most part only stuck to trilogies to date.

page-counts-of-popular-book-series-2 Comparisons to Robert Jordan, such as the recent by Razib Khan, are premature. From the time of his “inflection point” by Book 6-7, not only did the pace but also the quality of his writing started degrading fast as plot was replaced by endless skirt smoothing and braid pulling and female on female BDSM until Branson Sanderson came along to put The Wheel of Time out of its misery. To be sure, GRRM’s plot has also slowed down drastically. But crucially, it was not replaced by any decline in worldbuilding and characterization; I for one enjoyed Tyrion’s odyssey in Essos, and the depiction of Cersei in A Feast for Crows as an evil female is on a level that I frankly cannot recall being matched in any other work of fantasy. In contrast, due to Robert Jordan’s mediocre characterization skills, The Wheel of Time without a plot was but an empty husk.

Moreover, whereas it was clear by mid-series in The Wheel of Time that the plot was going nowhere, things in the past two books have been clearly arranged to enable a whole range of climaxes to happen in Winds of Winters in quick succession, from the fantasy version of Battle of the Ice in which Stannis the Mannis will show up Show!Stannis for the preposterous imposter he really is, to the Second Battle of Mereen and the Return of the Queen.

There are two additional concerns that I will also take the opportunity to address now.

The Show will Overtake the Books

Like it or not but realists have always viewed this as being a near inevitability.

But for all intents and purposes these are now two separate works. As GRRM himself said (and I agree), the butterflies have become dragons as of Season 5.

MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

I am not a “bookfag” by any means. I even think the show got some things better. Having Arya interact with Tywin. Letting Cat continue to RIP. The Faith Militant. Others it got a lot worse, such as the absurd Dorne adventure, not to mention the cucking of Stannis.

stannis-the-cuck

For better or worse, these are now two very significantly separate narrative streams and the potential for cross-genre spoilage is now very limited.

GRRM Will Never Finish the Books

Many people question whether GRRM is capable of finishing the books from a… let’s just say demographic perspective. “He is getting old.” “He’s fat.”

Naturally, GRRM doesn’t much appreciate that:

I find that question pretty offensive, frankly, when people start speculating about my death and my health. So fuck you to those people.

But it’s a legitimate enough issue, especially considering what happened with Robert Jordan, so it’s something worth addressing in a serious way if only to lay the less informed (and at times nastier) speculation at rest.

George R.R. Martin is currently 67 years old.

Let us look at the actuarial tables.

As of 2013, the chance of death at this age for US males ov er the course of a year is 1.7%. Thus, giving him the benefit of the doubt on his drive and enthusiasm (and as I showed above there is no reason not to), it is almost certain he will live to finish The Winds of Winter.

According to the graph, we can expect to see a A Dream of Spring by 2023, by which time he will be approaching 75 years. That gives an 82% chance of seeing it published. Assuming to a more pessimistic 2025 date, it drops to 76%. Still much more likely than not.

Regrettably, some people suffer through a period of debilitating illness before their death, which makes productive work impossible. (Known as the “healthy life expectancy” concept). Even assuming one that lasts 5 years before death – for Robert Jordan it was a single year – that still leaves a 66% chance of completion.

There are of course some additional aspects to consider – to what extent can we treat him as an average American man?

  • The most obvious negative thing is his obesity, which is negatively correlated with life expectancy.
  • On the other hand, he is obviously highly intelligent. This is correlated positively with LE.
  • He is not a low-income White, the big group for whom demographic outcomes have been in stagnation in the US since 1990. I am assuming he is not addicted to painkiller prescriptions and his now extraordinary wealth will enable him to afford the most advanced medical treatments should the need arise.

All things considered, I suspect the latter two factors more than cancel out the first. It also needs to be borne in mind that medical technology continues to improve so (all else equal) GRRM should benefit from that, although truly radical breakthroughs are very unlikely to come by within his remaining lifespan.

Incidentally, this is all the more reason to support transhumanism and radical life extension, so that we don’t have to worry (and deny worrying) about such issues.

 
• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Culture, Fantasy, Literature 
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alexievich-likes-iron-felix One of the consequences of selecting a literary nobody for the world’s most prestigious intellectual prize is that people will begin digging into their biographies. And find some very, very interesting things.

This is what has been happening in regards to 2015 Nobel Literature Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose main distinguishing feature seems to be neither eminence nor literary quality but dogged opposition to everything and everyone that the Western elites dislike – first and foremost, the genetically aggressive and barbarous Russian people and their current President, Putin.

Russia blogger Igor Petrov recently discovered some of her writings for a Soviet literary journal from 1977. Intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish founder of the Soviet secret police, it is entitled “The Sword and Flame of the Revolution” – and is every bit the breathless panegyric you might expect from something like that.

I have collected Petrov’s scans of her article into a PDF which you can download here (in Russian, of course).

Here are some choice quotes:

I always catch myself thinking that I want to quote Dzerzhinsky himself. His diaries. His letters. And I don’t do this out of any desire to easen my journalistic tasks, but out of adoration for his personality, for the words that he spoke, and the thoughts he must have felt. I know that Dzerzhinsky loved children very much… Thousands of street orphans owe him their new lives…

I wonder if the words she quoted from Dzerzhinsky ever included the following: “We represent in ourselves organized terror – this must be said very clearly,” or this: “[The Red Terror involves] the terrorization, arrests and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”

The whole thing goes on and on in a similar vein, recounting anecdotes about Dzerzhinsky modest and selfless character. He refused the gift of a new suiter because so many other people were living in poverty. He ordered the Turkmen comrades to reverse their decision to name a railway after him. He worked and lived in his office, only venturing to sleep once every few days. On and on it goes. In short, it is a good illustration of why most Soviet literary journals went unread, and for that matter why most Russians were unaware of the existence of “stars” like Alexievich before a few guys in Sweden decided to boost her prominence.

alexievich-adores-iron-felix Still, the ending, in which she remarks on her impressions of a museum dedicated to Dzerzhinsky, takes the cake for shamelessness:

When my son grows up, we will certainly both come to this place to bow before the immortal spirit of him, who carried the name Felix Dzerzhinsky – the “sword and flame” of the proletarian revolution.

This is cringeworthy stuff even by Brezhnevite Soviet standards. This is far too ardent – in order words, she is trying way too hard – for this to be explainable as merely a way of paying the bills.

Instead, the image that emerges instead is of Svetlana Alexievich as a standard pen for hire spouting the politically correct drivel of the day. This changed decade to decade. In the 1970s, that involved writing paeans to the blood-drenched spiritual ancestor of the KGB. In the late 1980s – humanistic criticism of Chernobyl and Afghanistan. In the 1990s – the denigration of the regime she had once eulogized. Come the mid-2000s, the Obkom – the one based in Washington D.C., this time round – emphasized a new set of guideposts for its admirers in the Russosphere, centered around demonization of Putin and the delegitimization of Russian statehood and the opinions of ordinary Russians in general. Fervent support for the Maidan and the so-called Revolution of Dignity is merely the latest expression of this.

In short, she is the mirror opposite of someone like Solzhenitsyn, who whether you agree with him or not, stayed constant to his ideals throughout his life, even as the West went from praising to vilifying him as soon as he was perceived to have outlived his usefulness.

And, lest it be forgotten, anybody who didn’t take the new party line fast enough is – according to Alexievich herself – to be firmly punished and removed. All in the best traditions of her enduring idol, Iron Felix himself.

Of course Russian TV corrupts you. What the Russian media says today – they simply have to be prosecuted for it. For what they say about Europe, about Donbass, about Ukrainians… But this isn’t all. The problem is that people actually want to hear this. We can talk today about a collective Putin, because there is a Putin sitting in all Russians. The Red Empire has vanished, but its people have remained.

What can we take away from this? To be sure, one presumes that the Nobel Prize Committee never got the chance to be acquainted with Alexievich’s pre-perestroika writings.

But insofar as uncritical loyalty and dedication towards the latest politically correct dogma of the day is now standard practice in the West as it was in the Soviet Union – and in this respect, Sweden Yes! is a leader, not a follower – the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision in light of these revelations can be considered even more “correct” than was the case beforehand.

 
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aleksievich-nobel I don’t make any claims to being some kind of hifalutin literatus. To the extent I read any fiction at all it is almost inevitably either sci-fi or fantasy. I am woefully uncultured when it comes to “Big L” Literature, and looking at the postmodernist dreck that seems to dominate the modern scene, I am frankly content to continue wallowing in my ignorance.

So I was not very surprised to find myself completely ignorant of Svetlana Alexievich when she was announced the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. What was more surprising is that this ignorance was widely shared amongst my Russian acquaintances. It is not particularly the case that my acquaintances are cultural troglodytes. As Western journalists have recently confirmed, she really is pretty unknown in the Russosphere.

The pathos of Alexievich’s situation is that, while some of her books have been successful—War’s Unwomanly Face reportedly sold two million copies—today, the humanist writer is nearly unknown in her dehumanizing homeland, and is of little interest to its people. Her print runs are modest. There are virtually no comments or votes on her books on Ozon.ru (link in Russian), Russia’s answer to Amazon.com, and most of the books are not even in stock. By contrast, the previous five Russian-language winners of the literature Nobel—Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Joseph Brodsky—are all still household names.

Below is a graph I compiled using Google Trends comparing online chatter about her compared to some other prominent Russian language writers from multiple genres and sides of the political spectrum. The graph runs from 2004 to September 2015, to avoid the artificial spike coinciding with the announcement of Alexievich’s Nobel Prize this October.

Dmitry Bykov is a poet and essayist, Viktor Pelevin is a postmodernist but does some truly original and profound things with it, and Boris Akunin is a bestselling historical detective fiction writer. Perhaps more importantly to the sorts of people who decide on whom to give awards to, all three are strongly anti-Putin and pro-Maidan. The exception here is Sergey Lukyanenko, whose urban fantasies have probably made him into modern Russia’s internationally best known writer.

nobody-reads-svetlana-alexievich

What all four of them have in common though is that not in a single month have they had their names mentioned online less often Svetlana Alexievich. As one can see from the bar graph, any one of them is an order of magnitude more popular. None of them would have been an unworthy Nobel Prize winner. There are dozens of other Russian language writers well ahead of her, to say nothing of the rest of the world. So her Nobel Prize certainly couldn’t have been the result of prominence and popular acclaim.

Was she then selected on the basis of the Swedish Nobel committee’s deep level of understanding and appreciation of Russian literature? Was she the diamond in the dirt that ain’t been found, the underground queen that ain’t been crowned?

Fortunately, blogger (and one of my regular commentators) Lazy Glossophiliac looked into this question in some detail, doing the work that lazier journalists wouldn’t. The book he looked at was The Chernobyl Prayer: Chronicles of the Future (published in 2006), which is available online in Russian here: http://www.lib.ru/NEWPROZA/ALEKSIEWICH/chernobyl.txt

Even for a non-literary kind of person – Lazy Glossophiliac is a technical person – it quickly becomes obvious her work is second rate.

She has a blithe indifference to facts. Numerous bold claims are made that are either unsubstantiated or flat out statistically false. Some are pretty minor (she says Belarus is a majority rural county; in reality, it stopped being so in the mid-1970s). Others are cardinal, such as her remarkable claim that radiation from Chernobyl was the most important reason for Belarus’ demographic decline. In reality, it was not the first or even tenth most important reason. In Belarus as in Russia and the wider USSR, mortality remained relatively low thoughout the late 1980s – recall that Chernobyl blew up in 1986 – due to Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign. In Belarus as in Russia and the wider USSR, it soared after 1991 – that is, 1991 – 1986 = 5 years after Chernobyl – as the economy collapsed and the state lost its former monopoly over vodka production.

Such sins might be forgiven for a truly “literary” writer, but she was an expressly nonfiction writer. The first such, for that matter, to be awarded a Nobel Prize since Winston Churchill in 1953, who got his Nobel Prize in Literature for, amongst other things, his “mastery of historical and biographical description.” I haven’t read Churchill but I would imagine he got his basic historical facts right.

Perhaps she made up for it with beautiful, sublime prose?

Here is Lazy Glossophiliac on that.

At the start of the next section Alexievich tells us that the Chernobyl accident was “the main event of the 20th century, in spite of all the terrible wars and revolutions for which that century will be remembered”. I’m chalking that up to chick logic. A certain quantity of pseudo-profound nonsense follows. I’m finally up against this year’s Nobel prize winner’s own voice. It’s boring and pompous: “Chernobyl is a secret which we will still have to uncover. An unread sign. Perhaps a mystery for the twenty-first century. A challenge to it.” Of course she’s not talking about anything technical here – it’s all hot air.

“The facts were simply not enough anymore, one was drawn to look beyond the facts, to get into the meaning of what was happening.” Oh really? The carelessness she showed with the “facts” which she quoted at the start of this book suggests that she’s simply bored by them instead.

She says that Chernobyl left everyone confused because throughout the ages the measure of horror was war. “We are in a new history, a history of catastrophes has begun.” She is utterly devoid of any sense of historical perspective. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics – never happened. She goes on and on about the revolutionary newness of radiation’s invisibility, but viruses have always been invisible too, and much more deadly.

svetlana-alexievich-hyperbole

No Brodsky, Pasternak, or Solzhenitsyn is she. They might have been anti-Soviet, and justifiably so, but all of them produced real literary masterpieces (well, just One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in Solzhenitsyn’s case, but even that is still one more than I am aware of Alexievich ever writing).

Also… HOW MANY ELLIPSES DOES SHE USE?… a Ctrl-F reveals 4,196 of them… out of 78,000 words… I can’t even!… that is like… MORE THAN ONCE EVERY TWENTY WORDS!

As I said, I do not pretend to be any sort of expert on the sense of style. In fact, I am downright awful at it. (Just look at that weasel phrase at the beginning of the last sentence. And putting this in brackets. And starting sentences with “and”).

Even so, should I ever find myself peppering my texts with an ellipse or two every other sentence, I will take it as a cue to wrap up my writing forays and spare the world any more of my inchoate ramblings.

But perhaps she got her Nobel Prize not on the basis of popularity or even style but on account of the, erm, human truths – telling truth to power – living not by lies – insert Soviet dissident slogan of your choice – that she revealed in her writing.

That is what Philip Gourevitch * ventures in his panegyric of her for Human Rights Watch:

But although her work is often hot with the passion and outrage of independent witness, it is wonderfully free of any polemical or activist agenda. She serves no ideology, only an ideal: to listen closely enough to the ordinary voices of her time to orchestrate them into extraordinary books.

This is a message that was echoed by the Nobel committee itself. Ostensibly, she was rewarded for “her polyphonic writing, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

In literature, polyphony as defined by Mikhail Bakhtin refers to a style of prose in which the author refrains from making his characters sockpuppets for some idea or ideology. Instead, he makes them vie for power and influence in a world where the only truth is that there is no truth. Dostoevsky was the primary example for Bakhtin’s definition of polyphony. Who can say which Karamazov brother was right: Ivan or Alyosha? George R. R. Martin would be a good modern popular example, in which the principle heroes and heroines tend to represent distinct moral codes and values, none of which are obviously superior to that of any other except to the extent that they are blessed with varying amounts of luck, dragons, and shadowbabies.

You have to have very high social intelligence and psychological astuteness to be able to convincingly write this kind of prose.

But there is no indication whatsoever that this describes Alexievich.

To the contrary, there is a clear polemical agenda at the very start of the book that we decided to analyze. My translation of its second opening paragraph:

For little Belarus (population: 10 million), Chernobyl was a national catastrophe, even though the Belorussians themselves don’t have a single nuclear power station. This is still an agrarian country, with a mostly rural population. During the years of the Great Patriotic War,the German fascists destroyed 619 Belorussian villages together with their inhabitants. After Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements… In the war, every fourth Belorussian died; today, every fifth Belorussian lives on contaminated land.

Relativizing the unique horrors of the Nazi occupation bymaking flimsy and hyperbolic comparisons to the Soviet record is a favored approach of the post-Soviet intelligentsia, but very few Russians (and Belorussians) buy into it because of its inherent selectiveness and dishonesty. And probably not so much because:

The powers that be behave themselves as if I don’t exist. I don’t get printed in the state publications, I am not allowed on the radio or TV, I am only published in the opposition media.

Published in the opposition media? No wonder she came back to live in Belarus in 2013, after a decade of sojourning about Europe where no media – that is, neither state nor opposition – seem to have cared about her writings.

Indeed, a perusal of her interviews and speeches (aggregated here and here), in particular their polemical and activist agenda, is actually the single biggest clue as to why she got her Nobel Prize. Far from creating any sort of literary polyphony, she comes off as a proficient recycler of 1970s-80s Soviet dissident stock of tropes about Russia that nobody there apart from a tiny self-styled intelligentsia in the capital cares the least about. In short, she is a marginally saner and much less entertaining version of the late Valeriya Novodvorskaya.

I recently returned from Moscow, having partaken of the May festivities there. For a whole week the air was filled with the rumbling of tanks and orchestras. I felt that I was not in Moscow, but in North Korea.

Hysterical Russophobia? Check.

One Italian restaurant owner advertised that Russians are not welcome at his establishment. This is a good metaphor. Today, the world once again begins to fear what is in that hole, that abyss, which combines in itself nuclear weapons, mad geopolitical ideas, and lack of respect for international law. I live with a sense of defeat.

One is tempted to wisecrack on whether she is describing the US here, but that will certainly not improve your chances of getting a Nobel.

We have to preserve this fragile peace established after the last war. We are talking about the Russian man, who in the past 200 years has spent 150 years of them at war. And never lived well. For him, human life is worthless, and his conception of greatness is not in the sense that people should live well, but that the state should be great and armed to the teeth with rockets. This gargantuan post-Soviet landscape, especially in Russia and Belarus, where the people were first lied to for 70 years, then looted for the next 20, has bred very aggressive people, who are very dangerous for the entire world.

I do so wonder why Russians and Belorussians aren’t rushing to buy her books! It must be the little Putin in all of them…

Of course Russian TV corrupts you. What the Russian media says today – they simply have to be prosecuted for it. For what they say about Europe, about Donbass, about Ukrainians… But this isn’t all. The problem is that people actually want to hear this. We can talk today about a collective Putin, because there is a Putin sitting in all Russians. The Red Empire has vanished, but its people have remained.

And, naturally, this people of vatniks and sovoks has to be dissolved, and another elected, as per Bertolt Brecht and the time-honored Russian liberal tradition of taking him so very literally.

The Nobel Prize is one of our world’s equivalents of dragons and shadowbabies.

As an ethnic Ukrainian with Belarussian citizenship writing in the Russian language, whose output mainly seems to consist of poorly disguised political polemics, she is an ideal tool to project Western soft power into the Russian world. Not just Russia itself, but also Ukraine and Belarus, the latter of which – quite coincidentally, surely – is having its Presidential elections a mere several days after the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. From this perspective, she is in fact a very good candidate.

With a Nobel under her belt, a formerly second rate journalist and polemicist will be able to pontificate on her favorite themes with the authority of a secular prophetress.

There is nothing to be done about this, since neither Russia nor any other non-Western power has the soft power or cultural autonomy to offer a credible alternative to the Nobel Prize. It does however confirm that, much like the Peace Prize, the Literature Prize can be definitively ticked off as having anything to do with real human accomplishment in that sphere and instead be seen for what it is: As just another tool of Western political influence.

* EDIT 10/27/2015: As has just been brought to my attention, Keith Gessen is not the author of the quoted HRW piece, as was previously credited. That accolade belongs to Philip Gourevitch. Keith Gessen is her translator. I mistakenly got the impression he was the author because his byline appeared at the bottom of the page, but in my skim through of the piece, I failed to notice that Gessen’s byline merely referred to the translation at the end, whereas the editorial content that formed the bulk of the HRW page had been produced by Gourevitch. Sorry for the error.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Belarus, BigPost, Literature, Nobel Prize, RealWorld 
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This is a (very preliminary) prologue to a sci-fi novel I’ve been thinking of writing for some time. It’s called 100 YEARS TO VICTORY, but obviously liable to change. My sole question is: Would you continue reading the rest of this book?

It’s been nearly a decade since I built my first cage.

It was an exceedingly small cage. Physically, and literally, it was about the size of a large computer, though its inhabitants were none the wiser to the fact. To them, it would have appeared as a world entire, a world of rolling plains and giant trees and gentle hummocks in which they could make their burrows. That world wasn’t particularly big either. It didn’t have to be. Not when it hosted consciousnesses that were conditioned by evolution to a home range of less than 50 meters in radius. As far as a rat was concerned, the neighboring hill might as well be a foreign country, and its denizens – instinctual enemies, to be exterminated so that its own clan could survive and propagate.

And so the years passed, passing into decades, and centuries. There evolved subtle differences between rats in different locales: The rats in the ice-bound north, for instance, developed white fur and epicanthic folds to protect against snowblind, while males in the torrid south acquired rich manes to attract females. Many thousands of rat generations appeared and disappeared in the blink of a human eye. Arbitrary eons of blood and breeding, and the profound indifference of a Mother Nature that canceled them out over any long enough period of time.

Then I said, “Let there be grain.” Stalks of wheat sprouted out at the bed of one valley. A moment-millennium later, rice appeared in a second valley, and was followed by flowerings of millet, maize, and sourghum in yet other places.

The rat clans flocked down to the new oases of abundance. Old social structures broke down, for it was no longer possible for the alpha rats to monopolize a given territory and its females; the population density was now too big to treat every interloper as a hostile intruder, to be confronted and chased away. New structures arose in place of the old, in the form of vastly more complex dominance hierarchies that mediated the distribution of mates and resources. The rat population exploded, and though their grain-based diet made them far frailer and more sickly than their ancestors, their numbers soon far eclipsed those of the remaining wild rats in the corners and remote places of the map. No plague born of the filth and crowds checked their numbers for long; no periodic violent shift in the power hierarchy made a noticeable dent in their teeming hordes.

An eye-blink later, and the population was a hundred, a thousand times what it had been at “t” equals zero. The burrows delved dozens of meters underground, and some rats even attempted to build earthen structures into the sky, with grain farms on top. Others took a clue from the squirrels and the otters, and began to settle in the trees and dam off streams and lakes. The zone of grain cultivation overspread the entire surface of the Ratlands, displacing roots, legumes, nuts, berries, and lower-yielding wild cereals. All but the smallest and more elusive insects were devoured into extinction, leaving more of the yearly grain crop for the dominant species. The cleverest rats even realized you could store calories from a surplus year by a skilful application of yeast and time. It would be nice to imagine that those inventors became very famous and snagged all the girls at the parties, but let’s not get too carried away here… they were, after all, just rats.

Despite these efforts, some rats began to grow hungry. Oh, there had always been rats at the margins, runts without muscle, mates, or money; nobody cared for those losers. To the contrary, their fellows of both sexes took pleasure in harassing them and biting at their backsides, as is the way of rats. They died as they lived: In the margins, forlorn and anonymous. But as the years clicked by in rapid succession, the numbers of these marginal rats multiplied, and now they were no longer all outcasts and weaklings. For the population had long outstripped the carrying capacity of the Ratlands, and most rats now lived at the edge of subsistence; crop yields declined, as hungry rats learned to dig into the ground to get at the seed grain. The dominant rats had to resort to increasingly brutal methods to maintain the social hierarchy and their own positions at the top of it. But their late-ditch attempts were to be in vain, for a couple of hard winters tipped the Ratlands over into all-out collapse.

Some of the marginal rats coalesced into all-male bands that began to wreck havoc all across the Ratlands. They would kill off the local dominant alpha rat, gang rape his harem, and scour his territory clean before moving on to ravage the next. Left to themselves, a few territories might have pulled through: Some rat broods had become good at planning ahead, storing grain as reserves, while other broods were resilient by virtue of having avoided overpopulation, or over-dependence on grain monoculture. But marauding bands and starving refugees from the worst affected areas spread outwards in concentric tsunamis of destruction, ensuring that what might have otherwise been a limited set of local collapses would turn into a truly global die off.

Zooming around the map as a spectator, I began to notice discarded rodent skins with bones strewn about them; the victims had been eaten inside out. Countless other rats met less gory but no less tortuous ends, expiring of hunger, disease, or infected wounds. Even as mortality spiked, the fertility rate collapsed, as the all-pervading famine and stress made many of the females unable to bear offspring.

An eyeblink later, the population of the Ratlands had collapsed to a tiny fraction of its peak level.

One might have thought that in the wake of so drastic a culling, rat society might begin to slowly, haltingly recover. This was not to be. For in the decades before the collapse, grains had become the dominant crop, and whatever flora and fauna had escaped earlier encroachments was now picked clean by starving rats in those last, desperate months. Long deprived of nutrients due to the inherent nature of monoculture cultivation, and lacking the deep roots of shrubbery to hold the soil in place, the earth dried up as soon as it was exposed to the sunlight. The few remaining grain stalks dessicated and withered away. The lush verdure that had preceded civilization was followed by the desert, and no insect chirps or avian tweets would ever disturb its eternal silent spring.

The remaining bands ran out of new territories to scour clean, and turned in on themselves in a war of all against all.

The last rat breathed his last.

A melancholy wind blew across the Ratlands, now as deserted as they had once teemed with hustle and bustle. It gusted into the empty warrens beneath the grassy hummocks, failing to dispel the stench of death within, and tipped the lake-waters over the earthen dams that rats had built. The floodwaters, at least, were more effective at cleansing the land, replacing the decay of a civilization no matter how primitive with an entirely more elemental and natural oblivion.

Just a few decades later, there was no indication that the Ratlands had ever hosted their namesake. There was nothing more to be learned, so I switched off the simulation. After all, they were just rats.

This was when I first heard the voice, whispering to me: “Would humans do any better? Are we really all that different from rats?”

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Black Sun Rising (Book 1 of the Coldfire Trilogy) by C.S. Friedman, published in 1991. Rating: 3/5.

The Coldfire Trilogy is sometimes described as a successful fusion of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So what better work to start reviewing on this site?

I will be forthright: By far the most wondrous and intriguing element of this series is the world Celia S. Friedman built. Not really in the details – names are generic, and cities have no character of their own – but in the metaphysics. This is a world where simply thinking about something can bring it into being. This is reminiscent of other fantasy worlds like Solaris, numerous Philip K. Dick creations, and The Wheel of Time’s Tel’aran’rhiod. If you’re the type who has a lot of nightmares, living there probably wouldn’t be your cup of tea: “Erna is a harsh mistress.”

The interrelations between the cognitive and physical realms are mediated by the fae. The fae are a sort of energy current that can be manipulated, or “Worked,” by conscious minds to produce what we might think of as magic. But don’t call it that! For as the main hero of the story points out, “The fae is as natural to this world as water and air were to our ancestors’ planet.” Nor is it all bad: It can reinforce buildings against earthquakes, and cure wounds (giving faith healing an altogether more literal meaning!). The natural world, as a result, is subject to Lamarckian evolution: “Here, if trees grow taller, the next gaffi calves are born with longer necks.”

As it is now more than a millennium since humans first settled the planet, the concept of a world without fae is hard to imagine. Even though Damien Vryce, the main protagonist, serves a Church that is committed to the extirpation of the fae, he himself reacts to a vision of such a world with terror:

Explosives fire like a sharp drumroll in the distance, the crack of a hundred pistols perfectly synchronized. He feels a sharp bite of fear at the sound, at the unnaturalness of it. What kind of Working must it take, to make it possible for so many guns to fire successfully, with such planned precision? … For the first time in his life, he knows the rank taste of terror. Not the quantifiable fear of assessed risk, but the unbounded horror of total immersion in the unknown. Guns fire once more in the distance, and for the first time since coming here he realizes why they can function with such regularity. Man’s will has no power here—not to kill and not to heal, not to alter the world and not to adapt to it. The whole of this world is dead to man, dead to his dreams, impassive to his needs and his pleas and even his fears. The concept is awesome, terrifying.

This vision was created by Gerald Tarrant, the anti-hero of the story, to evoke fear in Damien. He is a centuries-old sorcerer who escaped death by pledging himself to demonic forces, gaining immortality and great power over the dark fae in return for regularly engaging in murder and feeding off the fear and terror of his victims – hence, his psychological torture of Damien, which the latter agrees to. But Tarrant is also the original founder of Damien’s Church, even if he has long abandoned its ideals (albeit he says it’s not that simple). This makes for an uneasy and tension-filled relationship between the two that looks like it will evolve in interesting directions in the next two books. It is also the main reason that I will continue reading the series to its end.

So why the rather mediocre rating? Plot. Characters. Consistency. It is not entirely clear why Damien became so committed to Ciani in the course of a weeks-long fling that he would literally travel to the ends of human civilization to bring back her stolen memories. Nor do I even recall why she was singled out in particular. The Big Bad’s fortress is originally described as a massive, physically-impossible structure of “naked stone” that “rose up from the earth like a basalt column,” but soon afterwards it becomes a citadel that was like “a jewel, a prism, a multifaceted crystalline structure that divided up the night into a thousand glittering bits.”

The very title of the book is “Black Sun Rising,” but there is only one reference to a black sun that I can recall. And unless it’s a metaphor for Tarrant, I don’t see it leading anywhere:

In the far north, across the Serpent’s waist, a midnight sun is rising. Black sphere against ebony blackness, jet-pure; a thing that can only be Felt, not Seen. Into it all the light of the world is sucked, all the colors and textures that the fae contains: into the crystalline blackness, the Anti-Sun. He stares at it in adoration and horror and thinks: There, where all the power is concentrated, like matter in a black hole . . . there is the power we need for this quest. Power to shake the rakhlands and make our kill and move the earth besides!

Apart from the stolid Damien Vryce and the darkly seductive Gerald Tarrant, the other characters are quite wooden, Senzei in particular giving off the vibes of an expendable (and accurately so, it turned out). Despite or rather because of his inherent intrigue and dark mystery, Gerald Tarrant is – looking at it in another way – a quite banal product of the feminine erotic imagination. Like a fusion of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, and the serial killers who get bags of love letters in the mail, as channeled through Ciani:

With consummate grace, Tarrant walked to where she stood, took her hand in his, and bowed gallantly. Gritting his teeth, Damien was forced to acknowledge the man’s charm. … With a sinking feeling Damien realized just how drawn she would be to the Hunter, and to the mystery that he represented. It would mean little to her that he tortured human women as a pasttime, save as one more fact for her to devour.

It’s all the same power to her. He’s just another adept. More interesting than most, perhaps—but that only makes him more desirable. The cost of it means . . . nothing.

Essentially, the sheer awesomeness of Gerald Tarrant paradoxically cheapens him as a character, especially when he decides to slum it with mere humans. But maybe I am missing something big that explains all this in a later book.

Finally, there is also an ecological and anthropological element to the story. There is “The Forest” that Gerald Tarrant had engineered into existence with the force of his will, his need, and his intellect; sunlight and its solar fae are deadly to a man of the dark like himself, so over the long centuries, he created an entire ecosystem that could thrive without sunlight. There are the rakhlands, home to the rakh, a cat-like species that – under the avalanche of human fears over a rival species – evolved intelligence. The humans tried to exterminate them out of existence, with the result that the rakh retreated to an isolated part of the continent and erected a barrier called the “Canopy” to protect themselves from humankind. In a world where thinking really is existing, the Canopy can be seen as an “extentsion of their communal protection [and of] their need for protection [against man].” We also meet the “Lost Ones,” subterranean-dwelling relatives of the rakh who eat creatures from the above – including their cousins – for sustenance. They are the Morlocks/Falmer of Erna.

Have no illusions: This is not a landmark fantasy series. The characters are forgettable, with the partial exception of Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant (although the latter has his own issues). The plot meanders considerably, and is barely discernible in places, like the earth fae over the ocean. I think there are too many points of inconsistency for them all to have been a result of errors on my part as a reader (if so: Apologies. Maybe somebody was stealing my memories when I was reading the book?). There is also one character’s miraculous and unexpected survival at the end that, much like Sherlock Holmes’ faked death, strains the bounds of credulity. I wonder if the author will explain this sometime, or whether its a deus ex machina that will lie buried – unlike the unlikely survivor – to the end.

But it intrigued my just about enough to download the second book. I guess that means that aura of Erna can still draw you in even despite quite significant flaws in execution.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Over the past week I’ve completed one of my most significant projects, though I’m not megalomaniac enough to think it will present much interest to other people.

It’s a list of all the books I’ve ever read.

Well, not all of them, of course. That’s unrealistic. Since completing it, I’ve remembered a couple more. But I almost certainly got more than half, and perhaps as many as 75% of the real total. And forgetting a quarter or a third of them isn’t a great tragedy anyway, since me reckons that if you can’t recall reading a book, chances are it wasn’t worth your time in the first place.

Some interesting things have emerged out of this exercise. For instance, almost 40% of the books I’ve read have been sci-fi, fantasy, or speculative. Even so, they unfortunately don’t include Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and the Strugatsky brothers. My familiarity with the classics, especially in Russian, are extremely patchy. Self-help and self-improvement books total almost 10%, of which 2% are about poker. Here are the detailed stats:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 103 4 107 33.9%
Literature 54 5 59 18.7%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 118 3 121 38.3%
Self-Improvement 29 0 29 9.2%
Total 304 12 316
96.2% 3.8%

Here is the same data, but by total page numbers:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 45,442 936 46,378 36.4%
Literature 15,544 2,000 17,544 13.8%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 52,108 1,021 53,129 41.7%
Self-Improvement 10,311 0 10,311 8.1%
Total 123,405 3,957 127,362
96.9% 3.1%

I highly recommend everyone do something similar. It’s easy (Excel and Google suffice), and though it will take some time – two days, in my case – it will pay off by bringing back good reading memories that would otherwise indefinitely remain dormant, as well as provide an incentive to start systemically writing book reviews. If you can’t write a review about a book you’ve read, chances are the time you spent reading it was wasted. But by writing a review of a book, you decant and internalize the best of what it had to offer.

It will also enable you to make some useful macro-generalizations. For instance, this exercise really drove home the point that my classics base is very weak. Many giants of literature are missing entirely. This is something I can start working on remedying. Another advantage is that you can make some observations about what types of books make an impression, and what types don’t. For instance, I observed that the books that tended to garner 5 stars were usually shorter than others in the same series or broader category. I guess brevity really is the soul of wit.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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An original poem:

And there shall come a time of wist and woe,
When flesh grows weak and spirit fails,
Of dark foreboding (and of secret glee),
When I look down into the Abyss.
There in its sad and murky depths,
Where daemons lurk and spirits fall,
The realm of death awaits.
With its tenebral vestiges; it reaches out,
And carresses my tear-stained cheek,
Whispering vespers of profound console,
Like a friend forlorne, and now come back
To reclaim what is rightfully hers:
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Waters of Oblivion, a bitter brew indeed,
The more so for the man of faith ‘twas I;
And I cried out, twixt hope and fear,
A yearning to be saved.

Lo and behold!
The skies of gray and mourning
Are rent asunder, above the dusty plains of Sheol,
Time-refuting;
A Ray of Light unto the Kingdom of Darkness.
Thus all things end.
And begin.

And my eyes are seared, for only Him do they see,
Scorching the way for His angels appearing;
And my flesh is scourged, for only Him does it serve,
Building a skywalk to the Kingdom of Heaven above;
And my lips are taken, for only Him do they praise now,
Demiurge dispelling;
And the LORD God comes.

Lighter than aether, yet unbearable,
Matrix of bliss uncontainable;
Impaled by infinite slivers of Light, yet bound
In that fearful lattice of absolution.
And I scream for the end, yet my lips are taken,
And I writhe in anguish, yet my flesh only serves Him,
And I flee my passion, yet my soul betrays me,
For my eyes are enraptured,
And only Him do I praise:
Thou shalt worship the LORD thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.

Centuries and aeons pass,
Of that everlasting Mass,
Until one fortuitous night,
A lady of shadows arrives.

Long-forgotten vespers drift across my raptured mind.
With its tenebral vestiges, the abyss reaches out,
Dimming that accursed Light.
My old friend coalesces, and tears well in my burnt eyes;
I kiss her on the lips and embrace her gift of night.
It’s with open-hearted glee,
That I wish the dying of my light.
For dust is my mother and I am coming home at last,
Forever into that good night.

(And then there’s only dust.
The universe abides.)

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Good books are of course far better than almost anything you can read in a magazine or find on the Internet. They are also of double the benefit when the reader actually interacts with them, e.g. by writing a review. I have about 25 of these on my two blogs, but they still come very far from encompassing all the best stuff I’ve read.

The problem with writing a review is that they are very time-consuming. A post on on current affairs, in which I can find quotes and links to material on the click of a button, takes far less time and effort than leafing through a tome or trying to locate some important passage in a Kindle book. Reader response rates tend to be fairly modest too. It goes without mention that one is expected to actually read the book too.

So, books reviews are very useful. Both for personal development, to better internalize its lessons through rephrase and summary, as well as for the benefit of laypersons who may be inspired to read the book too – or at least to correctly quote its arguments, while pretending to have read it, and not come off as a fool or a fraud. (For instance, I am personally convinced that 95% of The Bell Curve’s confident critics have never even touched it). But they’re taxing on time and stamina. How to resolve this?

I think I have a solution. Henceforth, instead of reviewing books individually – as I tended to do beforehand – I will review them in taxonomic bunches. I will also only review the best books in their class as reviewing bad books is the most horrid of chores, and useless to boot. After all, going by Pareto, probably something like 80% of the more useful and relevant information on any subject is contained in 20% of the books on it; there is thus an inherent advantage in only focusing on the top 5 or so.

To this end, I have compiled a list of “top books” on various subjects, theories, and themes that will hopefully appear as blog posts in the not too distant future. If they are in italics, it means I have yet to read the book in question. Note that only English language books or books with more or less accessible English language translations cay be included. Please feel free to provide suggestions for the ?’s, to suggest alternatives for any book on the lists you think unworthy, and to suggest lists of books on topics of your own expertise.

Hacking Life

Top 5 Books Every (American) Man Has To Read

  1. The Lucifer Principle (Howard Bloom)
  2. The Game (Neil Strauss)
  3. The Bell Curve (Charles Murray & Richard Herrnstein)
  4. The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
  5. The 48 Laws of Power (Robert Greene), OR The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli)

Comment: If you are a pasty-faced nerd who doesn’t get laid and doesn’t have much money, these books will open your ideas to what’s wrong with you like few others. They will not tell you how to “get big, get rich, get chicks” – for that, see below – but they will quickly set you on the straight and narrow.

(1) explains why you live in a social hierarchy and always will; the only question is where you’ll be on the pyramid. (2) explains why being a nice guy won’t get you laid, despite what your mom and beta friends tell you. While (3) is most (in)famous for exposing some inconvenient racial realities, its even more fascinating findings are that IQ more than anything else determines your life chances, and its theory of “cognitive stratification” is simply the most cogent and elegant explanation for the path US society is on. (4) is brimming with insights on how to act under capitalism. (5) are the right attitudes to keep in mind when politicking, regardless of whether you’re office plankton or a Congressman.

Top 5 Books Every American Man Has To Takes Notes On

  1. The Four Hour Workweek (Tim Ferriss)
  2. Starting Strength (Mark Rippetoe), OR Power to the People! (Pavel Tsasouline), OR The Four Hour Body (Tim Ferriss)
  3. Bang! (Roosh V), AND Day Bang (Roosh V), OR The Layguide (anon.)
  4. The Paleo Solution (Robb Wolf), OR The Four Hour Body (Tim Ferriss)
  5. ? – How to improve IQ? It is largely set by genetics, but can surely be tweaked upwards with mental exercises and nootropic drugs. I do not know of a good book on this subject, most likely because I’ve never experienced serious limiting factors in this area.

Comment: Not everyone is has the genetics or intuitive understandings necessary to succeed in life. These guides show how it is done. Online, follow Life Hacker.

The Lucky Gods

It is considered that wealth, health, and love are all vital towards a fulfilling life. Some power and a sense of spiritual purpose wouldn’t go amiss either. How do you go about acquiring these?

Top 5 Books on Wealth

  1. The Four Hour Workweek (Tim Ferriss)
  2. The $100 Start-up (Chris Guillebeau)
  3. The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment: I think (1) contains virtually all the basics on how to become a member of the “New Rich”: Improving efficiency via exploitation of the 80/20 Principle and Parkinson’s Law; Creating “muses”, i.e. automated revenue streams; Exploiting geoarbitrage; Going on permanent semi-retirement. Excellent! (3) will show you how to NOT lose money, e.g. by ignoring financial “experts”.

Top 5 Books on Health

  1. The Four Hour Body (Tim Ferriss)
  2. The Paleo Solution (Robb Wolf)
  3. Starting Strength (Mark Rippetoe), OR, Power to the People! (Pavel Tsasouline), OR Convict Conditioning (Paul Wade)
  4. Fantastic Voyage (Ray Kurzweil & Terry Grossman)
  5. Emergency! (Neil Strauss)

Comment: The first three books are about how to stay in excellent physical form (once you get fit enough check out Crossfit). (4) is about increasing longevity, while (5) may lower the chances your life is cut short during some disaster. Useful online resources include Bodybuilding, Longecity.

Top 5 Books on Game

  1. The Game (Style)
  2. Bang! (Roosh V), AND Day Bang (Roosh V)
  3. Rules of the Game (Style)
  4. The Layguide (anon.)
  5. The Mystery Method (Mystery)

Comment: (1) is the classic that popularized game. (2) are detailed, no-nonsense guides to its application; I would recommend reading them immediately after The Game. (3) is more of an all-round self-improvement exercise book, with tips on stuff like posture and voice. (4) has a ton of information on patterns. (5) is a description of real social dynamics as per its inventor. Online, read Heartiste and Roosh.

Top 5 Books on Power

  1. The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli)
  2. The 48 Laws of Power (Robert Greene)
  3. ? Influence (Robert B. Cialdini)
  4. ? Art of Seduction (Robert Greene)
  5. ?

Comment: (1) is the oldest classic, and (2) is standard throughout business schools. Suggestions for other books welcome.

Top 5 Books on Conversation

  1. Frogs into Princes (Richard Bandler & John Grinder)
  2. Conversationally Speaking (Alan Garner)
  3. How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie)
  4. ? The Art of Seduction (Robert Greene)
  5. ? Something on motivational speaking, tones, etc

Comment: This is a priority development area, tying in as it does with both Power and Game. (1) is NLP. (3) is a classic.

Top 5 Books on Spirit

  1. The Secret (Rhonda Byrne)
  2. San Manuel Bueno, Martyr (Miguel de Unamuno)
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment: Not an expert on this yet, and not high priority. Online, Zen Habits.

Understanding the World

Top 5 Books on HBD and Evolutionary Biology

  1. Mean Genes (Terry Burnham)
  2. The Bell Curve (Charles Murray & Richard Herrnstein)
  3. The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins)
  4. The G Factor (Arthur Jensen)
  5. Race, Evolution, and Behavior (Philippe Rushton)

Comment: These books cover a huge percentage of the most relevant findings on gender and racial differences, how they came to be, and why they are important.

Top 10 Books for Understanding the Future

  1. Secular Cycles (Peter Turchin), OR Introduction to Social Macrodynamics (Andrei Korotayev, Artemy Malkov, & Daria Khaltourina)
  2. Limits to Growth (Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, & Dennis Meadows)
  3. Beyond Oil (Kenneth Deffeyes)
  4. Six Degrees (Mark Lynas)
  5. The Singularity is Near (Ray Kurzweil)
  6. Race, Evolution, and Behavior (Philippe Rushton)
  7. The Clash of Civilizations (Samuel Huntington)
  8. The End of History (Francis Fukuyama)
  9. ? Future Shock (Alvin Toffler)
  10. The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

Comment: To appreciate the future, one needs a sense of the forces that drive historical processes such as war, prosperity, civil strife… (1) is perhaps the best guide, introducing us to cliodynamics – the mathematical modeling of history. This transitions smoothly into (2), the mathematical modeling of future ecological and social processes. (3)-(6) are concise introductions to four major realities of today without which accurate predictions are impossible: Energy depletion; Anthropogenic climate change; Accelerating technological change; Human Biodiversity. (7)-(9) are different paradigms through which to view political and social developments; they may have legions of critics, but all of them have been hugely influential. (10) is a cautionary reminder that your predictions will be wrong, so don’t bank on them.

Top 5 Futurist Books

  1. Preparing for the 21st century (Paul Kennedy)
  2. Global Catastrophes and Trends (Vaclav Smil)
  3. The World in 2050 (Laurence S. Smith)
  4. ? The Next 100 Years (George Friedman), The Meaning of the 21st century (James Martin), Our Final Hour (Martin Rees)
  5. ?

Comment: These are the brave souls who tried to gather the strands and predict what the next century will look like. (1)-(3) are well-thought out and excellent; and suggestions in (4) are rather slapdash efforts best avoided.

Top 10 Books on “Big History”

  1. Secular Cycles (Peter Turchin)
  2. The Decline of the West (Oswald Spengler)
  3. A History of the World (John Roberts)
  4. Maps of Time (David Christian)
  5. A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson)
  6. Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond)
  7. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800 (Fernand Braudel)
  8. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Paul Kennedy)
  9. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (David Landes)
  10. The Great Divergence (Kenneth Pomeranz)

Comment: (1) asserts that history can be modeled; (2), the reverse. The next three books are the biggest big picture histories, from the very beginnings of humanity (5) or even the Big Bang (3), (4) to the present day. (6)-(10) are influential accounts dealing with the question of why some countries became rich and powerful, while others remained poor and got colonized.

Top 5 Peak Oil Books

  1. Beyond Oil (Kenneth Deffeyes)
  2. Oil 101 (Morgan Downey)
  3. Twilight in the Desert (Matt Simmons)
  4. The Party’s Over (Richard Heinberg)
  5. The Last Oil Shock (David Strahan)

Comment:

Top 5 Books on Global Energetics

  1. Energy at the Crossroads (Vaclav Smil)
  2. ?
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 10 AGW Books

  1. The Ages of Gaia (James Lovelock)
  2. Six Degrees (Mark Lynas)
  3. The Last Generation (Fred Pierce)
  4. ? Under A Green Sky (Peter Ward)
  5. ? Something about geoengineering, maybe…
  6. ? Alternate view?
  7. ?
  8. ?
  9. ?
  10. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Collapse Books

  1. The Collapse of Civilizations (Joseph Tainter)
  2. Limits to Growth (Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, & Dennis Meadows)
  3. Collapse (Jared Diamond)
  4. The Long Descent (John Michael Greer), OR Our Ecotechnic Future (John Michael Greer)
  5. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)

Comment:

Top 5

  1. ?

Comment:

Specialized Subjects

Top 15 Books of Classical Political Economy

  1. The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli)
  2. Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)
  3. Two Treatises on Government (John Locke)
  4. The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
  5. Discourse on Inequality (Jean-Jacques Rousseau), AND On Social Contract (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
  6. Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville)
  7. National System of Political Economy (Friedrich List)
  8. Essay On Population (Thomas Malthus)
  9. Principles of Political Economy (David Ricardo)
  10. The Communist Manifesto (Karl Marx), AND The Marx-Engels Reader (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels) OR Das Kapital (Karl Marx)
  11. Theory of the Leisure Class (Thorstein Veblen)
  12. Imperialism (John Hobson)
  13. Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Vladimir Lenin)
  14. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber)
  15. The Worldly Philosophers (Richard Heilbroner)

Comment:

Top 15 Books of Modern Political Economy

  1. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (John Maynard Keynes)
  2. The Prison Notebooks (Antonio Gramsci)
  3. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Joseph Schumpeter)
  4. The Great Transformation (Karl Polanyi)
  5. The Road to Serfdom (Friedrich Hayek)
  6. Imagined Communities (Benedict Arnold)
  7. The Rise and Decline of Nations (Mancur Olson)
  8. The End of History (Francis Fukuyama)
  9. The Clash of Civilizations (Samuel Huntington)
  10. ?
  11. ?
  12. ?
  13. ?
  14. ?
  15. ?

Comment: Much harder to identify great books by modern political economists… much of their stuff is in articles, journals, etc…

Top 5 Books on Economics

  1. Just Capital (Adair Turner)
  2. Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
  3. micro/macroeconomics textbook…
  4. ? Liar’s Poker (Michael Lewis)
  5. The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
  6. ? Peddling Prosperity (Paul Krugman)
  7. ? The Second Law of Economics (Reiner Kummel)
  8. ? IQ and the Wealth of Nations (Richard Lynn & Tatu Vanhanen)
  9. ? The Ascent of Money (Niall Ferguson)
  10. ?

Top 5 Books of Western Civilization

  1. Odyssey
  2. Aeneid
  3. Holy Bible
  4. Faust (Goethe), OR Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe)
  5. ? Don Quixote

Comment:

Top 5 Books of Russian Civilization

  1. Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (ed. Serge A. Zenkovsky)
  2. The Brothers Karamazov (Fedor Dostoevsky)
  3. ? Fathers and Sons, Oblomov, Woe from Wit, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, War and Peace, Dead Souls, Dr. Zhivago, Eugene Onegin, The Gulag Archipelago, A Hero of our Time, The Master and Margarita, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina – hard to decide which of these to include…
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment: One wishes to include Pushkin’s poems, e.g. Ruslan and Ludmila, but it just doesn’t translate…

Top 5 Books of Children’s Fantasy

  1. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
  2. Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling)
  3. Redwall (Brian Jacques)
  4. The Deptford Mice (Robin Jarvis)
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 15 Fantasy Series

  1. Cthulhu Mythos (H. P. Lovecraft)
  2. Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
  3. Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin)
  4. The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan)
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin)
  6. The Dark Tower (Stephen King)
  7. The First Law (Joe Abercrombie)
  8. Mistborn (Brandon Sanderson)
  9. ?
  10. ?
  11. ?
  12. ?
  13. ?
  14. ?
  15. ?

Comment: Always looking for more recommendations here. Also Sublime Oblivion (Anatoly Karlin), not yet written.

Top 5 Cyberpunk Books

  1. Neuromancer
  2. True Names
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Sci-Fi Books

  1. Dune (Frank Herbert)
  2. ? A Fire Upon the Deep
  3. Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Victorian Sci-fi

  1. The Time Machine
  2. Journey to the Center of the Earth
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment: Separate section for Jules Verne and Wells and others, to be filled in later.

Top 5 Books on the Post-Apocalypse

  1. A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller)
  2. The Stand (Stephen King)
  3. The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
  4. Metro 2033 (Dmitry Glukhovsky)
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Existentialist Books

  1. Labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges), OR Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges)
  2. The Stranger (Albert Camus), OR The Plague (Albert Camus)
  3. Brothers Karamazov (Fedor Dostoevsky)
  4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)
  5. Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr (Miguel de Unamuno)

Comment:

Top 5 Books on the Eastern Front

  1. Absolute War (Chris Bellamy)
  2. The Road to Stalingrad (John Erickson), AND The Road to Berlin (John Erickson)
  3. When Titans Clashed (David Glantz)
  4. Russia and the USSR In the Wars of the 20th Century (Grigory Krivosheev)
  5. Russia’s War (Richard Overy)

Comment: Rüdiger Overmans unfortunately not available in translation. Avoid Anthony Beevor.

Top 5 Books on Eurasianism

  1. Europe and Mankind (Nikolay Trubetzkoy)
  2. Ancient Rus and the Great Steppe (Lev Gumilev)
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. Foundations of Geopolitics (Alexander Dugin)

Comment: Frankly, almost none of the key works on Eurasianism are available in English, so that rule is dropped here.

Top 5 Dystopia Books

  1. We (Yevgeny Zamyatin)
  2. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
  3. 1984 (George Orwell)
  4. ? Fahrenheit 451, The Time Machine – Wells?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Books about children killing each other

  1. Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
  2. Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
  3. Knights of the 40 Islands (Sergey Lukyanenko)
  4. The Running Man (Richard Bachman)
  5. The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

Comment: Note that (3) doesn’t yet have an English translation.

Top 5 Books on the Arctic

  1. The World in 2050 (Laurence C. Smith)
  2. The Future History of the Arctic (Charles Emmerson)
  3. Red Arctic (John McCannon)
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 10 Books on Russian Politics & Society

  1. The Return (Daniel Treisman)
  2. From The First Person (Vladimir Putin, transl. Catherine Fitzpatrick)
  3. After Putin’s Russia (Stephen Wegren Dale Herspring)
  4. Godfather of the Kremlin (Paul Khlebnikov)
  5. Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories (Viktor Pelevin, transl. Andrew Bromfield)
  6. Armageddon Averted (Stephen Kotkin)
  7. Virtual Politics (Andrew Wilson)
  8. The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia (Mark Ames)
  9. The Oligarchs (David Hoffman)
  10. ?

Comment: Also Putin: A Biography (Anatoly Karlin), not yet written.

Top 5 Zombie Books

  1. The Zombie Survival Guide (Max Brooks)
  2. Cell (Stephen King)
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment: Pretty much it, AFAIK. Zombies are only good on film.

Useful Skillz

Top 5 Books on Writing

  1. On Writing (Stephen King)
  2. The Elements of Style (Strunk & White)
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Resources on Language Learning

  1. ?
  2. ?
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment: Online, Fluent in 3 Months.

Top 5 Survivalism Books

  1. Emergency! (Neil Strauss)
  2. SAS Survival Handbook
  3. Surviving in Argentina
  4. Reinventing Collapse (Dmitry Orlov)
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Resources on “Rambling”

  1. conversationally speaking
  2. Cracked
  3. Guinness Book of Records
  4. Everyone misses you when you’re dead
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Resources for Learning Chinese

  1. ?
  2. ?
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

Comment:

Top 5 Poker Books

  1. The Theory of Poker (David Sklansky)
  2. No Limit Hold’Em (David Sklansky)
  3. The Little Green Book (Phil Gordon)
  4. Poker Tells Essentials (Joe Navarro)
  5. Harrington on Tournaments Vol. 1-3 (Dan Harrington)

Comment:

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.