I got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes agai...moreI got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes against science. (I am a STEM/humanities dual degree holder, and came of age in Kansas during the most recent "Evolution Wars," so that's why that sort of thing interests me. How could it not?)
That's kind of what I thought this book would be --- an exploration of counter-trends to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empiricism. And, to an extent, it is; the author is a medievalist, not an Enlightenment historian or a historian of science, and he makes the very interesting claim that the "occult" pursuits mentioned in the title were of a piece with the more widely known, and celebrated, empirical investigations of that era.
(This is not the first time I've encountered that idea, but John Fleming does a very good job of making the case for it. His training as a medievalist works to his advantage here, because he can trace the medieval roots of both Enlightenment science and Enlightenment "magic.")
But the thing that was most counter to my expectations was that this book wasn't really the kind of history I was expecting -- one that dealt with places, events, ideas, trends, and in which individual people appeared briefly, like rocks in a streambed, subtly changing the water's flow and then quickly passed by -- no, this was more like a series of long, detailed biographical sketches.
Fleming chooses individuals or groups that he thinks illustrate something important, arrayed more or less chronologically from the late 1600s to the early 1800s, and he focuses on them, bringing in the broader cultural trends as needed.
The people and groups he chooses to profile are: Valentine Greatrakes, an Irish country gentleman who became famous for miraculously curing people of scrofula by touching them; a small French Jansenist sect that venerated a churchyard where a Jansenist deacon who was thought to have been able to heal people during his lifetime was buried, and who were struck with shaking fits when they visited his grave; Alchemists; Kabbalists; Freemasons; Rosicrucians (who these people were wasn't entirely clear to me! They don't seem to have been an order or a club so much as any people, anywhere, who were interested in discovering things? So I'm not sure who wasn't a Rosicrucian?); Count Cagliostro, who was actually a Sicilian named Giuseppe Balsamo, who went all over Europe founding Masonic lodges of his own "Egyptian" rite, and who was imprisoned in the Bastille because Marie-Antoinette believed (unfairly) that he had participated in a scheme to defraud her that is remembered today as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace"; and the very interesting Julie de Krudener, a Latvian noblewoman who first became famous in pre-revolutionary Paris's literary scene, where she befriended lots of people who are still famous today, like Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, and who later in life converted to Pietism and achieved further fame (or notoriety) as a sort of itinerant preacher. Most amazingly, she became convinced that Napoleon Bonaparte was the literal Antichrist, and that it was her special duty to stop him.
This is all very interesting, and also very well written; Fleming can be very funny. But what I thought was most admirable about his treatment of all these eccentric historical figures is how much he seems to respect them. No one is a fraud or a charlatan in this book, even when what they purport to be doing is physically impossible. Cagliostro in particular he seems to feel it his duty to rehabilitate, because Thomas Carlyle once called him the King of Liars. Fleming does his best to convince us that Cagliostro was not a liar, nor particularly mercenary; that he seems to have been a genuinely nice person, a loyal and honest person, and perhaps a bit too trusting. He is similarly gentle with Julie de Krudener. Lots of people have written her off as a frivolous, selfish, self-aggrandizing adulteress and social climber. Fleming does not deny the things she did to give people this impression, but he also tries to give us the full context of her actions, and to tell us how she saw things. He sees her as a woman of intense emotion, whose marriage could not give her everything she needed, and who did really love the men she had affairs with. He also does an admirable job of connecting her earlier "worldly" behavior -- her seeking out the literary salons like a flower follows the sun, and also her affairs -- to her later religious conversion, saying that both phases of her life follow logically from her florid emotionality and her need for an outlet for all those emotions. We are sympathetic to men whose devotion to Art, or to Principle, lead them to abandon their duties to family and community; why, besides sexism, would we not extend a woman the same benefit of the doubt?
My only complaint with this book was that it ended too soon; it cuts off abruptly after explaining how Julie de Krudener reached the conclusion that Napoleon was the Antichrist. We are not shown how it affects the rest of her life. What did she DO with this astonishing information? Did she preach against him on street corners? Did she abandon all other pursuits, to devote her life solely to denouncing him? This sounds like a life-changing revelation, but we don't get to see how, or if, it did change her life! We're just left hanging.(less)
I've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead o...moreI've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead of a single argument or thesis given a book-length treatment, Feminism Unmodified is a series of transcribed speeches grouped by theme. Each one can stand alone, but they overlap a lot with one another in terms of subject matter and the argument they are making. You can read through them all, cover to cover, or you can flip through the book and read them as they pique your interest.
I knew of Catharine MacKinnon before I got this book --- indeed, having heard of her was the reason I got it; the book itself isn't terribly inviting. (Neither is the other book I have of hers, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. I probably wouldn't have bought either one if I hadn't been introduced to MacKinnon first, through a philosophy class.) I knew that her primary goal in her legal and theoretical writing is to point out that the abstract "person" is a man, and that there are gaps in law and philosophy where the laws and theories that fit around this theorized man don't work as well for women. (There are tons of other kinds of people who don't fit the mold either, and thus are also ill served by existing laws and social theories, but this book only deals with women. Indeed, probably the book's biggest failing is its supposition that women are all failed in the same way by male-dominated, male-defined laws and social structures --- that's where it is most apparent just how old this book is! There's a big difference between, say, a white, middle-class married woman and how the law fails to protect her interests and, say, an undocumented immigrant woman or a transsexual woman or a lesbian or a woman with disabilities whose caregivers live with her or are a party to her major life decisions. The law fails all of these people, and more, some more than others and all in different ways. The study of those differences is called intersectionality*, and it's a pretty big deal in feminism.)
Anyway, on to a more specific discussion of what this book is about. The essays are grouped in three categories --- Approaches, Applications and Pornography --- but it seems to me that there's a lot of cross-pollination across categories, especially the first two. I don't know that MacKinnon ever talks about her approach to achieving equality between the sexes without bringing in specific examples, or discusses a particular application of her ideas without rehashing the general theory. The third section of the book stands out a little more from the others, since it has a much more specific aim: making the case that pornography isn't speech, but actual violence against women. (This is another thing that most feminists today seem to consider dated and wrong, but I find it persuasive.)
In the first part, Approaches, there are five essays. The first one is a defense of the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn't passed, a generation later) given as part of a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. The second talks about how MacKinnon sees the relationship between the sexes: to her, "gender" is not the social roles built on top of naturally occurring sex differences, but is instead a violently imposed hierarchy of male over female. The third piece covers similar ground, but it does so differently, in more philosophical terms. It was derived from a talk she gave at a Marxist conference, so there's a lot of reference to the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, which she uses to describe her understanding of the relation between the sexes. Man is capital, woman is labor, and they are in conflict over the means of (re)production. The last two essays are a bit random; one of them could fit just as easily in the second part, as it is an analysis of one particular court case, and the other deals with what it's like being a woman in the male-dominated legal profession, and how the success of a few women in male-dominated fields doesn't change anything for women as a whole.
The essays in the second part, Applications, are less theoretical and more concrete and specific. They also deal more with specific points of law than they do with any broad philosophical framework. The first one talks about rape, and why so few women report their rapes; the second one (which is actually pretty philosophical; it could fit in just as easily in the first section) about areas of overlap between sex and violence (MacKinnon, unlike some, sees rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault as both violent and sexual acts); the third is a long dissertation on Roe v. Wade and why MacKinnon thinks it was a bad idea to base Roe on the right to privacy rather than on the right to equal protection under the law; the fourth is about sexual harassment, and looking back on how sexual harassment has been prosecuted since it was first defined as a crime; and the last one is about Title IX and the importance of sports in helping women understand that their bodies are their own.
The third part, Pornography, is about ... you know what it's about. More specifically, it's about Deep Throat, and what it means that Linda Lovelace has said she was forced to perform in it. (MacKinnon says it means that Deep Throat is not mere speech, but the record of a crime, and itself an act of violence against its unwilling star). It's also about Playboy, and why MacKinnon thinks feminist organizations need to stop taking money from the Playboy Foundation. Another essay, "Not a Moral Issue," revisits in broader, more philosophical terms the same points made in the brief discussion of Deep Throat: pornography is not just speech, and obscenity law is irrelevant to what MacKinnon sees as the central harms of pornography, which are 1) direct harms done to the performers themselves, who may, like Linda Lovelace, have been forced to perform; and 2) indirect harms to all other women who have to deal with men who watch pornography and think of all women in pornographic terms. She explores this latter idea more in another long essay, "Francis Biddle's Sister," in which she riffs on Virginia Woolf's conception of Shakespeare's sister, talking about all the ways that rape culture hems women in and makes them divert energy that could be used to do great things into simple survival, and into trying to avoid being victimized. Another essay deals with the ordinance MacKinnon wrote with Andrea Dworkin, which would enable women to sue for damages if they thought they'd been victimized by pornography, and the last one addresses the Supreme Court decision that found that ordinance unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment. MacKinnon is not a First Amendment absolutist, and she thinks it's wrong that one person's freedom to make pornography should supercede another person's right to be compensated for wrongs that she can attribute to the first person's exercise of said freedom. For the longest time I thought I was a First Amendment absolutist, that words were only words and they ought to be protected because they can't really hurt you and they are the one thing the least powerful people can use as effectively as the most powerful, so they deserve to be as unrestricted as possible, but lately I've been reconsidering the part about how they can't really hurt anyone. MacKinnon's writing is one of the first things that made me start to question that.
*There is one essay where she deals with this: "Whose Culture?", where she talks about a 1978 court case involving a Native American woman who was trying to get her children recognized as members of her tribe --- a right that, at the time (I don't know how it stands now), only applied to men who married outside the tribe.(less)
With this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from o...moreWith this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from one set-piece action scene to another that is typical of Stephenson's endings, I thought he actually succeeded at tying everything up in this one. I guess he can do that when he's got an entire epic-length novel in which to end things, as opposed to the fifty pages or so he tends to devote to endings in his stand-alone novels.
In this volume, unlike its predecessor, the three books blend seamlessly into one another, and the mega-novel reads just like it had all been written at once. (Maybe it was --- it was published first as a three-in-one volume, and only later were the individual books released.)
Daniel Waterhouse, the first of the three protagonists to be introduced in Quicksilver, is also the first to show up here. Having been drawn out of his long retirement in Massachusetts by Enoch Root, to try and mediate Newton and Leibniz's decades-long feud over (nominally) the credit for inventing calculus and (ultimately) differences of opinion on cosmology, he has arrived in England, where he is standing in a field that will be the site of an "Engine for Raising Water by Fire" (i.e., a steam engine). From there, he goes on to London in the company of a mysterious person named Threader, whose innumerable discreet business transactions with various wealthy townsmen make the trip take far longer than it should. Daniel figures out that Threader deals in the newfangled paper money that Daniel finds so baffling. At the end of this long, meandering trip, something explodes near their coach. Daniel recognizes the flame as that produced by phosphorus, which tells him 1) the explosion was not an accident and 2) whoever made the bomb is an Alchemist.
This one simple task that Daniel is given --- get Newton and Leibniz to talk to each other and start working together instead of at cross purposes --- mutates into an imposing snarl of "side quests" in RPG parlance: Newton is Master of the Mint, and plagued by a mysterious counterfeiter named Jack the Coiner, whom Daniel ends up helping him hunt down; Leibniz has found a royal patron for his Logic Mill project, and he wants Daniel's help in getting the thing built, as well as giving it raw information to encode. There is also a succession crisis --- Queen Anne is childless, old and sickly, and both her brother James and her cousin George have claimed the throne --- and a criminal investigation for Daniel to embroil himself in.
Both of the other protagonists, Jack and Eliza, have entered the story by now: Jack is, of course, Jack the Coiner, working covertly for Louis XIV to undermine Britain's economic power, and Eliza has attached herself to the Hanover court, as she is a close friend of Princess Caroline, whose mother wed George August, who is now one of the claimants to the English throne. Eliza and Daniel are playing for the same team --- Daniel is a Whig, mostly for cultural reasons (he's a Puritan, and there is strong overlap between the Puritans and the Whigs), he's helping Leibniz, whom Eliza also tries to help, and he's helping Newton, whom the Tories are trying to discredit as Master of the Mint. But Jack is working against both of them, which must cause him some internal conflict because he still loves Eliza, though he tries to make himself forget this.
Other characters figuring in this volume are Jack's brother Bob Shaftoe, who is still a sergeant in the Queen's (later King's) Own Black Torrent Guards, and who, with his regiment, helps Daniel and Newton raid a castle belonging to a Tory lord where they suspect Jack the Coiner may be hiding, and later takes part in some skirmishes with Tory militiamen. His regiment is also charged with guarding the Pyx, where samples of coins taken from circulation at regular intervals are kept under lock and key, stored until such time as someone high-placed takes it upon himself to have their purity assayed in a Trial of the Pyx.
There is also Eliza's handsome and resourceful German-born son, Johann; a Puritan shipbuilder named Nathan Orney, who has some wonderfully arch exchanges with Daniel (they call each other "Brother Nathan" and "Brother Daniel," though their feelings for one another are pretty far from brotherly); the huge, one-armed Russian agent provocateur named Yevgeny; the wily Jesuit priest Edouard de Gex, who is in England supervising Jack's sabotage of the English currency; Dappa, who has left Jack's employ for Eliza's, and who has taken up the pen to write articles condemning slavery; and Charles White, an odious person who serves the Viscount Bolingbroke, leader of the Tory faction, and who decides that Dappa, being a black man in England, must be someone's property, so he might as well be his, Charles White's, property. He has Dappa thrown into jail, from whence he directs all his pamphleteering at White personally. Their feud culminates in what may be the most absurd dueling scene this side of Twain's "The Great French Duel."
The ending of the book is truly epic: two climaxes build at once, cutting from one to the other. They have been long in coming: they are the Trial of the Pyx and the execution of Jack the Coiner. Stephenson draws them out, longer I think than any other scene in any of the books. But the drawing-out doesn't feel slow at all; it gives those scenes a sense of grandeur and finality.
Another thing I loved about the ending of this book --- which, after the two climaxes play out, consists of a series of epilogues showing where each major character ends up --- was its thematic coherence. Toward the middle of the book the title is explained: Princess Caroline is presiding over the reconciliation of Newton and Leibniz, and she tells them she wants them to work together because she senses that a new System of the World, a more rational one guided by science, technology and commerce, was being born, but that it was a fragile one that would require both of their combined efforts to keep on track. She specifically worried that the flowering of science would lead to a withering of Christianity, and she called on both philosophers to try to forestall that. At the end of the book, Daniel is standing in the middle of a mine that has been pumped dry by one of the new steam engines, and he reflects that the new System has succeeded in displacing the old. Throughout the saga, Daniel and Eliza have been instrumental in bringing it forth: Daniel has furthered the cause of Natural Philosophy, and Eliza has championed commerce. Eliza's anti-slavery labors also fall under the rubric of this new System: as Daniel sees it, the machines the new System enables man to build will do the work that slaves used to do, and will render slavery obsolete as well as morally wrong. (I do not think that this is true; I know that slavery has survived the machine age.) Newton seems to have one foot in the old System and one foot in the new; he's the world's pre-eminent Natural Philosopher, and as Master of the Mint he oversees the rationalization of England's economic system, but his great passion is Alchemy. Indeed, he tells Daniel he only took the Mint position to try and get his hands on the fabled Solomonic gold, the gold suffused with the Philosophic Quintessence that makes it heavier than all other gold and that, distilled, hardens into the Philosopher's Stone that grants eternal life. And Jack seems to be entirely a man of the old System, thriving on chaos and unpredictability. Everything he does --- undermining Newton's coinage, trying to have Daniel, Newton or both of them killed, throwing his lot in with the absolutist King Louis XIV, as opposed to the ever-more-republican English government, stealing the Solomonic gold and unleashing it upon the world --- seems opposed to the forces of Reason and Modernity, except that he also exemplifies some very modern values, like individualism and egalitarianism. As King of the Vagabonds, his command of the Mobb, and his appreciation for the Mobb's power and knowledge of its nature, prefigure the modern era when most countries are democracies. And in that way, Jack comes off as the most forward-looking of the characters, seeing the potential of mere peasants to be political actors when Daniel and Eliza are fixated on Kings, Barons, Dukes, Princes and Princesses.
Long story short, Neal Stephenson is a genius. I do not doubt I will revisit this series many times.(less)
This book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamless...moreThis book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamlessly Madeline Miller interweaves her own smaller stories into the larger backdrop of the Iliad.
I'm a huge Greek mythology nerd, have been so since childhood, so this is a book I theoretically could have written: taking something huge, like the Iliad, and adding your own small details to it. Filling in between the broad strokes of these archetypal characters. Retelling this ancient story in a modern way, while retaining a sense of its epic scale.
It accomplishes that by deliberately limiting its perspective to that of Patroclus, Achilles' beloved companion. Patroclus does not participate in the fighting until the very end; he stays with Achilles in his tent, and sometimes helps the medic, Machaon, tend the wounded. So the epic battles are largely happening in the background. What's in the foreground is Patroclus's relationship with Achilles, which is told to us in a series of vignettes covering a much broader time interval than the Iliad does, starting in their shared childhood at Achilles's father's court.
We see the action of the Iliad approaching, first from a distance, and inching closer and closer as the book progresses. The seeds of the Trojan War are planted early in this narrative, in a scene placing the child Patroclus in a room with all the other kings and heroes vying for Helen's hand, and swearing the oath with them to come to the defense of whomever Helen marries if anyone steals her from him.
There were a couple of other things I loved about that scene, besides the foreshadowing: first, Miller's ingenious sketching of all the other major Greek heroes of the Trojan War --- she gives only a few lines to each man, but those lines are so evocative that you immediately know who everyone is before she names them --- and second, her impressive rendering of Helen. Helen appears only once in the story, in this betrothal scene, and Miller makes the counterintuitive choice not to describe her.
(What ambitious writer could resist the temptation of describing the most beautiful woman who ever lived? There were lots of points in this book at which I had to stop and acknowledge Miller's cleverness as a storyteller, and the decision to keep Helen veiled was one of them.)
Anyway, once that scene is over and the war, and Patroclus' and Achilles' deaths, are looming ominously in the distance, there's a long lull in which Patroclus and Achilles become close friends, and then lovers. The scenes between them are probably the most romantic thing I've ever read. I can't do them justice in this review.
Besides their heartbreaking tenderness, these scenes also stand out for their characterization of Achilles. Reading Miller's writing of Achilles feels a lot like watching someone walk a tightrope, or successfully make a series of increasingly precarious leaps. There is so much that could go wrong trying to write a novel about someone like that, someone so much larger than life. The most obvious risk to me is making him seem arrogant, selfish, spoiled or rude. It would also be easy to make him a Mary Sue, too perfect to be believed. Somehow Miller manages to give him flaws, make those flaws believable, and also keep the character likeable without compromising the disastrous nature and grand scale of his flaws.
(Another masterful bit of foreshadowing: when Achilles is just getting to know Patroclus, and asks him what he did that his father would exile him to Achilles's father's kingdom, Patroclus answers that he killed another boy who was trying to take something from him. Patroclus wants to know what Achilles would've done in that situation, and Achilles says something like, "I don't know, no one has ever tried to take anything of mine! I imagine I'd get quite angry at them if they did." And does he ever.)
Around the same time Achilles and Patroclus are falling in love, we meet Thetis, Achilles's sea-nymph mother. Her characterization was another thing I thought was absolute genius on Miller's part; rendering a convincing, psychologically complex and realistic character who is also obviously not human is HARD, and Miller does it beautifully. This Thetis has a lot more going on than the Thetis we see in the Iliad, who acts solely as Achilles's advocate to the Olympian gods. Her interests are identical to his in the poem, but not in this novel! Here, she has certain ideas about what kind of a person she wants Achilles to be, and what kind of life she wants for him, and those ideas are not necessarily what Achilles wants for himself. He's torn between Thetis's dreams of godlike glory for him and his love of Patroclus, which brings him closer to the human side of his nature. Accordingly, this Thetis hates Patroclus and tries to chase him away from her son.
I also just like the way Thetis is described. You tend to think of the Greek gods as looking just like people, writ large, because that's how they act most of the time, but yet you also know that in their true forms they're almost unbearably fearsome. Miller's description of Thetis walks this line perfectly; she's a woman, with black hair and pale skin, but she's also scary and otherworldly. Her voice is not a woman's voice; it's a horrible rasp, a noise made by saltwater and stone, not vocal cords. Miller always uses the same sets of similes to describe her: her skin is as pale as bone, the line of her jaw is like the blade of a knife, her mouth is a jagged red rent in her face. She doesn't blend into a scene: she appears, and there is one or two people in particular she's appearing to; no one else even registers to her. You get the impression that she sees people --- mortal people --- as annoying brief intrusions on her timeless, eternal solitude. Characteristic of her are the words with which she dismisses Patroclus the first time she meets him: "You will be dead soon enough."
The last thing I want to single out in this review is Miller's handling of the relationship between Patroclus and Briseis, the girl taken prisoner by Achilles and then taken from Achilles by Agamemnon. In the Iliad, we never really see them together (they're both secondary characters who don't get a whole lot of lines in the poem, though Patroclus gets more than Briseis) and don't get the idea that there's any special bond between them until Briseis speaks at his funeral, saying she loved him. This novel, with its more intimate scope, shows us this relationship from start to finish. It also gives Briseis a personality and desires of her own, which is tough when your only role in the story is that of human MacGuffin to be fought over, and traded between other, more important, characters.
That's probably the essence of this book's genius, right there: centering the book on characters who are secondary, or even peripheral, in the Iliad and giving them enough depth to anchor a novel.
This is the book I will probably always wish I had written.(less)
This is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together se...moreThis is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together separate characters and story arcs introduced in the first two books, Quicksilver and King of the Vagabonds, which is mostly accomplished by having Eliza meet up with Daniel Waterhouse in England. (Jack Shaftoe does not appear at all in this book, though he is alluded to a few times by other characters. His brother, Bob, does make an appearance near the end, introducing a story arc of his own that intersects with those of Eliza and Daniel.)
Structurally, this book follows the latter part of King of the Vagabonds in switching back and forth between two geographically distant characters' points of view. Where in the second book it was Eliza and Jack, here it is Eliza and Daniel, who are much more similar in temperament and habit --- both are smart, cautious characters who observe, plan, and then act, rather than heedlessly throwing themselves into the thick of things. This makes for more suspense, and more sense that each narrative is building toward something, as opposed to just listing along from one episode to the next. But it also makes for fewer entertaining incidents, so if you really liked Jack's part of the last book, you might find yourself bored by this one.
Eliza by now is ensconced in King Louis IV's court at Versailles, where she has a sponsor of sort, the comte d'Avaux, whom she met in the previous book and who has gotten her a position as governess to the children of some noblewoman. That's only a pretext for her to be at Versailles, though, where she has several more important roles she keeps shrouded in varying degrees of secrecy. Nearest to the surface, she acts as personal finance manager to practically the entire court, most of whose members are nearing bankruptcy trying to maintain their households and wardrobes at a suitable level of opulence. Known to fewer people, she corresponds with d'Avaux, keeping him updated on what goes on at court; she also corresponds with the Natural Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who has published his calculus. She uses a couple of different codes to write her letters; the letters she writes to d'Avaux are written in a simpler code that she anticipates will be broken by Dutch spies, who are her real audience for those missives. (D'Avaux, it was revealed in the last book, is working to undermine King Louis, but is not pro-Dutch either. I'm not 100% sure how much his agenda and Eliza's overlap, though I don't THINK he knows the Dutch are reading his correspondence ...) Anyway, at the highest level of secrecy, she's spying for William, the Prince of Orange, who intends to seize power in England.
And, reading that paragraph, you will start to see why I don't like the title of this installment in the Baroque Cycle. An odalisque is a woman whose defining feature is her idleness; she's kept by others to be idle, and beautiful, for them. Eliza, who has to be the one the title refers to, is dizzyingly active ALL THE TIME, simultaneously doing two or three incredibly difficult things, and making sure no one sees her doing them, at any given time. Stephenson might well have chosen the title ironically; that's the only way I can see it making any sense.
I mentioned that Daniel Waterhouse comes back into play in this book; he does, and when we meet him he has come into his own as a political power player. He's still a Fellow of the Royal Society, but he doesn't conduct any research of his own. Instead, he hangs around King James II's dwindling court, watching his doctors try to treat his advanced syphilis and talking with other people about what's going to happen next. He intercedes on behalf of his fellow Puritans, getting them released from jail whenever they get rounded up on suspicion of fomenting another rebellion (remember that in the first book, Daniel's father Drake was instrumental in bringing Oliver Cromwell to power, and was rewarded for this by having his head cut off once Charles II was restored to the throne). While he's watching and waiting, the Glorious Revolution happens around him. He knows he has played some role in bringing it about, but he mostly just wanders around dazed once it actually starts unfolding. Mostly, he tries to keep an eye on his friend Isaac Newton, who is going off the deep end, abandoning physics for some sort of esoteric metaphysics. His parts of the book, especially compared to Eliza's and especially toward the end, are anticlimactic. (less)
As with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in h...moreAs with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in her body, and she --- along with just about every other female character --- regards courtship and marriage as less a search for True Love and happiness and more as a woman's only way to provide for herself and, eventually, her daughters.
Lady Susan is more frankly mercenary than any other Austen character, and she is not facing down the spectre of poverty, so she's more a hilarious, cynical antiheroine than a sympathetic character. She's no Elizabeth Bennett, one of many daughters of an obscure gentleman of modest means; she's the widow of one rich husband seeking out a second, and also trying to set her (maddeningly obtuse) daughter up for life with a rich husband of her own.
This is a very early Austen work, so the satire is much more pointed and direct, and there isn't as much subtle shading of character or gentle fun poked at the eccentricities of the landed gentry.
I also felt like the epistolary structure of the novel made it harder to follow the plot, especially near the beginning when there are so many different characters to keep straight. And while Lady Susan's letters are delightfully wry and catty, I didn't think any of the other characters was given enough space to establish a voice of their own. They mostly act as either hapless dupes or disapproving spectators of Lady Susan's schemes.
So, Lady Susan is a lot of fun, but Lady Susan is kind of a lightweight novel whose structure works against it. (less)
Just about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since you...moreJust about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since you can hardly fault an author for failing to maintain suspense if you pick up the book already knowing what's going to happen.
Even with that difficulty, though, I thought the first part of the book --- chapters written as diary entries for the lawyer Jonathan Harker, who has gone to the forbidding Eastern European country of Transylvania, in the Carpathian mountains, to help a local nobleman called Count Dracula sort out his paperwork in preparation for moving to London --- was absolutely spellbinding. Jonathan's slowly unfolding terror as he realizes what the Count is, and finds that he has no way to escape the castle, infects you as you read it. It's amazing that it does this, because these pages are not written in real-time narration. They're Jonathan's diary, so with each entry we know he survived long enough to write it. That doesn't make his encounters with Dracula, once Dracula's pretense of friendship has been dropped, or with any of the other creepy denizens of his castle, any less spine-tingling.
If I was just going to rate that part of the book, I'd give it five stars. That part, Jonathan's captivity and narrow escape, is absolutely word-perfect. But there's more, and while it's still interesting, and still pretty suspenseful, the tension never mounted as high at any other point in the book for me as it did in that first chunk.
Part of the problem, for most of the middle chapters, was the constant shifting of narrative vantage point. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that everything in it has to be a letter, pages from a diary, clippings from a newspaper or anything else that could be written, or read, by the characters themselves. We meet the two women characters, Mina and Lucy, through their letters to one another; around the same time, we meet Dr. John Seward, a psychiatrist who is treating a really strange patient who eats bugs. All of these people write about very different things, and it can be hard to piece together a narrative from their correspondence and random musings.
Eventually, of course, the things everyone remembers from the movie start to happen: the deserted ship lands (as chronicled by a very excited newspaper reporter, whose article is clipped and saved by Mina), Lucy begins to be plagued by sleepwalking episodes, and then, after one really bad night, she falls mysteriously ill. She is pale, anemic and tired all the time. Here Dr. Van Helsing, the guy who knows vampires, shows up, and the characters try to protect Lucy from her nocturnal visitor, and, later on, to find his lair and destroy him.
(The second high point of the novel for me, as far as suspense and terror go, is the part where they're trying to flush Dracula out and leave him without a place to retreat to during the daytime to restore his powers. He has some huge number of boxes full of earth from his homeland, like forty or fifty, and he has spread them out among several properties in London. The heroes have to find them all, and render them all unfit for Dracula's use by crumbling bits of communion wafer into them, before the sun sets, or else Dracula will know what they're up to and either slip their grasp or kill them.)
One of the things that undermined the tension in a lot of the key places for me --- particularly during the hunt for Dracula's boxes --- was the author's insistence on recording long, mundane conversations in dialect. The characters go around the city quizzing day laborers about recent jobs they've had, to see if any of them were involved in moving the boxes: a reasonable and clever thing for them to do, sure, but did they need to transcribe every interaction in this vein verbatim? I think not. Also, the dialect is really thick, and a lot of it sounds twee to the modern ear, I think.
One of the other reviewers said something about class in this novel: how the middle and upper classes mix freely (e.g., Arthur, Lord Godalming, hanging out with professional men like Harker and Seward, and considering them more or less his equals) but the working classes are shown to be cheerfully subservient. They "recognize their betters", is how he puts it, and I think that describes the tone of the various day laborers' interactions with Seward, Harker and Van Helsing pretty well. So that's a little odd to the modern reader, too, as is the really obvious Victorian idea of women as inherently unsuited to do anything because of their superior virtue and inferior everything else. (I found that *very* annoying, myself. Even Mina, who is very intelligent and resourceful, and who is always gathering and compiling information for the male characters, gets a whole lot of "oh, the poor dear can't handle it" exclusion from both the decision-making and the action).
The characterization of Dracula is very interesting, particularly what Van Helsing considers to be his great strengths and weaknesses. His strength is that he adapts, and also that he was such a smart, brave and ruthless person in life; his weakness is that he does not yet know all that he can do. Van Helsing enigmatically describes him as having a "child-brain", which seems to me to connote a lot of native intelligence and curiosity, but not a very large body of knowledge or experience to draw on. But this is unexpected when you think of how old he is, or the later conceptions of the vampire psyche as one burdened with an excess of knowledge and experience! What was he doing for all those centuries? Sleeping?
Difficulties aside, though, he is a massively interesting not-quite-human character. (I have a special love for those, you may have noticed). I don't know that any movie portrayal has ever captured what a strange and terrible creature he is: Bela Lugosi's suave, sensual Count embodies his capacity to overrule other people's minds, but in the book this just *happens* when he's around, not even necessarily in the room with you. That incarnation of Dracula also didn't include his more predatory-animal qualities. Really, although the sexual and sensual elements are there, I think they have taken on a greater significance in the modern vampire stories than they have here; here, Dracula is far more fearsome than he is beautiful or sexy. I don't think he is represented as being at all sexy in this book; it's clear that vampirism, especially in a woman, is like a sexual awakening (or degeneration, to a Victorian: becoming fallen), but what is sexy isn't the vampire who bites you, it's the power you gain and the loss of inhibitions. Dracula is the serpent, only instead of tempting you, he creeps up on you and makes you just like him. (less)
A couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and ev...moreA couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and events in this book overlap with the first, it really doesn't matter.
Where the first book followed Daniel Waterhouse, Natural Philosopher and scion of a staunch, politically active Puritan family, and took place mostly in England, this book follows "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe (whose nickname refers as much to an anatomical peculiarity of his as it does to his spontaneous and intemperate disposition) and a mysterious, beautiful and very clever woman named Eliza, and takes place mostly on the European continent.
It also has much less of an emphasis on 17th-century science than the first book, delving more into that era's political and economic developments. (Indeed, so much of the action of this book revolves around schemes relating to the buying and selling of shares of stock that I was both bored and somewhat confused for long stretches in the middle. Finance is like intellectual Kryptonite to me; can't understand it, have zero interest in understanding it.)
Anyway, the characters. Half-Cocked Jack sounds like someone took the most dramatic, colorful elements from Dickens (Jack's motherless childhood with his brother Bob, earning money hanging onto condemned men's legs as they swung from the gallows, ensuring a somewhat quicker death), Hunter S. Thompson (Jack is slowly losing his mind to syphilis, and as his side of the story progresses he becomes increasingly prone to vivid hallucinations which he cannot distinguish from reality), Jonathan Swift (in the frankly scatological descriptions of the kind of life Jack leads - hygiene is apparently a luxury a 17th-century Vagabond learns to do without), John Kennedy Toole and Gary Shteyngart (Jack's lewdness, sensuality and his knack for accidental heroism), and blended them all together in a single character. The actual experience of reading about this character's adventures is only slightly less awesome than whatever you've conjured up in your head while reading the previous sentence; the only problem is that they're so disjointed and episodic there's no sense of narrative momentum, just one damn thing after another.
The other main character is Eliza, a beautiful woman Jack rescues from a Turkish army camp during one of his brief spells of soldiering. When she first appeared, I wasn't sure I'd like her: her first interaction with Jack is a strained, eyeroll-inducing stretch of sexualized banter revolving around the tired, ages-old "battle of the sexes" scenario: the man has every kind of power imaginable over the woman, but because he desires her, that somehow evens the scales, or even secretly gives her the upper hand. Whatever. But luckily, Eliza is more than that: she's incredibly clever and a gifted storyteller, spinning tall tales that captivate Jack, who has lived more tall tales than most people have even heard. Like Scheherazade, she doles out portions of her life story (how she came to be a slave in a Turkish officer's tent, for instance, when she is a European woman who speaks English) strategically to make sure Jack keeps her with him long enough for her to get where she wants to go, which is Amsterdam.
Once Eliza gets to Amsterdam, she and Jack split up; she stays put, hoping to get in on the expanding mercantile economy and getting swept up in a scheme involving shares in a silver mine somewhere in the mountains of Germany, which gets her running in such high-rolling circles that she runs into a couple of lordly types who seize the opportunity to use her to further their various political intrigues. Her story gets more and more interesting and suspenseful as the stakes of her game rise and the rules get more complex; Jack's, on the other hand, seems to lose steam once he parts company with her. He continues to wander around Europe, with some vague notions of selling the fine warhorse and other loot he picked up in Turkey and thereby financing x more years of Vagabond life, and maybe also leaving something for his children. (He's never met them, but he knows he has some). He goes from place to place, stuff happens to him, he is increasingly unable to distinguish what's really happening from his hallucinations, which tend to resemble Elizabethan morality plays. It's all fairly anticlimactic, even though there are a couple of really awesome episodes. The book seems arbitrarily cut off at the end, for both of them, though. Eliza's arc in particular still seems to be building toward a future climax when the narrative ends and the (very long) section cataloguing the Dramatis Personae begins.(less)
I'm a huge fan of the X-Men, but I'm most familiar with the All-New, All-Different X-Men Chris Claremont debuted in 1975. I pretty much have everythin...moreI'm a huge fan of the X-Men, but I'm most familiar with the All-New, All-Different X-Men Chris Claremont debuted in 1975. I pretty much have everything about that X-team from its inception to its disintegration and re-forming as two separate teams. Then the 1990s happened, and, having sampled a few issues from that time period, I decided I can safely skip that whole chapter in X-history. I caught back up with the X-Men in college, when Chris Claremont came back for "X-Men: The New Age," which I followed until the House of M realitysplosion.
Add in Joss Whedon's run on "Astonishing X-Men" and Grant Morrison's run on "New X-Men", and you have the entirety of my Marvel Universe background.
I picked up "Utopia" because I'd heard about an upcoming event called "Schism," where Cyclops and Wolverine part ways, each taking half of the current crop of X-Men with him, and I wanted to get some idea of what's been happening in the Marvel Universe leading up to that.
Overall, I say "meh" to it.
This is unfortunate, because "Utopia" didn't have to be a "meh" book at all! It starts out on fairly solid and fertile ground for an X-Men story: the human-mutant conflict, this time erupting over a discriminatory law called "Proposition X" which would restrict mutants' rights to have children. Henry McCoy and a bunch of younger mutants are in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, protesting, and they clash violently with mostly human, anti-mutant counterprotestors, led by (of course) a member of the indefatigable Trask family.
So, that's all very interesting, but we only get maybe five pages of that and then the story changes focus completely, turning to Norman Osborn (a.k.a., the industrialist/mad scientist/supercriminal the Green Goblin, from "Spider-Man") who is apparently passing for a good guy now? And leading a team of Avengers and, now, X-Men too? Anyway, he ends up sending both of these teams into San Francisco to restore order, which is difficult since both teams include such intrinsically disorderly types as Venom, Bullseye, Mimic, Daken and Ares. (Yes, apparently they *really* mean Ares, the Greek god of war, not just some superpowered guy with a toothbrush helmet and anger issues ... I knew the Norse gods sometimes showed up in Marvel comics, but hadn't seen any Greek ones before!)
Anyway, with these new "peacekeepers" on the scene, things explode into three- or four-way mayhem, with agitated mutant protestors and the X-Men on one side, human anti-mutant activists egged on to violence by Whatsisname Trask III or IV, and Norman Osborn's two teams fighting both of those factions, and sometimes each other. There's also a fair amount of subterfuge, as Norman Osborn has made Emma Frost the leader of his "Dark X-Men," and wherever Emma Frost goes, she brings along enough ulterior motives to fill a walk-in closet.
What most contributed to my not finding this story all that compelling were 1) too many characters and 2) too much chaos. What's more, the "too many characters" were drawn from all over the Marvel Universe, so for me at least half of the dramatis personae here were total strangers. And since, with the exception of major players like Cyclops, Emma Frost or Norman Osborn, each one might get a few lines of significant dialogue and a few combat appearances, you're not going to know those characters any better after you've read this book than before. You are also probably not going to get attached to anyone you didn't already know, and you might well be disappointed in the author's handling of those characters you do know.
Two examples stick out for me: Mystique and Daken. Mystique is on Norman Osborn's X-Men (why? She's a mutant separatist, and not above violent, pre-emptive action against human she deems a threat; her sympathies ought to lie with the mutant protestors), but all she does is sit around pretending to be Professor X and issuing public statements of support for Osborn's activities. Mystique is a fascinating, subtle character; intelligent, devious, fiercely protective of those few people she cares about and a consummate spy, a decent tactician and a badass hand-to-hand combatant. Here she's reduced to a play-acting henchwoman.
And Daken ... he, too, seemed underused and reduced in this story. I've only seen him before in Daniel Way's "Wolverine: Origins Vol. 5", but there he seemed to have ten times the personality he has here. What I liked about Daken as written by Daniel Way was his urbanity, and his contemptuous sense of humor. He still has the berserker rage going on underneath that, though, so he has this weird periodicity between opera-going sophisticate whose weapon of choice is his wit, and the howling savage who uses his teeth and claws. Also, he's bisexual and has the power to manipulate the emotions of people around him. Given all that, it's a shame his only role in "Utopia" is ultraviolent thug. He only even gets one halfway decent one-liner: when Bullseye confronts him about belonging to the Dark X-Men and the Dark Avengers, he tosses something off about "I always did like playing for both teams." Zing!
That's all the fun I got out of having him in this book, though; all the rest of the book, he scowls, growls, threatens and menaces like some insecure newbie's interpretation of Wolverine. "I don't know what to do with this guy; better have him go fight something!"
It's probably impossible to discuss this in depth without spoiling everything, so I'll just leave it at saying that Scott's and Emma's actions baffled me. Maybe I'd have benefited from keeping up with them after Joss Whedon left "Astonishing X-Men," and maybe not. It's not that the decision Scott ends up making is so confounding --- it's not, really; it struck me as a perfectly reasonable solution to the X-Men's problems --- it's just that he did a lot of weird, out-of-character stuff leading up to the big decision that didn't seem necessary to me. The whole plot seemed like that; stuff thrown in there for no good reason, adding awkward elements that made characters act against their interests and values too often.
So there you go: potentially promising storyline derailed by overly chaotic plotting, too many characters and disappointingly weak characterization and dialogue. (less)
As you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of t...moreAs you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of this book is complex and multifaceted: two stories, told by two narrators, in alternating chapters. The first narrator is Shira Shipman, a young, upper-middle-class Jewish woman who has recently become a wife and mother. Her life is also almost completely controlled by her employer, a huge biotechnology corporation, not only because they have a very strict, conformist corporate culture (there are even rules, unwritten of course, dictating how women of varying degrees of seniority within the company should dress), but also because Shira lives in what is essentially an upscale version of the company town: it's like a sealed-off, climate-controlled suburb/office park where everyone in the middle and upper ranks of salaried workers and management lives and works. Shira's narration, especially in the early chapters, is therefore suffused with nervousness, and a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, since her husband has recently been promoted and their family moved into a bigger, nicer house. Shira is certain there must be a catch, since she knows she's not exactly a team player, and not exactly in her bosses' good graces.
When the other shoe does drop, Shira packs up and leaves, heading to a place that's the polar opposite of the stuffy corporate-controlled environment she's just fled: it's a free Jewish settlement out in the middle of nowhere, unaffiliated with any of the major corporations that dominate this denuded, radiation-spoiled future Earth. Her grandmother (who brought her up) lives there, and she soon learns that her mother, who left her when she was born, is also coming to stay there. She also soon finds that her grandmother and the father of one of her childhood friends are working on something mysterious and fantastical: a robot that looks, talks thinks and feels exactly like a person, but has superhuman physical and mental abilities.
This robot, who is named Yod (a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; Aleph through Tet were his predecessors, all but one scrapped because of horrible, sometimes deadly, flaws), might be the most interesting character in this novel. That's saying a lot, because this novel is stuffed to the gills with interesting characters. Unfortunately, Shira Shipman isn't one of them --- that's the biggest thing that disappointed me about this book, that practically all of the real-time narration is done by the most boring character. (The other narrator, Shira's grandmother Malkah, spends almost all of her chapters telling the story of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Judah Loews --- also called "the Maharal" --- who created the Golem to protect his people, living as they did in the ghetto of Prague, where Christian mobs could attack them at will. This story is also hugely interesting, but because it's all very external to Malkah herself, the reader doesn't spend as much time in her mind as they do in Shira's. And that's a pity, because Malkah's mind seems like a fun place.) Yod owes his moral and emotional complexity entirely to Malkah's programming; her involvement may well have been the thing that saved Yod from the fate of all the failed attempts before him.
(And now, a random note on terminology: Yod is not a cyborg. There are some cyborgs in this book, but Yod is an android. Cyborgs are people who have been technologically augmented; androids are humanlike technological constructs. Carry on, then.)
Chaos ensues once people outside the tight circle of people who've been working on "the project" learn about Yod and his abilities. There's a lot of corporate-espionage type stuff, amped up by both the apparent absence of laws in this future world (assassination raids, abduction and hostage-taking are apparently standard practice), and the immersive nature of the "cyberspace" the denizens of the free settlement must navigate to earn their livelihood, since they specialize in cybersecurity. (Cybersecurity being very important in this world, what with all the aforementioned corporate espionage.)
This conception of cyberspace --- a three-dimensional "space" that you, virtually embodied as an avatar, move around in to talk to other people, download data, build firewalls or "patrol" existing firewalls looking for signs of intrusion --- is pretty much ripped from the pages of William Gibson's novels, as is the anarchic, impoverished megacity in which Everyone Else (i.e., the poor and the non-corporate) lives. "The Glop" (from "megalopolis," which is one of my favorite science-fiction neologisms ever, and one of the minority that seems like real people might use it) looks a lot like a lower-tech version of the Sprawl from Gibson's novels; Marge Piercy even acknowledges this debt in an afterword.
Derivative as all this is, I still found the worldbuilding in this book to be pretty solid. It helps that Piercy spends most of her time developing settings that aren't the Glop or corporate bubbles: her most original, most interesting "world" is the small, tight-knit community of Tikva, which marries freedom and openness with airtight security and a technological specialization that basically buys them their autonomy. (As in, every major corporation wants to buy their firewalls, so they all tolerate the upstart little city-state's existing outside any one of their control). It's a really interesting, well-realized picture of an intentional community, with a sharp focus on day-to-day survival in an uncertain world.
Another juxtaposition this settlement (and the book as a whole) tries to embody is that of future and past. Everyone in Tikva is a practicing Jew, and Jewish religious and cultural identity are just as integral to the place's cohesion and survival as its cutting-edge technology.
But the best thing, in a novel where everything is done amazingly well, has got to be the characters. I did not find Shira very interesting, but almost every other character who was in the book for longer than a scene or two was absolutely fascinating. And even Shira, though boring (to me), was well-developed, believable and even relatable. She evolves over the course of the book, and we see a lot of different aspects of her character: her feelings of confusion and betrayal when she has to confront her mother for the first time, and her slow metamorphosis from a closed-off, emotionally stunted, timid woman to someone bold, spontaneous and loving, which coincides with her finally moving past a schoolgirl crush on another character. And Yod! Yod is an absolutely masterful work of creation; he's not human, exactly, and he's also not male in the way that a man is male (psychologically, that is; physically he's quite male), but he is certainly a person, and despite the title he is not an "it." (His ambiguous status comes up when he wants to participate in some ritual, I forget which, that is restricted to Jewish men. He wants to be considered, not just human, not just a man, but specifically a Jewish man). His emotions were about half familiar to me (as an autistic person, I am well acquainted with the angst of wondering whether one is really human or not) and half alien (he was made for violence, and takes a predatory delight in it that bothers the moral and relational parts of his psyche), and all beautifully described and conveyed through his confused-but-eloquent speech and his halting, work-in-progress manner. He's definitely one of my favorite non-human characters I've ever encountered.(less)
I read a lot of comic books, and they mostly fall into two categories: comics about grown men wearing tights, and comics where people say "fuck" a lot...moreI read a lot of comic books, and they mostly fall into two categories: comics about grown men wearing tights, and comics where people say "fuck" a lot. Transmetropolitan is a comic where people say "fuck" a lot.
Other than that, it's awfully hard to categorize. It's about the return of its protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, to investigative journalism after five years of almost complete isolation from the world. His editor has called him up asking about a book Spider was supposed to be writing, and Spider realizes he can only write when he's down in the middle of what he writes about, which is life in the City.
Once he's gotten himself set up in a crappy apartment and a regular job writing a newspaper column, Spider discovers a Big Story: a huge conflict brewing between City police and a group of people called "Transients", who have had themselves surgically and genetically altered to look like extraterrestrials. Spider immediately smells a rat, and goes to the scene of the riot and bangs out a column full of his observations and suspicions. The column is a sensation, and Spider winds up with a better apartment and an assistant, a beautiful young woman whom he decides to tutor in the art of gonzo journalism.
That's the plot, but the essence of this book is more in the bizarre details of character and setting that make Spider and his City unique. Here is the kind of person Spider Jerusalem is: his mountaintop cabin, where he's been hiding from the world all this time, is defended with minefields, "smartguns," a security A.I., and an "Ebola bomb" (triggered, one assumes, by someone entering the cabin in his absence). As he leaves for The City, he blasts this bar, the one place he's ever left his cabin to go in the past five years, into flaming wreckage with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. The man is never without a ridiculously high-powered weapon, which he draws and pulls on people (and inanimate objects) whenever the whim strikes him. One of his favored weapons, in one of the book's many Swiftian touches, is a "bowel disruptor", a pistol-sized raygun capable of rendering any opponent helpless with diarrhea. The concept of overkill seems not to exist for him.
The above paragraph makes him sound one-dimensional, which he's not, really. His hostility and paranoia are extreme, but they are not his entire psyche. Not quite, anyway. He also has a commitment to Truth: wherever he thinks people are being lied to or stolen from, especially by people with a lot of power, he wants to nail the crooks to the wall for everyone to see. One doesn't find him all that easy to admire or sympathize with on that count, though, since his pursuit of Truth and Justice is so heavily tinged with sadism. He might have once heard the dictum "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," but it's only the latter half that he really takes to heart. There are a couple of times when he shows kindness, like when he adopts a starving mutant cat and when he tries to comfort his assistant after one of his rants makes her cry, and while these do add depth and nuance to his character, they're not enough to make him into anything resembling a good person.
I also have to say something about the art in this volume, because it's phenomenal. The level of detail in every panel is just amazing, and adds to the messy, anarchic texture of the story. Each panel, especially the crowd scenes, is like a page in a "Where's Waldo?" book in terms of how much is going on in it. (less)