Author’s note: I wrote this a few months ago about the Brexit vote, then I never published it. It’s a rambling, disjointed, ill-informed opinion piece that somehow manages to begin with the Brexit vote and end with the holocaust. I felt like it was rather silly and hyperbolic, even by my own shamefully low standards. But then Donald Trump won the election here in America. I was trying to make up my mind what to say about that, and I had the idea to take about the last quarter of this piece and fold it into another article. But when I read this over again, I felt like it held up. It’s message is more applicable in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. So, here it is.
Oh, and all you Brits out there who voted for Brexit: Did you really think you were going to out-stupid America?
First of all, I have to say that I’m not an expert on the European Union. I don’t live there. I know there are systemic issues within the EU that need to be addressed. I know it’s not a perfect system; nothing ever is. This is just my take as a whole, as a barely informed spectator from across the pond.
In my opinion, the European Union is one of the greatest accomplishments of the twentieth century. I’d always looked at the EU, at what Europe had managed to accomplish, and thought that I was actually witnessing a turning point in the history of civilization: Human beings actually learning something from history, and then doing something about it.
I mean, think about that. We finally learned. We finally learned. After tens of thousands of years of tribalism, feuds, invasions and counter-invasions, nearly constant war throughout the entire blood-soaked history of the continent, hatreds that go back to the beginning of time, climaxing with the horrors of the world wars, the pogroms, the holocausts, the genocides, the dictators. National Socialism. Fascism. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. Thousands of years of bloodshed and horror culminating in an orgy of bloodshed and horror.
And then, it stopped. It actually stopped.
It was as if Europe, after centuries of blood-rage, was finally shocked into sobriety by what they’d done. They finally took a look around and realized that it just wasn’t worth it. In all that time, what had this fighting ever accomplished? From Hastings to Normandy, European countries had been sending its young men into the meat grinder, often for the stupidest of reasons. Then, they finally realized that they are all brothers and sisters.
And then they stopped. They finally stopped.
Less than ten years after the second world war ended, the early framework for the EU had been created. One by one, countries joined together, uniting politically and economically, opening their borders to each other. No more armed border crossings. No more papers, please. No more invading neighbors. No more young men sacrificing their lives to the whims of Royal family feuds.
And the result? Seventy years of peace on the European continent. Seventy years. Countries that just decades before had been ruled by dictators and monarchies and despots, now solidly democratic. Quality of life that is the envy of the world and keeps getting better. Economic prosperity. Human rights. Civil rights. Universal healthcare. Education. Say what you will about the immigration crisis, (and I do agree that it’s a crisis, and must be intelligently and reasonably and compassionately managed) you have to acknowledge the fact that these people want so badly to come to the EU because it is so much better than other places.
All of this is why the Brexit vote, and the politics accompanying it, is so discouraging. I may be conflating correlation with causation, but it seems as though, in the long term, we’ve learned nothing. I can’t help but observe that the generation that built this institution is the same generation that witnessed first hand the slaughter and misery of the world wars. And I also can’t help notice that at almost the exact moment this generation fades away, at the exact moment that the horrors of the early twentieth century pass out of living memory, we start going back to our old ways. Nationalism and isolationism. Xenophobia and paranoia. Closing borders. Listening to bigoted, hateful demagogues, lining up with pitchforks in hand to deal with those people, because the angry man up on the podium is feeding off of our fear and our uncertainty, using the rhetorical alchemy of would-be dictators to transform that fear into hatred, and then feeding it right back into our hearts.
We’ve learned nothing. We’re still monkeys flinging our own shit at each other.
Maybe I’m exaggerating, but then again maybe I’m not. Maybe this is how it starts. Maybe we should really know better by now.
And, as an American, I realize that I have no room to talk in regards to idiotic politics. The reason I’m so disappointed by all this is that I thought you guys were doing better than us.
At the risk of hyperbole, I’m going to make one final point. I’ve known many Germans. They’ve all been wonderful, friendly, gracious human beings. I’ve never been to Germany myself, but I know many who have, and they all say the same thing. It’s a wonderful place, full of wonderful people. Intelligent, progressive politics. A high standard of living. Great beer. A great place to visit, and a great place to live. Before the Nazis took over, Berlin was one of the most liberal, cosmopolitan cities in the world. Pre-war Germany was a highly educated, thoroughly modern population. There is no secret black heart of the German people. They’re just people.
If the German people were capable of being duped, of being complicit, willingly or unwillingly, in the holocaust and the rise of the third reich and all of the horrors that followed, then we are all capable as well.
The Holocaust was not made possible by a flaw in the German character.
It was made possible by a flaw in the human character.
If it could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. Britain, America, anywhere. And it starts with the smallest things. It always starts with the smallest things. A forest fire can start with just the tiniest ember. We, as human beings, have a responsibility to be forever aware of the horrors of which our own darkest nature makes us capable. And we must always be vigilant.
You know the one. You were so close. Maybe you worked together. Maybe you were roommates or neighbors. You hung out all the time. You texted each other constantly. You were completely at ease together. You could practically read each other’s minds. They were as much as part of your life as that comfy old sofa in your living room.
But then, one day, something changed.
Maybe you moved, or you got a new job, or you started dating someone, or maybe they did. You promised yourself you’d keep in touch. You really meant to. But the sad fact is that most friendships are based on convenience and proximity. And so, what used to be a daily thing became a weekly thing, then an occasional thing. The texts dropped off. You kept up with them on Facebook, but otherwise kind of went on with your life.
You didn’t mean for it to happen like that, but it did. Pretty soon, the situation becomes self perpetuating. You don’t call because you didn’t call. You’re embarrassed that you let it go so long. You avoid making that call. Even if you have a perfectly reasonable excuse, you’re afraid that at this point you’ll be seen as self serving, only coming back into their life when it’s convenient for you. You’re sure they must just hate you by now. Surely they’ve written you off as another false, fair-weather friend. What’s the use in bothering them, forcing that awkwardness on them? Forcing them to pretend that they’re still your friend? That they still care? It’s better for everyone if you just them go on with their lives.
Slowly, inevitably, the friendship fades away. Until one day you run into your old friend in the grocery store, and neither one of you has much to say. You feel terrible about it, that you’ve let things go so badly. Like that houseplant you forgot to water until it withered and died. You’ve become two different people. Strangers. There’s some awkward, stilted chitchat, promises to catch up. How’s your sister? Did you ever … weren’t we going to …
And then you’re faced with a choice. Do you fess up and admit your mistake? Do you swallow your pride and make an effort to keep the friendship alive, to make sure you keep a place in your life for this person? Or do you just let go, just relax and let the last cords of that relationship slip through your fingers and drift out to sea?
So, on a completely unrelated topic, I haven’t posted on my blog in a while.
Okay, so this guy, Loki Lokash, did a great review of my book, The Devil’s Mouth, on YouTube. It’s quite entertaining and really very flattering, so you should probably watch it and all his other book reviews. But he brought up a great point. Namely, how can action heroes manage to stay so pretty when they’re getting beaten up all the time? As sometimes happens in my brain, this question inspired an odd little short story.
So, yeah. Watch the review. Read the story. Buy the book.
The Adventures of Captain Stalwart, Realistic Action Hero
Jeeves, loyal butler and manservant to the caped crimefighter Captain Stalwart, peered out the window of the limousine at the abandoned quad cane standing on the sidewalk. He pulled the car to the curb and got out.
The sound of angry yelling attracted his attention, coming from a nearby deli.
Jeeves picked up the cane and entered the deli.
Inside, in front of the cold case, an old man stood on wobbly legs and swung his fist at the hapless deli clerk. The clerk fended his attacker off with a chair. He looked over at Jeeves when the bell on the door rang. “Hey man, help!” he cried. “Get this old lunatic off me!”
“Take that, Doctor Nefarious!” yelled the old man, windmilling his fists wildly. “I’ll not rest until you’re back in Stonegate Prison!”
“Master Jason,” said Jeeves sternly, taking hold of the old man’s arm, “stop this! He isn’t Doctor Nefarious! Doctor Nefarious is a senator now. You know this. Come along, let’s get you back to the mansion. You need to take your medication.”
“Eh?” said the old man. “But he—”
“Captain, no,” Jeeves said, sternly. “We need to go home right now. I’ve brought the car.”
The deli clerk said, “Thanks, man. That old lunatic thinks he’s Captain Stalwart.”
“Well actually,” responded Jeeves, “he is Captain Stalwart. Was, rather.”
The clerk’s face showed disbelief. “No way, dude. Captain Stalwart is… well he’s not ugly. Or old. This guy’s face looks like a bowl of mashed potatoes. And he’s like sixty.”
“Hrah!” Said Captain Stalwart, taking another half-hearted swing at the clerk.
Jeeves looked over his boss’s face: The massed scar tissue, the misshapen, flattened nose, the cauliflower ears, the split lips and the missing teeth. “Sad to say, he’s only 43. I’m afraid he’s gone downhill rather quickly. As it turns out, when one goes out and gets in bare-knuckle brawls with Doctor Nefarious’ henchmen every night for years, the damage tends to add up.” He handed Stalwart the cane. The superhero grasped the handle with trembling hands that barely flexed. Jeeves looked down at the swollen knuckles “Not to mention arthritis from all of the broken knuckles.”
The clerk scratched his head. “And, like, isn’t Captain Stalwart some kind of genius detective? This guy doesn’t even know what day of the week it is.”
“Yes, well,” Jeeves nodded sadly, “again, he’s gone downhill lately. As it turns out, despite what the comic books say, when one gets hit in the face with a pipe-wrench, it’s not the sort of thing one just shakes off. In fact, one spends two weeks in a coma. After ten years of being concussed, beaten with bats, and knocked out with lead saps on a weekly basis, it all starts to have an effect. Our Captain here is suffering from a nasty combination of dementia pugilistica, Parkinson’s, and the after-effects of a few dozen traumatic brain injuries.”
“Doctor Nefarious!” Stalwart screamed. He abandoned the cane and lunged towards the clerk, then promptly fell on his face when his knees gave way.
“And of course his knees are shot,” said Jeeves, helping his boss to his feet. “One can only jump off of a second-story rooftop so many times. We could get the joints replaced, if only he hadn’t squandered his family fortune on crime-fighting toys. I told him to save something for his retirement, but oh no, he had to have a fighter jet. To chase purse-snatchers.”
“Jeeze, the poor guy.” The clerk made a sympathetic face.
“Yes, well I warned him. Repeatedly, and at length.” Jeeves held Stalwart’s shoulder. He turned to the clerk. “Sir, I apologize for all of this hassle. I take my eyes off him for one second, and he wanders right out the front gates of Stalwart Manor.” To Stalwart, he said, “Come along, master Jason. We’ve got to get you home and change your colostomy bag.”
“Colostomy bag? Aw, man. That’s rough.”
Jeeves nodded sadly. “Yes, I’m afraid that was about the end of Captain Stalwart’s crime-fighting career. The surgeons had to remove twelve feet of his lower intestines, after he ran afoul of the Doctor’s secret weapon.”
“Holy shit,” said the clerk. “What was the secret weapon? Some kind of death ray? A diabolical trap?”
At one of my previous retail jobs, I was the plant guy. Which was great. No cash register, minimal customers, just pop in the headphones and water plants for a few hours.
I should also mention that this store, for being in a boring little suburb, had a surprisingly international clientelle. Which was great. So many amazing restaurants. We were right across the street from the local Sikh temple, and there was a steady flow of saris and turbans through the store.
One fine spring day, there I was, lost in the music and watering a flat of impatiens, when this old Indian guy rode up on an equally old, Schwinn-style single-speed bicycle. He had a scraggly white beard and wore a blue turban and a simple white cotton kurta. He parked his bike and started browsing the vegetable section. I smiled and nodded. He smiled and nodded. no problem.
Then he came up to me, with a glare like Victor Wong in Big Trouble in Little China, holding two six-packs of tomato plants in his hand. With his other hand, he held up two fingers. He said something that sounded like, “Twah.”
The plants were more than two dollars. One thing you’ll quickly learn in retail is that explaining complex pricing concepts like, “Two for five dollars when you have a membership card” is nearly impossible with a certain segment of the senior citizen population, even when those senior citizens speak fluent English, which this one absolutely did not. Still, I tried. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I helpfully pointed to the sign which said the same thing.
Again, immigrants, I love ’em. They’re good people. They add flavor to my bland suburban existence. They make great food and great neighbors. They brightened up the place with colorful turbans and saris, and made me feel like I was somewhere more exciting than the electronics aisle of a corporate retail pharmacy. But stubborn old men who don’t understand that haggling isn’t done in the US represent a special kind of hell for retail employees.
My Indian friend, he just thought I was driving a hard bargain. He thrust the plants towards me, forcefully, and shook those two fingers in my face. “Twah. Twah.”
I rounded down for the sake of simplicity. I shook my head and held up three fingers. “Three,” I said.
Three was lower than the advertised regular price. He was making progress and he knew it. “Twah.”
This went on for quite some time. Inside the store, my coworkers watched the show with great amusement.
I realized that I don’t get paid enough for this shit. So I relented. I nodded and said, “Okay, two.” I held up two fingers. He was very happy about this and quickly became my best friend. I brought him inside and rang up his purchases at his discounted, hard-bargained price.
But I’d made a fatal mistake. I’d shown weakness. Now he knew. He knew he could break me.
Just a few days later, up he came again, weaving along the side of the road on his rickety old bike. I was inside the store at the time. My coworkers saw the old Indian man and vanished like smoke, leaving me alone with him. He waved and smiled at me. I waved back. He said something in his language that I didn’t understand. I said something in my language that he didn’t understand. We were great friends.
Once more he approached me with tomato plants. He fixed me with his cataract-clouded gaze, held up two fingers, and said, “Twah. Twah.”
He got his damned tomato plants.
“How’s your bestie today?” said my coworkers, after he left.
This went on for some time. He’d come in, and I’d risk my job by discounting his plants. Once I helped him find a new tube for his bicycle tire. He got to like the place so much that sometimes he’d just hang out and eat lunch while I watered my plants.
One of those days, he was eating his lunch, food in a white styrofoam takeout container from a local Indian restaurant. I recognized his food. In the name of international relations, and because ninety percent of the foreign words I know have to do with food, I said, “Pakora.”
This made my Indian friend very excited. He pointed to his food. “Pakora!”
I nodded and smiled. “Pakora!”
He said, “Something something something pakora something something!”
I smiled and nodded and eventually went back to watering the plants. He went on about his day, and I went on about mine.
And he showed up again the very next day. “Matt,” said my helpful coworkers, “Your bestie is here!”
He gestured me over. When I arrived, the old Indian man dug deep into the pocket of his shirt. He fishing around for a moment and came out with a handful of, I don’t even know what they were. Some kind of baked dough-ball bread things.
These he held in his bare hands. No packaging. No wrapper. Just five dough balls that had been floating around loose in his pocket while he rode his bike over, that he now held out to me, cupped in his sweaty hands, with an expectant smile on his face.
I smiled back, bravely. “…Thank you!” I said. I held out my cupped hands and he released the dough balls to me.
Behind him, my coworkers bit their lips.
He smiled wider and nodded expectantly. “For lunch,” I said. I doubt he understood. Still holding his gift of food in my hands, I walked towards the back of the store.
Snickering, my coworker followed behind me. “Well, are you going to eat them?” she said.
“Do you want them?” I replied.
“Oh, come on,” she continued. “I dare you to eat one.”
Somehow, since they’ve always been there, you think they’ll be there forever. They’re your best friend. Your advisor, your entertainer, your refuge. Your comfort. Your used book store.
And then one day you see the sign. Going out of Business. Clearance Sale. And then they’re gone.
So goodnight, sweet prince. Goodbye, Almost Perfect Bookstore. You were my happy place. You reeked of books. Your aisles were a glorious mess, shelves overfull and bowed, books stacked waist high on either side, with just barely enough room to sneak between the piles. So many books. SO MANY BOOKS. A wonderful, jumbled up, car-bomb explosion of books.
It wasn’t glamorous. There were no stained walnut shelves, no smooth jazz, no deep carpet. No coffee bar, no cafe with upholstered leather easy chairs. No front tables with tastefully arranged displays of New York Times bestsellers.
But there were books. Good Lord were there books. Piles, mountains, heaps of books. It wasn’t the equal of Powell’s or Strand, but by God it was close. It was a solitary bright star of culture in the banal corporate landscape of the Sacramento suburbs.
Honestly, you deserved better. You were better than glaring fluorescents and a linoleum floor in a bland suburban strip mall. You deserved stone and brick, some quirky old two-story building with a creaky staircase, on a quiet side street, shelves of ancient wood polished by the touch of a thousand hands, nooks and crannies and dark corners full of books. A friendly but aloof cat that would sleep on the counter. A mysterious basement, long disused, filled with magical books, lit by torches and guarded by a dragon that asks riddles before allowing you to pass.
Oh, the joy. The joy of wandering through your labyrinth of yellow shelves. Just wandering. From Asimov to Zahn, Fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, gardening, astronomy, geology, metaphysics.
How many authors, how many wonderful authors, would I never have known about, if not for serendipitously stumbling upon them, or taking a suggestion from the encyclopedic knowledge of the staff? William Gibson. Bruce Stirling. Lawrence Block. John Steakley. Joe Haldeman. Lee Child. Greg Bear. David Morrell. Garth Nix. These names, these friends whose worlds I’ve explored and loved, I know them because of The Almost Perfect Bookstore.
You fed my habit. Your store credit was the lifeblood of my paperback addiction. I tried to give you good stuff back, I really did. I often found myself filling up a paper bag to trade in, and thinking to myself, “Oh come on Matt, do they really need another copy of From a Buick 8? Why don’t you throw in an Alastair Reynolds to make up for it.”
Yeah, sometimes I had to wait for service. But that was okay, because I’m a human being and you’re a human being and sometimes things take time. And once you got to my question, you always, always knew what I was talking about and where the damned book was. You guys knew the inventory of that place like Smaug knew his treasure.
And now it’s all gone, and it breaks my god-damned heart. When you love something, don’t take it for granted.
So, Scott, Kelly, and the rest of the gang. Thanks. Thanks for everything. I’m sorry I didn’t buy more books, if that would have helped anything. Thanks for the memories.
You gotta respect the classics. And you gotta respect free books. Back in the olden days, you’d go to the library for free books. But now, you can go to your kindle. One of my favorite things about kindle, and other ebook platforms, is the absolute mountain of classic books, now in the public domain, that you can find for free. Try Sherlock Holmes, anything by Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain… There’s a lot of good reading out there that won’t cost you a penny. For the sake of my sanity, I’ve kept this listicle down to just ten books, focusing on the classic action adventure novels that I loved as a kid. Many of these authors are the founders of the sci-fi, adventure, and fantasy genres we still love today.
Language is a strange and fascinating thing, and our brains are remarkably adaptable. While the writing style of some of these books is frustratingly old fashioned, if you stick with it you’d be amazed at how quickly your brain picks up and adjusts to the rhythms and the cadences of older writing. Pretty soon, you’ll be flying through the pages like you were reading the latest Lee Child thriller.
Sometimes, reading these old books, you’ll come across a trope that seems a bit worn out to modern readers. But you have to remember, these folks invented those tropes. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, and these guys are the giants. Not all the giants, mind you. Just the ones whose works are in the public domain 🙂 So, without further ado, here’s ten great classics you can read for free. Continue reading →