Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Selection: Lawyers, Guns, and Money (and Dick)

connelly.jpg Book Selection(s) of the Month (January 2009)

My friend Dave Whitney had a column called “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” in the Brown Daily Herald when we were in college, and we went to see a Warren Zevon performance back then, too, including his song by that title. Two decades later, I find some of the most interesting books on the market (admittedly written by acquaintances of mine or, in the case of Philip K. Howard, the employer of an acquaintance) address those three important themes (after describing those books, I will take a look at two works by Philip K. Dick, the first sci-fi author in what I’ve vowed to make a year of sci-fi Book Selections, since reality is simply not living up to my expectations):


Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law by Philip K. Howard. Philip K. Howard (not to be confused with Philip K. Dick) also wrote my February 2007 Book Selection, The Death of Common Sense. In that book, he criticized the insanity of our ever-growing and often Catch-22-causing web of regulations. In the new book, out today, he explains how fear of lawsuits and laws has led to the cowardly American culture we now inhabit…in which teachers fear disciplining students for real misbehavior but send them to sex abuse counseling or call in the cops over everyday playground interactions…in which the world is festooned with so many warning labels that people simply ignore them…and in which most of us fear to embark upon any project so big that it may lead to litigation. The solution, I’d suggest, is to simply repeal virtually every regulation we have and restore the concept of reasonable assumption of risk — thicker skins and a higher threshold for entering court. But to see what one of our best legal minds has to say about it all, you’ll have to read this book.


Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment by Brian Doherty. If this book from a Reason editor, published by the Cato Institute, doesn’t leave you thinking at least somewhat like a libertarian (on one issue), I dare say you’re a stubborn, blinkered ideologue (and most likely grew up in a big city, unlike us rural folk who took guns for granted and had fewer crime problems). Yet the book is by no means a polemic. It’s a short, reportorial overview of the legal and political history that led to the recent yet historic Supreme Court decision affirming an individual right to bear arms and knocking down Washington, DC’s onerous gun ban. Along the way, we meet the actual plaintiffs who took DC’s local government to court for impinging on their right to own handguns for self-defense, a group wisely calculated to avoid looking like just an ornery group of white hunters (not that that should matter for legal purposes), including two gay men who’d fended off a mugger and a group of would-be gay-bashers, respectively, and a black woman in need of a deterrent in a neighborhood of (vocally) life-threatening gang members. We also learn just how psychedelically detached the anti-gun crowd’s depiction of America’s gun history is from reality. Far from being something meant only to augment government-run militias, guns were clearly intended to be things easily used by any citizen, even against an overweening government if necessary — and several states even mandated gun ownership prior to the anti-gun trend of the twentieth century. A heroic group, including Cato staff members themselves, brought the case to the Supreme Court, won, and left us all a bit freer — able more easily to exercise the most basic right, the right to self-defense (without which even something as simple as property would be impossible).

Fittingly, I finished reading the Doherty book two nights ago at the gun-culture-inspired Cowgirl Hall of Fame bar in Manhattan’s West Village — at a birthday gathering for young Jasmine Goldman, who has one strange thing in common with my girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and perhaps others in their age bracket: an inordinate love of the Jim Henson fantasy film Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Helen and I found ourselves at a Rocky Horror-like Labyrinth singalong event just one night prior to the Cowgirl gathering, in fact, yet I — ostensibly a fan of fantasy films, Muppets, and Bowie — had not even recalled that there was more than one song in the film. For me, it was as strange as if someone told me that all the young people these days are memorizing and performing the dialogue of Hardcastle and McCormick episodes.


The Urban Hermit by Sam MacDonald. Speaking of hard-partying Yale alums, Sam MacDonald once led a life of excess and has turned the story of his recovery into a book. My fellow Phillips Foundation Fellows are an amazingly talented and unpredictable bunch of writers — some of whom I hope you’ll see debate at Lolita Bar on Feb. 19 about the state of the conservative movement. Most of them write about politics, though. By contrast, Sam MacDonald wrote a book about finding himself simultaneously (1) greatly overweight and (2) badly strapped for cash. Turning necessity into a virtue, he decided to hunker down and cut his expenses by whittling his daily diet to roughly a can of tuna. Thinner and less broke, he then turned his experience into a strange but pragmatic tale of poverty and dieting (one that critics have been praising).


Solar Lottery and The Game-Players of Titan by Philip K. Dick. As legal battles and bouts of economic turmoil suggest, life has the game-like element of chance about it — a theme addressed in two early Dick novels (both given to me, like my upcoming February and March sci-fi Selections and one of last month’s Selections, by Dawn Eden, who more recently also informed me of the existence of a sci-fi-writing archbishop).

Solar Lottery is no great shakes, sounding a bit too much like a half-hearted attempt to do mid-century space opera, albeit with a nice Dickian twist about a robot assassin that cycles randomly through multiple personalities as several different human controllers telepathically/remotely control it. However, Dick does play with the interesting idea of a lottery that determines nearly every social outcome, whether personal, economic, or political.

In the vastly superior The Game-Players of Titan, he revisits that idea in a form that is initially humorous and eventually convincingly nightmarish, even alarming. The handful of surviving humans in an era in which fertility rates have plummeted are left with boundless real estate and abandoned cities on their hands, essentially playing continent-sized games of Monopoly, aided by flying, talking, sometimes cranky cars — and confounded by memory-altering amoeboid aliens who induce something akin to schizophrenia in the frightened, confused human players — all of which makes me wonder whether Ridley Scott, who we know read Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and turned it into Blade Runner, read this Dick novel too, since he has reportedly attached himself to a movie version of the boardgame Monopoly. Is there more Dick-related cinematic eclecticism on the way from Scott?

There are two far more promising-sounding Scott projects on the way, though. He may direct a movie of Joe Haldeman’s epic, relativistic-speeds-themed spacewar novel Forever War (in which each military excursion leads to the soldiers returning to a vastly-changed society on Earth due to Einsteinian aging effects), which could easily be the coolest thing ever. And he is reportedly talking to Sigourney Weaver about doing a movie with her fighting space aliens again — but without using the actual Aliens aliens.

That would be interesting, since another veteran of that franchise, James Cameron, will be pulling the same maneuver late this year, pitting Weaver against aliens in the 3D spectacular Avatar. And who needs the actual Aliens aliens, after all, beautifully designed though they are? Let them run amok in their increasingly trashy franchise. I just want Weaver, Cameron, and Scott — so say we all.


The next few months bring the long-delayed purchase of the final comic books I will ever read, in the form of the Geoff Johns-written miniseries Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds (featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes and the villainous Time Trapper, about whom I’ve written before, all drawn by George Perez, who drew the first superhero comic I recall reading). But Johns has also written a pivotal episode of Smallville, airing this Thursday (Jan. 15) at 8pm Eastern and depicting a live-action version of the Legion of Super-Heroes for the first time — reason enough for me to watch and celebrate with cocktail weenies and the consumption of that one bottle of beer that’s been in my refrigerator for something like a year now.

Johns is a comics-writing machine (and great at nerd-pleasing plotting, though he still needs work on subtlety and emotion) who was writing something approaching seven comics titles per month at one point during DC’s “Infinite Crisis” storyline in 2005 — and who will be writing five monthlies, I think, this summer, in the form of Green Lantern, Blackest Night, Flash: Rebirth, Superman: Secret Origin, and Adventure (at least, I assume he’s the writer on Adventure, which is slated to depict the newest version of the Legion).

After that, he has said, he’ll go back to writing “only” three monthly titles — but which ones, I wonder? He presumably is popular enough to have his pick these days, barring veto from DC Executive Editor Dan Didio. I’ll guess (1) Green Lantern, (2) a new Flash ongoing series, and (3) Adventure — though I could just as easily imagine him concluding that “his work is done” on reviving all three of those franchises.

Maybe he should be the next regular writer of Justice League of America. Let him be the backbone of DC’s main Earth and let writer Grant Morrison control the rest of the multiverse…


Mark said...

Honest, I swear I’m not trying to be a jerk leaving these links here, but Gillespie had a great review of the McDonald book:

pulp said...

Brian Doherty is becoming a really strong writer, that’s good for him. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the stuff he’s written.

Man In The High Castle ranks as my favorite PK Dick novel. A convincing and perhaps accurate scenario in which the US lost WW2 to Germany and Japan. It deals with a US both militarily and mentally defeated by fascism, frightening.

PK Howard’s thesis is so self-evident, and it is so clear that we are no where as a society near the point where we will, “simply repeal virtually every regulation we have and restore the concept of reasonable assumption of risk,” that reading this book will only piss me off more than I already all pissed off. I am coincidentally re-reading T Paine’s Common Sense now.

If you’re going to make something the “last” comic book you’re ever going to read, you might as well pick something good–rather than these “infinite crisis” things. I would say Morrison/Quietly’s All-Star Superman pretty much says it all, as far as DC Comics is concerned.

Todd Seavey said...

I also really liked _Man in the High Castle_ — and will make an exception for comics that the writer himself urges me to read, I should add (I don’t want to be a jerk about it).

Todd Seavey said...

The young ACSH intern, Lizzie Wade, echoes Helen and Jasmine’s pro-_Labyrinth_ sentiments, so I’m pleased to see they’ve achieved three-way intersubjective confirmation. We have a real trend on our hands, I think.

I would also like to note that the best scene, with Bowie mesmerizing Connelly into thinking she’s at a fancy ball — until she smashes a mirror and makes gravity go haywire for a moment — looks like anime, which I understand the twentysomethings also like.

Todd Seavey said...

One last _Labyrinth_ thought: Helen says she likes it in part because it’s the kind of movie in which Muppets are _harmed_, not merely cute — a sentiment that makes sense coming from a taxidermist like Helen:

Todd Seavey said...

Woah — another neat bit of superhero/political news, coincidentally:

The aforementioned Geoff Johns, in order to write the zillion comics mentioned above, is leaving the writing position on the comic book _Justice Society of America_ — that being the name of the Word War II-era predecessor of the Justice League, now charged with grooming a rising generation of young heroes.

Well, right on cue, the incoming new JSA writer, Bill Willingham, says he’s had enough of darkness and decadence in comics and wants superheroes to live up to the genre’s implicit high ideals — and he says it on a conservative site, which is in turn quoted on this comics site (I would not be startled to learn that Johns himself is some sort of moderately-religious moderate-conservative, incidentally, given the friendly treatment faith gets in several of his scenes — but I don’t want to mislabel anyone):

Brain said...

_Man in a High Castle_ is a fine book, but I reread it a little while ago and I did not understand the ending.

A great, but little appreciated novel he wrote was _Confessions of a Crap Artist_. It’s a beautiful portrait of the ordinary madness and longings for meaning and social belongiong we all suffer from. Contrast the role of architecture in “Crap Artist” to Rand’s use of it in _The Fountainhead_, and you appreciate the difference between an artist and an ideologue.

***Spoiler Warning****

You needed to read _Solar Lottery_ a little closer, Todd. The only thing that the solar lottery covers is the right to be Supreme Leader, which all people have, at birth, an original right to. But this right is tradeable, so people sell theirs to sectional leaders, in return to be protected as vassals. But the best part is, that the game is fixed. From a property-aficionado’s point-of-view, there’s a lot of neat stuff going on here.

***End Spoiler Warning***

But what has always struck me about P K Dick’s writing is the melancholy. His worlds are always very small and sad (even if the stakes are universal), very touchingly human, very hopeless, full of imperfect love and unintended betrayals. It’s remarkable how many of his strories were made into successful movies.

pulp said...

melancholy, yeah. Agreed. Particularly Scanner Darkly, Brain, which has left me deeply depressed the 3 times I’ve read it. That’s OK though.

I agree, Crap Artist is a great piece of work, and different from PKDs other works.

Todd Seavey said...

Here’s something (pointed out to me by Marc Steiner) _parodying_ shows that may occupy a very similar spot in Gen Xers’ brains to the one occupied by _Labyrinth_ in millennials’ brains, care of _Mr. Show_:

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Yesterday, I corrected a typo that I noticed in one of this blog’s first entries, from two years ago (a review of a book by Brian Doherty, who also wrote one of last week’s Book Selections), and that typo led me free-associatively to ten musings that warrant a book-length explanation. I’m slowly working on that book-length explanation, as it happens, but for now this one blog entry will have to suffice. [...]