It’s been a bit quiet here of late. Few updates. As it happens I have been writing a bit, but most of it’s been content development for a private educational company so it’s nothing I can link to here. But it’s also true that I’ve been limiting my work intake for most of the fall season. No real reason other than that I felt like slowing down a little bit and the easiest way to accomplish that is to accept less writing assignments.
Meanwhile I’ve made it a goal to make a small dent in the pile of non-review books I’ve been wanting to read. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction on social science topics which have all had more overlap than I had expected. I’ve just been working on an audiobook of Slavery by Another Name, which is all about the post-Civil War Southern United States.
It’s not a metaphor for racism or something vague like that. It turns out that after Lincoln freed the slaves, a huge number of them actually continued as slaves through corrupt economic and legal apparatuses that basically allowed small town sheriffs to arrest the United States’ newest citizens on phoney charges, whereby they’d be sentenced to hard labour, which was then contracted out to railroads, plantation owners, mines, etc. Often the paperwork would get lost and their “sentence” would never end. Yes, slavery actually continued well into the twentieth century, and no, it wasn’t a rare thing but actually extremely widespread in those regions.
I also just finished Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which talked a lot about debt peonage, which works the same way, except it’s a fine or debt that has to be worked off, and which can never be repaid because the indebted person is only paid a pittance. So debt peons too are basically slaves, but it’s justified by an account book instead of racial ideology or archaic customs of war.
On the heels of wrapping up 1491, about North American society before (and, to some extent, also immediately after) Europeans arrived, I picked up Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, subtitled An Indian History of the United States. It tells the tales of Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and other leaders of indigenous nations set against or attempting to make peace with the United States during the same period discussed in Slavery (about the time of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century.
It’s an incredibly infuriating and sometimes hard to read story. Many indigenous groups experienced horrors a par with the Jewish Holocaust or African American slavery. In fact, in some parts of the country, huge numbers of indigenous people were kidnapped and sold into slavery, often in Mexico. And in many parts of the country (most, perhaps), American military and government groups sought no less than the complete genocide of all indigenous peoples, to the extent of slaughtering entire villages of unarmed women and children, begging for mercy (look up the Sand Creek massacre).
It’s easy to forget how recent all this has been. Yes, some of the Nazis who murdered Jews are still alive today. But some of the people who murdered indigenous people unconscionably (or who continued to keep African slaves in defiance of the 14th amendment) were still alive when Auschwitz was up and running, so it’s just one generation further back. All of this horrible stuff happened very recently, but maybe it’s easier to learn about the terrible things that happened across the Atlantic rather than what happened much closer to home.
Besides all this heavy stuff, I read Gateway, one of Frederik Pohl’s best-known novels, which I got at the used bookstore a few months ago. Coincidentally, I decided to read it just before hearing that he’d passed away, which made reading it a little bit, funereal, I suppose.
It’s quite good. Some of the old guard of SF have a reputation for not really getting character development or dialogue or other things of that sort. But Pohl’s pretty good in that department. The conceit that has almost the whole novel be told in a series of flashbacks during a man’s therapy sessions with a robot psychiatrist — I thought it would just be a gimmick but the novel has a psychological payoff that really worked for me.
Mr. Pohl, you will be missed.
So, what should I read next? (No, don’t tell me. My bookshelf is quite full.)