The Year in Reading, 2017
“Lawyers become somewhat cynical,” explains Perry Mason to a new client in The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955). When I read that sentence this fall, boning up on lawyer stories to tell my own, I smiled. My evil lawyer twin knew just what Mason (and his creator) meant.
I wonder what they would have thought of 2017.
On the day of January’s dark inaugural and its visions of “American carnage,” I pulled a little old book in a green cloth binding from my office library shelf. Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from W. H. Taft to G. W. Bush was published in the year of the last dystopian presidential inauguration I witnessed (that one in person), not coincidentally the first inauguration after September 11, 2001. I received Inaugural Addresses as a gift for the same I reason I got to attend the 2005 inauguration in person: because I was a partner in a big law firm. The book was that year’s installment in the Lakeside Classics, a series privately published by the financial printer R. R. Donnelly & Sons for their customers, most notably the lawyers who will recommend to their clients which printer they should use for their next big transaction, to publish the SEC-regulated paperbacks authored by capital to solicit new investment.
Unsurprisingly, old inaugural addresses are not compelling reading. They are ritual recitations of platitudes, usually infused with an elevated variation on Rotary Club civility. What’s most striking is how the problems new presidents say they plan to solve are almost always the same, and how they all frame even the darkest challenges with American optimism. Until the last address in the volume, a coded 21st century manifesto for offshore war and torture in the name of “homeland” security.
The revelation of that difference was cogently articulated by Masha Gessen in her brilliant essay “The Reichstag Fire Next Time,” published in the July 2017 issue of Harper’s. Gessen argues that the events of September 11 were the American Reichstag fire, the event that birthed the state of exception from which we have not yet emerged. “A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not.” The collective siege mentality charges the state with the retributive urges of the masses, and gives license to conduct in the name of the nation contrary to its laws. It creates the opportunity for cynical demagogues, power mongers and plunderers to exploit the moment. This January, it felt like the first time that the war that cannot end had really come home: the power of the state charged by domestic factional enmity and punitively turned on large chunks of the population. That foreboding quickly proved true here in this “sanctuary city,” when our neighbors started to report sightings of ICE trucks rounding people up from suburban apartment complexes, to be shipped to private detention facilities further south—facilities that recently added special provisions for all the children that have been locked up. Reading the news stories of that, and DHS inspector general reports on the deportation camps, set the tone for the year—and proved Andrea Pitzer’s One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps exceptionally timely.
So when I watched the excellent Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the few television programs I screened in full this year, I couldn’t help but see it in part as a post-9/11 story—the way that, if you removed the speculative element of the reproductive crisis, you would have a remarkably plausible vision of the Penceist patri-theocracy that seems like it is trying to be born.
Perhaps that darkly skewed personal framing is why I found my most compelling nonfiction reading this year (more research) to be The Guantánamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law, an oral history of the efforts by a small number of American attorneys to provide an effective pro bono defense to the Gitmo detainees. Published in 2009, the book tells a story of true dystopia through the dry, cynical, and determined voices of working lawyers sharing vignettes about their efforts to secure some measure of due process for people locked up in a secret military prison as enemy combatants largely unprotected by either the United States Constitution or the Geneva Convention. The book tells of Orwellian procedural obstacles like the way the Pentagon required that, in order to be able to establish an attorney-client relationship, the lawyers first had to figure out how to get an inmate locked in an isolated concrete box on a military base on the far side of Cuba to fill out a Pentagon form appointing a lawyer they had never met. The lawyers recount what it is like to interview a client who has been subjected to months or years of “enhanced interrogation.” They explain the challenges of retroactively proving the innocence of clients who had no involvement in armed conflict or jihad, but were in the wrong place at the wrong time in the first couple of years after 9/11, captured by opportunistic bounty hunters and sold to American soldiers as Taliban or Al Qaeda for cash rewards. They share absurd banalities, like the fact that there is a McDonald’s across from the horror show of Camp X-Ray, and touching ones, like the way the lawyers were allowed to bring their clients food from home (but no books), and the client interviews would be day-long pig-outs on take-out hauled from stateside in paper bags. The book ends with a dark jurisprudential reflection on the precedent Guantánamo and the global network of black sites of which it was the flagship established for the idea of prisons outside the law, a precedent that could be brought back to the fifty states more easily than most Americans appreciate.
That idea of Guantanamo coming home was in my mind as my research got me reading stories of domestic states of exception other countries have endured in recent history. The Execution of Charles Horman by Thomas Hauser, published in 1978 (and adapted in 1982 as the Costa-Gavras film Missing), tells the story of a young American journalist who was executed during the Chilean coup of 1973 after he learned of the extent of American involvement. Nunca Más is the 1984 report of the Argentine commission that investigated the atrocities of the military regime that seized power from the 1970s through the early 1980s, a lawyerly compilation of first person experiences of the survivors—the work product of an effort at accountability and atonement still in process as recently as a few weeks ago, when 29 former officials were sentenced to life for dropping drugged extrajudicial detainees to their deaths from government aircraft. Talking about these texts with my in-laws, who lived through and lost friends to the latter regime, brought the reality and possibility of their horrific events home.
Reading that material made me wonder whether there will ever be any similar accounting in the U.S. This year saw the opening in Dallas of W.’s portraits of disabled veterans of the wars he launched, the subject of a glossy art book, but we have yet to see any paintings of waterboarding, or the juvenile victims of “shock and awe.” Looking at those paintings, which are better than you think, one sees evidence the retired president is coming to terms with some of the things he did. This year also saw some measure of legal sanction for the darkest aspects of the GWOT, in the civil suit by former black site detainees against the two psychologists who designed the government’s “learned helplessness” torture methods. The former Justice Department lawyers who wrote the secret memoranda approving such techniques have thus far avoided any such challenge.
In another nonfiction book from this year’s reading, Undoing the Demos, the Berkeley political scientist Wendy Brown decodes the ways in which these sorts of failures of civil society to adhere to law result from the active efforts of neoliberal capital to replace the popular foundations of democracy with a regime of corporate sovereignty—a project we are now seeing enter a new phase, one married with dark populism.
Political scientists, like politicians, seem to have accepted our long dystopian drift as an inevitability, and largely abandoned the project of extrapolating utopian alternatives. I keep thinking that science fiction may be able to fill that gap. I sampled widely in the field this year, and at its margins. Among the notables:
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, a compelling effort to construct a plausible utopia in a society that has eliminated scarcity but not inequality, drawing on the lessons of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King, a near-future exploration of the unanticipated consequences of 21st century biopolitics.
The Moon and the Other by John Kessel, an intellectually rigorous and beautifully told speculation about human socio-political experiments on the Moon.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, an engaging postcyberpunk tale of pharma-piracy.
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, a genre-riffing take on the American road trip, in search of spectral ghosts of the Twin Towers that appear in the Dakotas.
The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden, a fresh afro-futurist melding of fantasy and science fiction infused with the energy and diversity of the global street.
Hollow by Owen Egerton, a downbeat literary tale of an American man who endeavors to escape his self-flagellating ennui by joining an expedition in search of the Hollow Earth.
Collections and Anthologies
You Should Come with Me Now, a wonderful collection of psychogeographical riffs and other condensed marvels from “cartographer of the liminal” M. John Harrison.
Counternarratives by John Keene, an ingenious work of imaginary narratives that discover the secret histories of the African diaspora in the Americas.
A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford, masterful tales of diverse horror drawn from the authentic material of middle America.
Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe, a long-awaited collection of warm and affirming works of regional American fabulism.
What I Didn’t See by Karen Joy Fowler, her brilliant and beautiful recent collection.
Global Dystopias, a politically charged selection of new stories and interviews curated by Junot Díaz for Boston Review.
Collected Essays by Rudy Rucker, a compilation of pieces by the cyberpunk master beginning in the 1980s that remain fresh and cogent.
I finished the year reading two compelling collections in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series edited by Terry Bisson. Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason and Totalitopia by John Crowley both, in their title pieces, show how the path to smarter futures often travels through the science fictional past—a lesson I also learned from two 80s novels I read this year, Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain and Jack Womack’s Terraplane. Arnason’s Mammoths uses an alternate natural history of the European conquest of the Americas to construct a fable with more truth than most nonfictions—achieving just the sort of effect cited by Crowley is his insightful essay “Totalitopia,” which considers the modes of predictive futurism and finds them consistently inferior to the beauty and strangeness of transcendent divinations artistically conjured from the material of the observed world.
“The future, as always, is now.”
Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas, a novel published in 2017 by Harper Voyager. He lives in Austin, Texas.