When you’re just that angry …

Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAO) is a weird “absurdist” science-fiction in which a multiverse-hopping Michelle Yeoh attempts to deal with her family issues while saving the universe from destruction. It was released in 2022, gained plaudits at some random US film festival, and has been making a killing in its public release. It has received generally very good reviews: it got 95% at rotten tomatoes and 81% at metacritic, as well as winning a bunch of awards. It seems to have stirred a lot of passion, with most critics seeing its science fiction as clever and original, its acting as great, and the emotional component of its story as deep and genuine. Of 339 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, for example, only 18 rated it as rotten and many said it was “profound and moving” or “made you think and cry” (see below).

I swear these people are bribed

To me it was ordinary SF and trash pro-family propaganda. My review has a few light spoilers, but here instead of dwelling on its failed science fiction I want to talk a little about how much I hate pro-family propaganda in art, and how socially destructive it is.

The premise and the ordinary science fiction

The movie is about an Asian-American family, headed by migrants Evelyn Wang and Waymond Wang, who run a failing laundromat and have a college-age daughter, Joy, who is a lesbian. They have also recently had to bring Evelyn’s father over from their home country (it’s not clear if it’s Malaysia, or one of the provinces of China, but since Evelyn and Waymond speak a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin it is probably either Guangdong/HK or Malaysia). Granddad is old and sick, and Evelyn is an incredibly stressed, hyper-active, and extremely unpleasant mother, who refuses to engage properly with either her daughter or her husband and is basically an abusive bully. She refuses to respect her daughter’s relationship, calls her girlfriend “he” and then blames this lapse on her bad English (Chinese speakers of English often mix up genders because in Chinese it’s all ta), refuses to tell her father the truth about Joy’s relationship, refuses to listen to any of either her daughter’s or her husband’s concerns, opinions or emotions, and when she appears to be about to be kind to her simply tells her “You’re fat”. She also reacts very badly to any attempts to change or improve the working of the shop, has an incredibly poor management style (for e.g. receipts) and gets angry whenever anyone tries to improve it, but is always stressed about it. She’s a classic manipulative and abusive parent.

When the show starts she is being audited by the tax office, and trying to organize a party for her father. We learn later that she was basically kicked out of home by her father for choosing to marry Waymond, and he has come back to her because his wife (her mother) died and she needs to look after him. Most reviews don’t mention that Waymond is spending the first half of the movie trying to get Evelyn to agree to divorce, but she is so dismissive of her husband that she refuses to make time to talk to him or look at the papers, and only finds out by accident. What a nice mother and wife!

So anyway it turns out that there are infinite multi-verses, and someone who looks exactly like Evelyn’s husband is racing through all of them, at the behest of a parallel-universe version of her father, looking for the specific Evelyn who is best able to fight off an evil being that is attempting to destroy all the multi-verses. This evil being, of course, is a parallel universe version of her daughter, Joy, who is building a singularity thing that will destroy all the universes. Joy’s reason for doing this is that nothing matters, a nihilistic destructive urge that ultimately looks a lot like suicidality, when we get to find out what makes her tick. Eventually the parallel-universe team realize that the Evelyn in our universe is the correct Evelyn to take on Joy, because she’s so hopelessly shit that she must be perfect for the task (this is logic). Because this is “absurdist” SF these alternative universes are full of dumb things like people with sausages for fingers (through which they have sex), a universe where Evelyn is a rock, a universe where she can fight with a pizza sign, etc. By imagining such a universe and pressing a button a special magic headset, Evelyn can go to that universe, grab the skills of the person in that universe, and then use them in this universe. Sometimes this leads to personality swapping and sometimes it doesn’t, because the movie has no rules, and the only useful person Evelyn gets is an alternative universe Evelyn who is basically actual Michelle Yeoh. So she can do some martial arts. Also to jump between universes you need to do something improbable or weird in this one, so chewing discarded gum, sticking a butt-plug up your arse, telling your enemy you love them (and meaning it).

It’s not absurdist, it’s shit. For about 30 minutes it’s funny and then it’s just boring and dumb, with escalating levels of weird as the directors try to milk this for all it’s worth (and it’s a very long movie!) Finally there’s a big, overly long showdown between Evelyn and Joy, during which we somehow learn that useless Waymond (who was trying to divorce his wife) is the hero of the movie, and if we all just be “kind” we can save the world, so Evelyn (who is a horrible person) starts trying to be kind like Waymond, who she now suddenly looks up to and admires, and fighting enemies with (martial arts based) kindness. Then there are long and supposedly moving interchanges between Evelyn and Joy about how Evelyn is a bad mother but Joy should just accept it, because Joy is Evelyn’s daughter. At this point reviewers will tell you that the movie is about how family are the people we really love, and they may not be perfect but we should stick by them and respect them because they’re there when everyone else isn’t, and this is very moving and the way Evelyn tries to draw Joy back is very deep and powerful. Actually Joy is suicidal, and this is because she was raised in a loveless and cruel family, and her belief that everything is pointless and empty is their fault, but the movie wants us to think she should accept them and forgive them anyway.

There is a brief period where Joy returns to her family and they live happily, with Joy and her girlfriend’s relationship being accepted, but Evelyn still telling Joy she is fat and lazy. Which is meant to validate all the battles or something. And Joy and her girl are overjoyed that her mother has accepted them, because this is all the validation they wanted all along.

Fuck that. This is pro-family propaganda, it’s dangerous, it’s wrong, and we should be ditching it from our culture. We can start by not over-hyping shoddy, ordinary SF movies that fail at a multiverse story in order to get us to believe that forgiving and going back to your family is the right thing to do, because it’s not, and anyone who tells you it is is a liar who means you ill.

The dangerous illusion of the “Asian Family” stereotype

Before we go on to discuss pro-family propaganda, let’s just briefly digress to discuss the stereotype of the unforgiving Asian family, the mother and father who never have any flattery or kindness for their kids but only unrelenting demands. American Born Chinese (ABC) commentators and comedians are full of stories about this idea, and would like you to believe that this is some unique trait of Asian families. But here’s the thing: it’s not. My father never had any flattery or kindness for his kids, but he also didn’t ever encourage or demand anything from us. Homer Simpson is based on a real type of Western father, who can’t stand his own kids, doesn’t care to understand them, and always encourages them not to bother being special or seeking to make themselves better. Isn’t that worse? I think some ABC wear the meanness of their family like a badge of honour (look how I suffered) and have turned normal abusive family dynamics into some kind of cultural iconography. It’s not! And to try and make it so at this time is a dangerous tactic. As anti-Asian hate has grown, a lot of ABC journalists and comedians have tried to use these narratives to get onside with white society, to try and weather the backlash. Don’t do it! And don’t laud the depiction of Evelyn in this movie as somehow an especially perfect depiction of a Chinese immigrant family or intergenerational trauma. Her behavior is just bog-standard Arsehole Parent.

For example, the story of Evelyn’s father not being able to accept his granddaughter’s lesbianism is presented by some reviewers and, I think, by Evelyn herself within the movie, as being reflective of his conservative Chinese upbringing. This serves a nice role for the audience, mostly white, to imagine that their own community hasn’t produced this kind of bullshit, but it’s misleading propaganda intended to allay white concerns about white problems. Western men the same age as the grandfather in this movie are just as fucked, don’t pretend it’s because this old dude is Chinese. This is like the classic “if you think it’s racist here, you should see how Japanese treat foreigners!” Actually, I live here, I know how they do, and the west is far worse. White people love telling themselves these little comfortable lies to enable them to pretend their own society isn’t a cesspit. Don’t do it! If there is anything in this world that is Everywhere All at Once, it’s the universal form of arseholery on display in Evelyn and her dad’s personality in this show.

What is pro-family propaganda and why is it bad?

Western movies play many propaganda roles, but two of their deepest and most powerful roles, which are related to each other, are:

  1. To show that sub-standard white men can be heroes and winners, that what goes wrong is never their fault, and that even if you are an ugly, boring, useless whining loser who is propped up by the women and foreigners around you, you are still the hero of your story. Jackson Oz in Zoo, Brandon Stark and John Snow in Game of Thrones, pretty much every male character in a Disney cartoon, and to a certain extent James Holden in The Expanse all play this role.
  2. to remind you that you have an obligation to uphold family loyalty and ties even when your family are cruel, negligent, neglectful and/or openly abusive. The absolute classic canonical example of this is Rick & Morty, in which there is an obvious, openly abusive relationship between the grandfather and the grandchild, the parents don’t care or interfere in the abuse, and the viewer is sucked in as an accomplice to an incredibly abusive relationship. Incidentally a lot of people compare R&M to EEAO, which should tell you all you need to know…

One day I will devote an entire blog post to 1), the “It’s not your fault white man” genre of social reinforcement for boring losers, but a more common theme and a much more destructive one is 2), the idea that you need to stick by your family and get their approval no matter what. Some movies cover both themes (e.g the first Guardian of the Galaxy movie with its obssessive focus on helping a callow dude find his lost mummy) and in American movies the pro-family propaganda saturates almost every production in the form of their ubiquitous daddy issues, but it’s more widespread than just this.

And let’s make no bones about it, this story is destructive. I’ve written before about how we have an obligation to hold our family to account for their misdeeds, but I’ll summarize it again here: The only reason that parents feel that they can treat their children like shit for years is that they know, without any doubt, that their children will stick around and won’t abandon them when they become adults. Most shit parents even have a pretty strong inkling that they can keep treating their adult children like shit, and their adult children will keep coming back and licking that shit up. In contrast, the reason we don’t get away with the same levels of abuse towards our friends (in general) is that we know our friends will cut us loose if we keep that shit up. Similarly, for a lot of us, with partners: people are much more likely to divorce than to cut off their parents.

And how do parents know this? Because they read books, read magazines, and watch TV shows and movies that constantly, over and over, tell us that sticking with our parents is an absolutely essential role for us as adults, that we should tolerate their crap, that it’s the kids who need to bend and adapt not the adults, and that we need to be understanding of our parents’ “shortcomings” (which are actually, generally, just abuse) and accept that they won’t change or adapt for us. Movies about kids shaking off their parents and fucking them off are much, much rarer than movies about the kids struggling to find common ground with their parents and eventually learning to deal with, tolerate, or adapt to their parents’ bullshit. Often in these movies the parents throw out a fig-leaf to the kid – accepting their choice of partner or job or moving to Paris or whatever – but they never, ever admit they were wrong and they don’t usually do anything to change the other suite of awful behaviors they have inflicted for decades on their kids.

This movie is just another example of that propaganda. Joy just has to accept, forgive, and stand by her stupid mother, she gives a wild speech about how her mother has ruined her life and then just … gives up. Evelyn changes nothing about herself and just wins.

If these movies weren’t made, or if they were properly balanced with stories about kids getting their vengeance, kids refusing to seek approval, or even – imagine this – parents seeking out and earning their children’s forgiveness through real changes and growth, then we might see people who become parents understanding that their children’s love for them is conditional on their behavior, rather than unconditional acceptance of their faults, cruelty and violence. Then they might modify their behavior accordingly. But they don’t see any reason to do this because all of society keeps telling them they don’t have to, and keeps telling their children that it’s their responsibility to do all the giving in the relationship.

This movie is just another cog in that machine, and not a very interesting one.


As someone who actually made the decision to cut off my parents and abandon them to wallow in their own bullshit, I get angry when I am forced to watch a movie about 親孝行, about having to respect your parents no matter what. This movie started off looking like an interesting insight into a difficult family, with Michelle Yeoh playing a very convincing unpleasant mother figure who I was waiting to be forced to adapt to her family and the outside world by the SF circumstances. Instead I was betrayed – again – by a movie that recited all the same old pro-family propaganda and gave me the same old nonsense about how parents are good no matter what, and we’ll never find anyone like them.

This propaganda is nonsense, and it’s dangerous. People need to stop making it, and reviewers need to stop pretending it’s “deep” or “profound” or “thoughtful”, and start recognizing it as valorization of abuse, cruelty and arrogance. Please stop making these movies! And if this thing bothers you, don’t waste your time on this movie.

I swear every movie should come with a sticker that tells you if it has daddy issues, pro-family propaganda, copaganda, or military-industrial complex war-porn. Fuck Tipper-stickers, I don’t care about “adult themes” and swearing, I want movies that don’t tell me cops are cool, the US is a force for good, and you should stick by your parents no matter what. We can’t build a better world if everyone believes that their wife-beating ex-marine dad is just a misunderstood guy who is traumatized by murdering foreign babies, and will get better if we just stand by him no matter what he did or what he does.

Don’t stand by that man, and don’t stand by this movie!

A while ago I wrote about re-reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s famous Arthurian re-telling, The Mists of Avalon, in the light of the revelations about her paedophilia and abuse of her own (and others’) children. The Mists of Avalon was a big inspiration to me when I was very young (perhaps about the age of 14 or 15, I don’t recall) and introduced me to the entire canon of pagan/new age re-imagining of ancient British history, concepts of the conflict between christianity and earlier religions and how it affected our culture, as well as leading me to an entire world of eco-feminist and neo-pagan ideology. But it’s hard to believe that Marion Zimmer Bradely (MZB)’s paedophilia and general nastiness couldn’t have shown through in her book, so I decided to re-read it and find out what it is like when viewed as an adult. I’m also interested in how its feminism presents to adults, and how to interpret it given all the additional theory and philosophy that has been developed since she wrote. Obviously I’m not a feminist, but I think if something is obvious sexist, pro-paedophile or just generally immoral one should be able to say so, and nothing is sacred (certainly not on this blog!), so let’s see.

In the first installment I identified some pretty terrible themes and some pretty horrible elements to the story, and since then I have started Book 2, which is just … well, it’s phenomenally boring. So I got side-tracked reading The Atlan Saga by Jane Gaskell. It’s really incredibly to compare these two writers, who were roughly contemporaries and both made their names reimagining ancient stories from a female perspective. Quite apart from anything else, Gaskell is a much better and more interesting writer, with a much more engaging and entertaining writing style, but her stories also have much more happening in them. Book 2 of The Mists of Avalon is basically a bunch of women sitting in rooms talking about who is going to get pregnant, and long scenes of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet not fucking. It’s deeply tedious. But there are a few things going on in it that are worth exploring.

Marion Zimmer Bradley Hates Women

The first thing that really stands out in Book 2, and that is repeated over and over until you can’t escape it, is that MZB really holds women in contempt. All the women in the story except Morgaine and Viviane are either boring, stupid, incurious broodmares, or nasty bullies. They are also inactive, sitting around waiting for things to happen to them, and have very shallow, poorly-developed characters. We learn a lot about Lancelet, Arthur and Merlin, and secondary characters like Cai, Balan or Kevin get a fair amount of attention and detail. They also get to do things – they go to war, they ride horses, they fall off horses, they help women to escape from swamps, they make jokes and lead soldiers and stuff. In contrast we learn almost nothing about any of the women of the court beyond Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, and Gwenhwyfar in particular is portrayed as a weak and terrible character. She has agorophobia, she has longed for Lancelet for no reason since the moment she met him, she is a submissive wife full of worries and doubts and she is unable to have children. Thanks to MZB’s rather awful habit of giving us insight into the thoughts of all the major female characters we get to learn about Gwenhwyfar’s inner life and it’s all self-doubt, self-criticism and fear. She is an unpleasant character, weak and stupid and scared. The only woman in this book with any pride or capacity for action is Morgaine, who is also a highly judgmental and unpleasant person.

The rest of the women are just stupid lumps who sit around spinning and idly exchanging gossip. Morgaine’s contempt for them is shown most clearly in the spinning scene in chapter 7, where she asks herself “do these women think of nothing but marriage?” and the narrative voice (which alternates between a neutral voice and the viewpoint of the major characters without much clarity) describes how they gossip about morning sickness and marriage and scandal, and she ends up falling into a trance that ends in a vision of blood and the entire gathering scattering. It is also in this scene that Gwenhwyfar is reduced to tears by another woman simply mentioning the ability to have children, and now I’m 100 pages into book 2 and this is seriously the most interesting thing that has happened. It is 8 chapters devoted to the dull, humdrum boredom of women’s lives. Women are boring, sitting around doing nothing, while the men are interesting, and the men take action.

The anti-feminist tone

Now, this might be interesting and insightful if it were told from some kind of perspective which attempted to build an alternative world out of the women’s boredom, or to explore it as a prison or a source of stifled creativity, or some other perspective which enabled us to understand that this cloistered women’s life into which Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar have been entrapped is still important or a source of some secret value, or at least enabled us to understand that these women could and should aspire for more, that their secrets and hopes and goals are stifled and they have greater dreams and goals. But we never get shown this. Instead we get regular, dismissive descriptions of women and women’s lives, contempt for the women who are victimized by this world, the women attacking each other, and occasional statements reinforcing the status quo from the main female characters.

For example, at the beginning of Book 2 Morgaine is hiding in the household of King Lot, some Scottish arsehole, who is a famous lecher. While Morgaine is in labour Lot’s wife returns to the main hall, where Lot is sexually assaulting one of her maids. This is what we get:

Lot sat watching, one of Morgause’s younger waiting-women on his lap and his hand playing casually with her breasts; as Morgause came in, the woman looked up apprehensively and started to slide from his knees, but Morgause shrugged. “Stay where you are; we have no need of you among the midwives, and tonight at least I shall be with my kinswoman and have no leisure to argue with you over a place in his bed. Tomorrow it might be another matter.

This is a good example of MZB’s contempt for the female characters in her stories, and also for how she establishes the right of men to do what they want in this world. This girl has no choice in what her king does to her and everyone knows it, the fault is entirely Lot’s, but the queen blames her anyway and the narrative structure of the entire scene makes no effort to establish the helplessness of the girl or the power structures at play which set the women against each other. Basically if Lot victimizes a girl she’s a slut; she deserved it; if she gets caught by his wife well then woebetide her. This is very conservative writing about sex and power.

In case one doubts, there are other points in the story where major characters make clear that there is an order to the world, and that order has men active and on top and women at the bottom. For example in chapter 5 Igraine gives us this little speech about the order of things:

Among the Tribes, indeed, the stronger women fought at the side of the men – there had been, of old, a battle-college kept by women – but from the beginning of civilization it had been the work of men to hunt for food and to keep off invaders from the hearth-fire where their pregnant women and little children and old folk were sheltered; and the the work of women to keep that hearth safe for them.

There is no sense here of disapproval or of desire for change – just a statement of fact about the world that is, followed by a little religious theory (which I don’t quote here) about how the binding of King and Queen symbolized this natural order of things. This is the voice of one of the major characters giving form to the story, with no push-back against it at all. And in case this isn’t clear, a little later Morgaine herself outlines her view of the role of feminism in this world:

And why should it be for the King to give me, as if I were one of his horses or dogs? Morgaine wondered, but shrugged; she had lived long in Avalon, she forgot at times that the Romans had made this the common law, that women were the chattels of their menfolk. The world had changed and there was no point in rebelling against what could not be altered.

Remember, this is supposed to be a feminist re-telling of the Arthurian legend. There’s your feminism there: the central female character of the book saying that the world had changed to make women chattel, and there was no point fighting against it. Note too that this rumination of Morgaine’s is followed by a discussion of building the Round Table, and philosophizing about whether the war with the Saxons will ever end takes up more space in the text than Morgaine’s brief, single paragraph about not bothering to change the world and just accepting her role as chattel.

I really don’t understand how this book got its reputation as a feminist tale.

Extremely conservative views of sex

A final, super weird thing that has happened in my journey through Book 2 is the strange sex scene between Lancelet and Morgaine, in which Morgaine lays out an extremely regressive and old-fashioned view about sex. Remember that Morgaine is the closest we have to a main character or narrative voice in this story, and as far as I can tell we’re meant to sympathize with or at least engage with her character – she is an unpleasant, judgmental, selfish piece of work, but as far as I can tell she’s the person the story is meant to be about, so I think we’re supposed to at least understand her and take her voice as the authoritative tone of the story. So she creeps away from the room she shares with Elaine (one of the character-less waiting-women of this boring story) to find Lancelet. They sneak away to an orchard where they start to have sex. Morgaine knows Lancelet really loves Gwenhwyfar (we’ve had multiple chapters of Lancet and Gwenhwyfar making eyes at each other and only Morgaine noticing for some reason), but she wants to fuck him anyway. But Lancelet won’t fuck her! He won’t “hurt or dishonour” her, and so they proceed to have a long period of sexual play that she seems to really enjoy – she writes that “her body cried out for the pleasure he gave her” – but she gets really angry that they aren’t fucking. She says

What of the flow of life between their two bodies, male and female, the tides fo the Goddess risign and compelling them? Somehow it seemed to her that he was stemming that tide, that he was making her love for him a mockery and a game, a pretense. And he did not seem to mind, it seemed to him that this was the way it should be, so that they were both pleasured … as if nothing mattered but their bodies, that there was no greater joining with all of life. To the priestess, reared in Avalon and attuned to the greater tides of life and eternity, this careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking seemed almost blasphemy, a refusal to give themselves up to the will of the Goddess.

This is just a lot of words to say that sex should be for procreation only, and anything except fucking is bad. There’s no space in this conception of sex for lesbianism, for example, and if your religion tells you that “careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking” is “almost blasphemous” … well, your religion is nasty.

But this is the main character, whose religion is meant to be in contrast to christianity, and everyone presents this story about how the pagan worldview was better and freer and the sadness of losing it … I’m sure we’re meant to understand Morgaine as a tragic representative of a lost world that was better for women, presented as a reimagining of the old stories from a feminist perspective.

But to me it just seems like an incredibly cramped and narrow vision of sex, presented by an unpleasant and judgmental woman who hates all other women, in a story that presents women as weak and characterless, in a world where only men matter.

I don’t think that’s feminism.


I don’t know how I managed to finish Book 2 when I was young, it’s so boring and so relentlessly negative. But it was the 1980s, I was at school, there was nothing else to do, I guess I read a lot and reading countless pages of whinging women spinning was more interesting than hanging out with my family, so fair enough. But what about the adults who talked about MZB’s work as a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends? It’s not constructing any kind of better world, and it certainly isn’t presenting to us a world where women are equal to men that was torn away by christianity. I don’t understand why the critics and writers of that time held it up in that way. Were they so desperate for women’s representation in fantasy and science fiction that they were willing to sell this as a feminist story rather than a nasty tale of boring women sniping at each other while men fight and build kingdoms? Was feminism so under-developed at that time that stories about women spinning while they wait for their men to come home from the war were considered to be somehow enlightening or revealing of some deep inner spirit of women? I don’t understand how the books got so much critical acclaim.

It could be that things change in Book 3, Morgaine turns vengeful against this world and tries to change it, but in truth I’m not sure if I can persevere with this project – I have 10 more chapters of Book 2 to wade through and there’s no sign of anything happening soon. I want to understand the books that contributed to modern fantasy, and this series was very influential, but I don’t know how much longer I can stomach the court of King Arthur in this supposed feminist re-envisioning of it. It’s not very nice, and everyone in this story is awful. If you have any alternative perspective on this, I hope to hear in comments. Otherwise, stay tuned, maybe after a few more months I’ll have managed to struggle onward to the point where something actually happens …

While digging around in Amazon recently I stumbled on a cute 1-5 person card-based role-playing game called “Novice Novice Table Talk Role-playing game [steampunk]”, pictured here. In Japanese it is shortened to “Nobi Nobi TRPG”. The game is a simple and relaxed system in which every player (including the GM) picks a PC, and every player takes turns being GM and PC. In each turn the setting is determined by a “scene” card, picked randomly by the GM. The player describes the scene, their PC’s reaction, and how they resolve the challenge. This goes around the table three times, and the game is complete, with some small complications I will describe here. It is a simple, streamlined and very effective way to run a quick, randomly generated RPG.

PC Choices

The PCs are described by cards, two of which are pictured above. Each PC has a special ability and two attributes: Power and skill. In the picture above you can see the Automaton PC, which has power 2 and skill 0, and the special ability that it adds 1 die to all skill checks. The cards are two sided, with one side being a boy and one a girl, except in two cases. Sometimes the skills on each side of the card differ, though they have a shared principle. For example the Teacher can intervene to change the result of another PC’s dice roll, but the way in which the intervention happens differs depending on whether the teacher is male or female. Two PCs, the boy and the girl, don’t have a gendered back face – instead they can swap the card over at any time to become Prince or Princess, at which point their special ability changes.

Skill checks are handled by rolling 2d6 and adding the corresponding skill. Success occurs if you roll above a target number, which is determined by the Scene Card. Available PCs are:

  • Automaton
  • Maid/Butler
  • Phantom Thief
  • Diva/Musician
  • Doctor/Teacher
  • Detective
  • Girl/princess
  • Adventurer
  • Gunner
  • Mechanic
  • Pilot
  • Boy/Prince

In some cases (like musician/diva) the change in gender changes the role name, but their abilities, power and skill follow similar principles and values. The pictures are, of course, adorable.

Introduction and Climax

The game flows in turns, with one turn finishing after every player has had a chance to be GM (and thus every player has also had a chance to be PC). Each turn begins with the GM drawing a Scene card. However, the entire story has a theme, which is determined before the turns begin by drawing an Introduction card. This card sets up the story by introducing the PCs to a conflict, involving an adversary and an overall situation. For example the Introduction card Conspiracy of a Secret Society (秘密結社の陰謀) tells the characters that there is a plot by a secret society to undermine or destroy their world, and when the adventure starts they are pledged to stop it. This introduction sets a theme that runs through the entire adventure, and is expected to influence the scenes that follow.

After three turns of play have elapsed and the GM role returns to the person who was GM In the first hand, the gameplay ends and the game enters a Climax. In the Climax there is no GM or players, and everyone faces a common threat. This Climax is determined by the Climax card, which is drawn randomly at this point. This climax card sets up a final challenge, which the PCs as a group need to overcome, and also sets out the rules by which they must do this. For example the Climax card Countdown to Destruction (爆発カウントダウン) tells the PCs that someone has a set up a timer to a huge explosion that they need to stop, and gives the players each one chance to try and beat the timer using a skill check. The principle of this card, though, is that when the PCs resolve the climax the players describe it in such a way that it draws the entire story back to the introduction, and whether the group fails or succeeds in the final resolution of the adventure, the whole story ends up tying back to the original Introduction card.

There are 12 introduction cards and 12 climax cards. The introduction cards are topics such as:

  • A girl from the sky!
  • A maze in a mysterious town
  • An adventure story that starts with a key

The climax cards with topics such as:

  • Invasion from Mars
  • Big chase
  • Night of revolution

The latter needs to be somehow tied back to the former, and they are all linked by the Scene cards.

Drawing the Scenes

There are 64 Scene cards, which will be drawn randomly by each player 3 times in their role as GM. This means that in a group of 5 players there will be a total of 15 scenes, with each player GMing 3, playing 3, and watching 9. Each scene has a block of text describing the setting, and a small boxed text explaining what skill check the PC needs to make to resolve the challenge. For example, the Idol Contest card describes how the PC is caught up in … well, in an idol contest, on a huge stage in front of a giant crowd. The inset text explains that the PC can win the contest by either a) rolling a power check with a target number of 15 or b) beating a skill check with a target number of 13 or c) the player can perform a song – i.e. actually sing something – and if the GM likes it they can pass the test. For most scenes the player can choose to either do a skill check or role-play their way through the challenge. If they choose the role-play option, the GM decides whether they succeed. There are some scene cards where the GM’s judgment affects how the challenge is resolved, and there are some special abilities which require the PC’s player to convince the GM that their ability can apply. For example the Musician’s special ability grants them a +2 on skill checks that involve “people”, but they have to convince the GM that the rules for this particular scene card involve people, so that their special ability applies. Thus the GM plays the arbitration role for a single skill check or role-playing scene, before the task is handed on, and that GM becomes a player.

Success or failure in the Scene is immaterial to the progression of the game: whether or not the player succeeds, the action passes to the next GM/Player pair. Rather, there are a set of Darkness and Light cards (30 each), and at the end of the scene the PC receives a light card if they succeeded, and a dark card if they failed. These cards typically grant the PC a new special ability, which they can apply in subsequent skill checks. Light cards are positive and happy powers, while dark cards are negative or dark powers. For example the light card Patron grants the PC a protector or patron, and all subsequent skill checks will get a +1 bonus; while the darkness card Comms Device gives the PC the latest radio with which they can call for help in subsequent skill checks. Some of these cards are permanent bonuses and some are one-time effects. None are genuinely negative, and they all serve to build up a sense of who the PC is and how they overcome challenges on their way to the final confrontation.

The flow of the game means that by the time the PCs reach the Climax, each of them will have gone through 3 scenes, been a GM 3 times, gained a total of 3 darkness/light cards (with associated bonus) and had a chance to contribute 6 times (either as player or GM) to the story as a whole. Finally, they will all work together to resolve the climax, tying everything back to the Introduction and finally resolving the whole story. It’s an excellent way to construct a quick, light story that everyone can enjoy.

Final thoughts

The whole game takes, with 2-3 players, about an hour to play. The scene cards are cute, crazy little moments that seem to tie in really nicely to the climax and introduction cards, which also seem carefully balanced to be always able to relate to each other. There is no failure, really, since you’re guaranteed to get to the end, and the climax cards have relatively gentle conditions for success – though it doesn’t really matter if you fail. The game creates cute, chaotic and crazy steampunk stories that are fun to generate and genuinely unique. If there is one problem with this game I would say that it is a combination of typeface – the cards can be a little hard to read – and Japanese: the Japanese is reasonably complicated, and sometimes a little vague (a common problem with Japanese) so that non-native speakers and non-nerds playing the game will be a little challenged to figure out exactly what’s going on in some of the nuances. This is typical of fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk storytelling – there are a lot of quite genre-specific phrases that are really hard for non-native speakers to understand, and a lot of genre-specific vocabulary, phrases and concepts – but this is obviously something you can overcome if you have a good dictionary, patience and/or a native speaker as a player. Other than that, the game is a really fun, simple way to play an RPG, even with complete beginners to the hobby, anywhere and at any time.

In a subsequent blogpost I will provide an AAR of a recent run-through, and hopefully the sense and style of the game will become clear. There is no English translation, but I hope in future the game will become more widely available, and this cute and entertaining TRPG style can be experienced outside of Japan.

When I was a child Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon had a huge influence on me. I read it very young, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, and I think it was the first fantasy I read after A Wizard of Earthsea. I think I already knew the Arthurian legends (most kids growing up in Britain did) but this novel introduced ancient “pagan” elements to them which profoundly changed my view of religion. I didn’t become a pagan of course, but growing up in deeply misogynist Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, when everything was still steeped in traditional Christian ideology and Britain’s history was only taught to us as a story of greatness and righteousness, the idea that Christianity was wrong and that Arthur was really a pagan compromise, or that there was another, non-christian history to Britain, or that there was a woman’s side to a story, made a huge difference to the way I thought about the world around me. I’m not alone in this: generations of science fiction fans report MZB’s Mists of Avalon as a crucial and eye-opening book. MZB’s work is also heralded as an important milestone for feminism in science fiction and fantasy, and many people report its influence in this regard.

Since then of course we have discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her own daughter, and appears to have been an ideologically committed sexual abuser, who sheltered and supported another sexual abuser and was active to some degree in furtherance of a political ideal of pederasty. All this should have been common knowledge by the time her books were published, but it seems to have remained strangely unreported even after her death, only becoming common knowledge when her daughter disclosed the information to the public in 2014. MZB was a hugely influential figure in modern cultural circles: she founded the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and was also involved in the early establishment of the modern western “pagan” religious movement through her Darkmoon Circle. She also had a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy. But what does it say when a known, ideologically committed child sexual abuser influences your cultural world? Does it have any echoes or influence on the ideals of that movement? I have written before about Jimmy Savile and growing up in a society steeped in child abuse, and how the things that were considered normal when I was young look deeply, deeply creepy in retrospect, so I thought: I’m going to re-read MZB’s work – which so influenced me as a child – and see what it looks like now, in retrospect, and what kind of feminist text it really is. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a feminist and be an ideologically committed sexual abuser of children, and I expect that this should show up somehow in her works. I found this (possibly anti-feminist) rant online about how the books always were creepy, and finding out MZB was a sexual abuser of children suddenly made the creepiness comprehensible, but I decided to do it for myself.

So, I’m going to reread these books, and see what they look like now, in retrospect, as a 48 year old knowing what I know now, revisiting books I haven’t read since (at the latest) my very early teens. Every novel requires the author to make choices, and in this case we are dealing with a novel based on an existing story, so decisions need to be made at every turn about how to present the story and how to change it. For example, MZB makes the decision to blend the characters of Galahad and Lancelot together, which isn’t accidental: for some reason she decided to do this. Her decisions about how to represent key parts of the story, key relationships, and the context of the story, should tell us something about the relationship between her politics of sexual abuse and her writing, just as it does about her supposed feminism and her writing. How does the sexual abuse affect the writing? How does a modern adult interpret the story and what do they feel? Is it creepy? Is there a particular stance or depiction of sexual abuse and of children that is depicted in the text that I did not notice (obviously) when I was 10? This post is just the first attempt to investigate and understand this – there may or may not be more. Also please be aware of the content warnings: These posts will involve extensive discussion of rape, child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, incest, and general arseholery, as well as some fairly serious levels of personality disorder, parental abuse and shittiness. So brace yourself.

Oh, also this post contains spoilers, because I assume the people reading this have read The Mists of Avalon in the past and are familiar with the story (though like me you may have forgotten details).

I will begin by describing the controversy surrounding MZB and her husband’s sexual abuse, to give a little more history to the tale. I will briefly describe what I understand of the politics of paedophilia in the 1970s (yes this was a thing!) as a background to understand how a paedophilia advocate might represent sex and children in their work. Then I will begin describing my key impressions from the first part of the story. I will use some quotes, which I am transcribing, so apologies in advance for any small errors. Brace yourselves, kids.

Outline of the controversy

The general public became aware of MZB’s sexual abuse history after the publication of her daughter’s revelations in 2014, but SF fandom should have been aware of them for much, much longer, because MZB’s husband Walter Breen was a known sexual abuser in the 1960s, and she was known to be facilitating his activities. The early history of Breen’s abuse is laid out in an awful document called The Breendoggle that can now be read online. This document outlines Walter Breen’s history of sexual abuse of children in the “fandom” circles of 1960s Berkeley, and the efforts to get him expelled from a convention. It’s absolutely shocking to read about how publicly and flagrantly he sexually assaulted children, and how sanguine the people around him were about it. At the end of the document we find out why: If they exclude Walter from fandom for openly abusing children, MZB will stay away too.

This is the first hint of MZB’s deep commitment to sexual abuse of children, but it isn’t just a hint. Her husband Walter Breen wrote a book about abusing children, called Greek Love, and also edited a journal devoted to pederasty called the International Journal of Greek Love. MZB wrote an article for this journal about pederasty among lesbians, so she was obviously aware of her husband’s political activities and supportive enough of them to write articles for his journal of child abuse. This journal and Breen’s book, by the way, were cited by the editors of the magazine Pan, which was connected to the North American Man Boy Love Association (a paedophile advocacy group in America) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a similar and at one stage radically activist group in the UK). It’s hard to find Pan online but the index of the site holding MZB’s article includes links to some of its articles. Following links through the articles linked above will also lead to more information about MZB’s open support of child sexual abuse, such as helping Breen to adopt a boy he wanted to abuse, sexually abusing a friend’s daughter, and supporting Breen even after they divorced despite his repeated legal troubles over his paedophilia.

I hope from this that it’s clear that MZB was an ideologically committed child sexual abuser, who was definitely supporting at least one other committed sexual abuser and may have been part of an international network of sexual abusers that was active in the 1970s in the USA, Canada and the UK. So let’s see what the introduction of her first novel in the Mists of Avalon series is like. But before we do, let’s briefly look at the political paedophilia movement in the 1970s.

The politics of paedophilia in the 1970s

I can’t believe I had to write that line, but there it is. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement to normalize sexual assault of children, which had its own political organizations, journals, magazines, meetings and rhetoric. Sadly the most famous part of it was connected to the gay rights movement, and the attempts by these people to insert themselves into the gay rights movement and turn it into a kind of pan-sexual liberation movement were seized upon by conservatives as ammunition against gay rights generally. The most famous organization is the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which is well-described in the documentary Chickenhawk, but there was also a British organization and some groups on the continent.

These groups operated on a couple of basic principles, which are worth bearing in mind as we interrogate MZB’s work. They believed that children had sexual agency, that childhood is not a period of innocence, and that children actively solicited and enjoyed sex with adults. Breen in his journal of Greek Love, and other advocates in the magazine Pan argue that these sexual relationships help children grow and mature, and the exchange of sexual affection from the child for adult wisdom from the man is important for child development – they don’t just believe paedophilia is harmless, but actively beneficial to children. They also believe that these paedophiliac relationships were a normal part of most of human society and have only recently been cast into disrepute, usually due to Victorian prudishness, christian interference, or some form of communist or fascist political program (it seems it can be either). Some people writing in the journal Pan seem to hint that adult homosexuality is wrong but same sex relationships between a man and a boy are okay. They also adhere to strong principles of free speech, both for their political advocacy and for their kiddy porn, which they don’t believe harms anyone. Some of them seem to think assaulting infants is wrong but children above a certain age are fair game (or, as my father used to say with a straight face, “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”). Most of the advocacy seems to have been focused around same sex male relationships, but there was no particular political preference in this regard – I think they just had a clearer voice because briefly in the 1980s and 1990s they were allowed some affiliation with the gay rights movement, to its detriment.

It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were a time of sexual awakening in the west, with lots of new ideas beginning to circulate and important efforts being made to cast off the prudishness and sexual stifling of the last 30 years. This new awakening led to lots of mistakes, including things like manipulative and sexually abusive cult leaders, open marriages, political lesbianism, and a lot of abuse in plain sight. Music magazines, for example, did not ostracize or criticize people like Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who famously had a “relationship” with a 14 year old girl (and who remains famous and well respected despite his long history of sexual abuse of minors). Along with the sexual awakening that was happening at that time came an atmosphere of not judging people for doing things differently, and care about ostracizing or casting out fellow travelers who had some unsavoury ideas. This is why we see Alan Ginzberg defending NAMBLA in the Chickenhawk documentary, and it briefly allowed NAMBLA to have some political influence. But none of this explains the horrendous attitudes described in the Breendoggle document, or MZB’s continuing success when the people around her knew what she was doing. So bear this in mind, and the politics of paedophilia activism, as we delve into the story.

Igraine’s story: A terrible slog through sexual abuse and violence

Arthur’s story always starts with Uther getting Igraine pregnant. In the usual story Merlin puts a spell on Uther so that he looks like Igraine’s husband, so Uther basically rapes Igraine. In the Mists of Avalon we take about 8 chapters to get to this point, and to get there we have to slog through a long and brutal period of Igraine’s life. In this version she was married to her husband Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, at the age of 14 and by the time the book starts has been with him for five years, has a child of 3 years age, and is looking after her 13 year old sister Morgause. She never wanted to marry Gorlois and we are reminded repeatedly that she has just had to put up with five years of unwanted sex and has only just come around to appreciate him as a man and a husband – she has very mixed feelings. It should be mentioned that she was sent to Gorlois by her mother, Viviane, Lady of the Lake, the high priestess of all pagans in England, to seal a deal. Watching her deal with this circumstance is, frankly, a slog, and it is made worse when Viviane and the Merlin rock up and tell her that actually she needs to fuck Uther, because Uther needs to give her a son. It’s unclear if this ends up being done by magic or just bad luck, but Gorlois notices Uther’s interest in Igraine (which may have been manufactured by a magic necklace) and starts a war. At this point he is mad at Igraine, has become impotent in her presence, blames her and thinks it is some magic (which it may be, though not Igraine’s) and beats her savagely every time he tries to fuck her and fails. It’s hard going!

Igraine spends all this time – which seems to cover about a year, though it’s hard to tell – as a sex slave of Gorlois and a vassal to Viviane and the Merlin, who decide her fate. They tell her who she is to have sex with and who she is to have children with, and they have no care for her feelings or needs. In fact the only moment of this entire period when she has any agency and joy is the moment when Uther comes to her in Tintagel, under disguise: she sees that he is not Gorlois, but Uther, and finally gets to enjoy sex she wants. This is a radical turnaround on the traditional story, and ensures that the first 6 – 8 chapters of this book are basically a slog through domestic violence and rape, with one woman being fought over by two men who will do with her as they choose.

Once Gorlois is dead Uther takes Igraine as his wife and you might be thinking that the rape and domestic violence and use of women as vessels for political purposes is over – after all, this is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend in which the isle of Avalon offers women freedom and empowerment – but you would be wrong. Before we get to the rape of Igraine’s daughter by her son Arthur, effectively organized and implemented by Viviane, let’s talk about some other aspects of the gender relations and sexual ideology in this book.

Morgause and children as sluts

It is very clear in this book that MZB thinks children have sexual agency. Igraine repeatedly bemoans her marriage to Gorlois at the age of 14, not because she was 14 but because he wasn’t the man she wanted. But we also hear some damning insights into the sexual nature of children during the early stages of the book. For example, Gorlois says about Igraine’s 13 year old sister Morgause:

We must have that girl married as soon as can be arranged, Igraine. She is a puppy bitch with eyes hot for anything in the shape of a man; did you see how she cast her eyes not only on me but on my younger soldiers? I will not have such a one disgracing my family, nor influencing my daughter!

Igraine agrees with this assessment of Morgause’s behavior, and later cautions her against Gorlois’s attentions, which the book describes her seeking out, and later on Morgaine (Igraine’s daughter and the key narrator in this section of the books) also writes about Morgause that

I knew my mother was glad to have her married and away, for she fancied Morgause looked on Uther lustfully; she was probably not aware that Morgause looked lustfully on all men she came by. She was a bitch dog in heat, though indeed I suppose it was because she had no one to care what she did.

Morgaine is, I think, meant to be the feminist hero of this book. Is this how feminists describe other women, or in this case girls?

There is another scene later in the book, during a pagan ritual, where a young girl who was playing an auxiliary role in the ritual is drawn into the sexual activity that the ritual triggers. It is very clear that this girl is very young, and this is described as

The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.

So even very small children are sexual beings in this story, and their subjugation to older men an inevitability of their sexual nature. I’m 17 chapters (about 22% of the way) into this book and I have been repeatedly told by the main feminist icon of the story that girls (i.e. female children) are sexual predators who seek out men and need to be constrained for their own good. Which brings us to …

Virginity as a sacred duty

Feminists have spent a long time trying to demysticize virginity, to stop it being seen as a special and precious and sacred property of women that is “lost” or “given up”. In this supposedly feminist text the preservation of virginity is an essential goal, taught to young women by older women as a duty and a necessary form of self preservation. Morgause is warned by Igraine that if she fucks Uther and doesn’t get pregnant she will be worthless, and he will force one of his men to take her as a wife, and that man will always resent her for not having been a virgin. This restriction isn’t just a christian trait though: Viviane forces Morgaine (the main character of the story) to stay a virgin until she can participate in an important ritual, where her virginity will be sacrificed for the good of the land. Morgaine almost gives it up for Lancelot/Galahad, but he promises not to push her for sex, and so she preserves it (she of course being just a young woman of 16 or 17 is unable to control her lust and needs a man to control it for her).

17 chapters into this supposedly feminist book, I have not met a priestess from the matriarchal isles who has been able to decide for herself when and how she first has sex. This is an important part of this story: matriarchal society is extremely heirarchical and abusive.

The abusive society of Avalon

The original pagan survivors of England are all gathered in the Summer Country, on the misty isles, which float in a kind of separate world overlaid over christian England, separated from it by mists. This is very cool! On the central island of Avalon (which I guess is approximately Glastonbury in the real world), the priestesses of the old pagan religion reign supreme. Or rather, Viviane, High Priestess, Lady of the Lake, rules as an absolute tyrant over all the girls and women who live there. She dispenses them across the land to be used as sexual bargaining tools for the restoration of pagan culture in England (as Igraine was); she tells them when and how they can have sex and who with; and she subjects them to whatever torments she sees fit as part of her religious dictatorship. For example she makes a priestess called Raven take part in a ritual which leaves her vomiting and pissing blood for days, just in order to have some random vision that doesn’t make sense. No one is allowed to speak before she speaks, and junior priestesses in training have to wait on senior ones like slaves.

When she first brings Morgaine to the island to begin her training as a priestess, Viviane repeatedly considers exactly when to begin tormenting her, and we discover that she was initially considering beginning the torments the same night that they arrive, when Morgaine is tired and hungry. We are repeatedly reminded that Morgaine is used to going without sleep or food, and to being cold. It is very clear that Avalon’s matriarchal society is intensely heirarchical, and all the women on the island are Viviane’s to dispose of as she wishes – and we will see this is exactly what she does.

Competition between mothers and daughters

A particularly unsavoury element of the story so far is the competition between mothers and daughters, and between older and younger women. Igraine is jealous of Morgause (her younger sister) and in a very telling moment, Morgaine is deeply jealous of a very young girl, Guinevere, who is lost on Avalon. She had been having a nice moment stripping off for Lancelot (who ostensibly isn’t going to fuck her) when they hear Guinevere’s cries of distress and go to rescue her. Lancelot helps the girl out of some mud, and we read that

Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it

This is how our feminist icon reacts to Lancelot helping a female child escape some mud! This is interesting because we outsiders reading this just see a man being nice to a distressed girl, he really is just being a good samaritan. Yet Morgaine is dying inside at the sight of it! We will come back to this later, because a big issue with this book is that every character is a horrible person.

This jealousy is repeated often, with younger women seen as competitors and replacements for older women, who are always angry at them for their youth. This includes children, who remember are treated in this book as sexually active agents of temptation, and thus need to be guarded against. Every older woman needs to be on her guard against a younger woman taking her place! The ultimate expression of this comes after Uther Pendragon dies, and in his death moment appears to Viviane as a vision. In that moment she realizes that they have been tied together through many lives, and becomes jealous that her daughter Igraine got to have Uther rather than her:

She cried aloud, with a great mourning cry for all that she had never known in this life, and the agony of a bereavement unguessed till this moment

The only pleasure she gets from this vision is the knowledge that in his dying moment Uther thought of her, and not of the woman he loved (Viviane’s duaghter). That’s right, the feminist leader of the matriarchal island is jealous of her own daughter.

Men eat, women pick

Quite often this book reads like a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) re-enactment, with a lot of focus on what people wear and eat in a mid-century American’s idea of “authentic” mediaeval British culture. Actually when I was reading the early parts of the book I thought to myself “this reads like an SCA document”, and only discovered later on reading her wiki entry that MZB started the SCA – it stands to reason I guess!

As part of this there are a lot of eating scenes, and it is noticeable that in every eating scene, women pick at small amounts of bread, honey and a little milk, while men eat fresh meat, bread, ale and other richnesses. I swear every time they eat, women are picky eaters who take as little as possible while men pig out. This is also seen in the sex: 17 chapters in and no women has had sex for fun with someone of her choosing, while multiple men have reputations for having fucked anyone they fancy. This might be excusable as a consequence of the christian world, but we are repeatedly told that “on the Isle” women are free to choose who they want to be with and men respect women as sexual equals. Except we never see it happen! Women in this story never get to have any fun, and the least enjoyable lifestyle is reserved for the “free” women of the supposedly sexually liberated isle, who are constantly fasting, going without sleep or warm clothes, and never having sex with anyone they want to.

Some utopia!

Everyone is horrible

I’m 17 chapters into this book and I haven’t yet met a nice character. I know it was written in the 70s when everyone wore brown, but these people are just awful. Igraine is a powerless wretch who is constantly crying; Morgaine is a jealous and angry woman who is also a complete sucker for Viviane’s power and is easily fooled by everything Viviane says; Morgause is a dirty slut who just needs to be rutted constantly and kept out of sight of men; Viviane is a manipulative, power-hungry and arrogant horror show who never accepts she is wrong and only ever sees people for their uses – she has no humanity at all. The men are all idiots, even the Merlin, who also have uncontrolled appetites and weak minds. Some, like Kevin the Bard, who is supposedly going to be the next Merlin, openly hate women. The most likable character so far has been Lancelot, who rescued Guinevere from the mud and promised not to despoil Morgaine even though she wanted him, but he also seemed to transfer his attentions from Morgaine the moment he saw a blonder, prettier girl, so who can say? Everyone is completely awful, and I have to read 600 more pages of this!

Ritual incest

The most shocking part of the story though is the ritual in which Morgaine is supposed to sleep with a future king of England in a ritual after he kills a stag with a flint knife. Viviane arranges this ritual, which is an ancient thing that is supposed to bind a king to the land. It’s also a kind of test (maybe the Stag would kill the king) and the only time you see a woman eat meat (Morgaine does, at the end of the ritual). Viviane set this whole thing up as a way to bind Arthur to the pagan parts of England, so that all the pagan cultures will follow him and he won’t be able to turn his back on the old ways even though he was raised a christian.

But the thing is, she doesn’t mention to Morgaine that Arthur is the king who is being tested – and Arthur is Morgaine’s half brother. So they go through the ritual, Arthur kills the stag, they fuck in the darkness of a cave covered in the stag’s blood, in the morning they wake up and fuck again, and then and only then does Arthur realize the girl he’s fucking is Morgaine (they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and they’re both about 16 or 18, so it makes sense they don’t recognize each other immediately).

Morgaine of course is heart broken, because she has been tricked into incest with her half brother. What does Viviane say 10 days later when she finally allows Morgaine to speak to her about it?

“Well there’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said. “Done is done. And at this moment the hope of Britain is more important than your feelings.”

Did I mention that in this story everyone is horrible? There’s exhibit A. And also exhibit A of the idea that women’s sexuality is only there to be used for a purpose, women have no free agency over it, and it should be tamed and put to work for the greater good.


So far I am 17 chapters in and this is what I have seen so far: a bunch of horrible people who think children are all sluts who need to be controlled, virginity is a gift that should be preserved and given away only to the right man or for the right purpose, who see women’s sexuality as a tool to be deployed in the interests of family or nation, and who think incest is completely okay. The older women are all intensely competitive with and jealous of younger women, and no woman is free to be herself on a supposedly feminist island that is actually an authoritarian dystopia where everyone exists to serve a religious dictatorship led by a brooding, narcissistic, tyrannical old woman who is jealous of her own daughter for the marriage she arranged.

It’s hard going.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist, and I don’t think men should claim to be feminists or to have some great insight into feminist theory, but I really don’t think this is a story that is consistent with anything I know of feminism. It’s a hard slog in which women are abused regularly and viciously by all men, and by any women who is older than them and has power over them. This social circumstance isn’t presented in a context of overthrowing or critiquing it though – the goal is clearly (so far) to preserve the power of the matriarchal theocracy by brutally using its junior female members’ sexuality in any way necessary. If this is feminism, it’s a kind of lesbian separatist, almost fascist vision of feminism that was briefly in vogue in the 1970s but quickly died out. It’s the feminism of the anti-sex work activist Julie Bindel, who advocated political lesbianism (in which heterosexual feminists have lesbian relationships so as not to betray the movement), or of the anti-trans movement of the 2010s, which is spearheaded by older women insecure in their aging. It’s the kind of feminism we sometimes hear now from some second-wave feminists, bemoaning the fact that young women like to have sex with whoever they want and get Brazilian waxes, the feminism of women who distrust and don’t respect open expressions of female sexuality.

However, this ideology is tempered in this case by a foul attitude towards (female) children, in which they are seen as sexually permissive, sexually active predators who need to be constrained or married off early, and who are easy prey for older men – and who deserve it if they suffer bad consequences of their sexual activity. There is no mercy or pity for girls taken by older men, indeed no sense that it is wrong at all for girls to be given away to men to be used. It is unsurprising to read this attitude from a woman who actively supported the sexual predations of her husband, wrote articles in his paedophilia journal, and sexually abused her own daughter.

There’s a lot more of this book to go, so I will revisit this topic later. I am interested in how she influenced those who followed her in the genre, how she has misused paganism and pagan concepts for her own political purposes, and what her final conclusion will be about the Arthurian tragedy. I also don’t think the child abuse and incest will stop with Arthur’s unknowing rape of his half-sister (and I guess his being raped by her). My guess is there is worse to come. Let us see what horrors this paedophile activist is capable of conceiving of as acceptable, how she butchers the Arthurian story, and what influence she had on subsequent generations of fantasy writers and feminists. Stay tuned!

I found Jock Serong’s novel Preservation through the pages of the sadly defunct magazine Great Ocean Quarterly, of which he is the editor. Great Ocean Quarterly is an Australian magazine about the sea that was published between 2013 and 2015, covering miscellanea about life around and in the sea, art and culture connected to the sea, and with a distinctly southern hemisphere feeling and aesthetic. It’s a beautiful magazine and a really worthwhile addition to my library, one of those quality publications that, like a good role-playing book, really needs to be held and physically savoured to properly enjoy. I don’t think it’s possible to buy this magazine for love or money, so I count myself very lucky to have stumbled on it when I did (through instagram I think) and to have been able to pick up most of its issues.

It’s probably difficult for non-Australians to understand, given our reputation as uncultured sports jocks, but there is a very distinct aesthetic and sensibility to Australian culture, a sense of style that comes from living in a huge, harsh land near the edge of the world, under a high blue sky and blessed with some of the best weather in the world, where the seasons don’t match the flow of time that our western cultural heritage says they should, and none of the origin stories of the western part of our culture match where we live. It’s a land of washed-out colours, ochres and yellows rather than greens and blues, storms and bright sun rather than rain and snow. If you have left Australia and lived in the north you can definitely feel the huge distance between our Australian sensibility and that of the northern hemisphere, and if you have lived in the old countries – places like Japan and Europe with long histories – you can also feel the huge gaps in our cultural memory, and maybe get some sense of the effect of those gaps on how we think about ourselves and the world.

Serong’s novel Preservation dives straight into one of the bloodiest and most shameful of those gaps, the lost history of the settlement of Australia and the many dark holes left in that history by rapacious westerners burying the bodies of their misdeeds – and the stories that should have been told about what really happened when westerners came here. The novel tells the story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, a ship that was wrecked near Tasmania in the Furneaux islands in 1796. At this time there were no maps of most of Australia, and nobody knew that Tasmania and the mainland were not connected, believing instead there was some kind of bay between what was then called Van Diemen’s Land and the eastern coast. Three of the shipwreck survivors set off by longboat along with 17 Bengali sailors (called Lascars) to cross this “bay” and find help at Port Jackson. However, they were wrecked again at Ninety Mile Beach on the mainland and so set out on foot from there to try and reach the settlement in what is now Sydney. This required 400 km of walking on land no westerner or Bengali had ever set foot on, and only three people survived the journey – one Bengali sailor and two white men, one of whom kept a diary. This novel tells the story of all the gaps in that diary, including how the other members of the expedition died and what really happened when this motley group encountered Indigenous people on the journey.

The story is reconstructed by Joshua Grayling, the governor’s assistant, who shuttles between interviewing the diary keeper, William Clark, the Bengali sailor, Srinivas, and a third survivor, Mr. Figge. It is clear that they all hate each other and that bad things happened on the journey, and Grayling and the governor are both very suspicious of everyone’s story, but they need to find out what happened so they can send a ship for survivors, and as their suspicions grow so that they can decide who to punish. Grayling’s attempts to learn the truth of the journey happen against a backdrop of increasing political tensions within the Sydney colony, his own wife’s growing sickness and her strange fascination with the bush, and growing tensions between white settlers and the Indigenous people around Sydney. Outside the cleared area of the settlement itself the Aboriginal people are beginning to fight back, with famous warriors like Pemulwuy leading attacks against the settlers and striking fear into the hearts of the colonizers; meanwhile, convicts would escape and run away to join the tribespeople, or live wild in the bush. Knowing what we now do, we are aware that stories about William Clark’s encounters with the Aborigines on his way north will affect the way the colony treats them, that lies about their behaviour are too easily believed and misdeeds by white settlers too easily ignored. It also becomes clear that Figge is a uniquely evil man, and that Clark is a dishonest and selfish man with a lot to lose.

The story is a kind of survival horror, with the group unraveling as they head north, various schemes and objectives playing out, and everyone becoming increasingly desperate as their food supplies run low and their clothes, shoes and strength begin to fail. At times the going is quite grim, and there were one or two points where I put the book aside for a few days so I could take a break from the viciousness. I think it’s safe to say that the ending won’t satisfy everyone, and as the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer notes, there are a lot of stories left unfinished, which will leave one pondering what might have been long after the book is put down. There is also a constant sense of dread and looming disaster, even in the bright sun of the colony, so that you never can be sure when, how or if the horrors of the journey are going to be unleashed within the colony itself. If you can’t handle this kind of horror and slow unraveling then this story is definitely not for you, and the violence is neither cathartic nor enjoyable when it happens. Even at its worst though it is well tempered by Serong’s writing, which is rich with descriptions of the Australian bush, terse when it needs to be and expansive when it suits, with a good pace. The story is told from several characters’ point of view but manages to present them – through speech style, perspective and tone – as different voices, something many writers fail at, and an achievement that makes it much easier to immerse oneself in the book. There are jarring moments when I switch to a new chapter, expecting to continue the story of a particular character, and suddenly realize from the change of tone and perspective that I’m someone else – this is good, a sign of a good writer really bringing his characters to life.

Through these characters we learn the true story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, their interactions with the natives as they traveled north, and what happened in Sydney when they arrived. We also see a vision of how the land was before it was “settled”, and get to imagine how the first Australians dealt with these strange and confusing interlopers before they knew anything about them. There can be no truth about any of this, of course – we don’t know enough about the history of either the early colonists or the Aborigines whose land rights they extinguished to be able to say – but it offers a welcome opportunity to try and imagine that land in that time, and how white settlers presented themselves when they were there. At times it is a grim and nasty read, and it will leave you unsettled, but it is an excellent book and well worth whatever effort you need to make to overcome its harder moments. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is interested in how we can reimagine the gaps in Australia’s past, and people who dream of what might have been.

I have just finished reading The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, by Peter Hessler. I found this book because I stumbled on some tweets of his that suggested he actually had a nuanced view of China, which is highly unusual for a western journalist. He is a journalist working at the New Yorker, who spent several years in Beijing, and this book is his account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which unfolded as he was living and working in Egypt. Hessler is also unusual for a journalist from an elite publication in that he actually learnt the language of the countries he reported on, and attempted to meet people outside the expat bubble, something which is incredibly rare in journalists in Asia and I’d guess (especially now) even rarer in journalists covering the middle east. So I was interested in finding out what he had to say about the Egyptian Revolution, and how he linked it to the archaeology of Egypt’s ancient sites.

The book is divided into three parts, which describe the events immediately leading up to and around the revolution; the fallout and subsequent collapse of that revolution and Morsi’s rule; and then the long-term consequences for Egypt. Through the three parts he weaves together accounts of his own life in Egypt, the lives and tribulations of the Egyptian people he knew, and the things he learnt about the ancient history of Egypt, in particular a specific lost city in the desert that appears to reflect many of the classic mistakes of modern Egypt. This style of storytelling is engaging and interesting but also infuriating, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere at times and you can’t feel that the guy is making a point; as a result I had to go away and come back to this book several times, when my interest in what he was trying to say overcame my frustrations at his failure to get anywhere closer to saying it. I think it’s safe to say that there is very little plot or structure to this book, just a series of anecdotes laid out in approximately temporal order, with some interesting asides.

The most enjoyable part of this storytelling conceit by far is the tales of the Egyptians Hessler meets. He studies Arabic with a man called Rifaat, who is a cynic out of place in modern Cairo, and practices his Arabic with the local waste disposal man, Sayyid. He also gets help in the early years of his stay in Cairo from a gay Egyptian man called Manu, until his Arabic is good enough to work by himself, and also meets people associated with these men. Later on in the story he begins to meet and talk to Chinese lingerie merchants, using his experience of China and Chinese people to learn about Egypt through their eyes. These people are all fascinating individuals, leading complex and compromised lives in the face of a social system that is extremely different to our western ideals, an increasingly authoritarian state, and in Manu’s case the constant threat of physical harm from the extreme prejudice he is constantly exposed to. Some of the people in this story have extremely disappointing, even distressing, endings, and Hessler describes them with sympathy, empathy and care, which makes their stories simultaneously powerful, entertaining, and frustrating, and sometimes ultimately disappointing in different ways. Through them we gain some insight into how Egyptian culture works and how Egyptians view their own problems, and we also get a very personal sense of how the overbearing patriarchy and the increasingly intrusive authoritarianism affect ordinary people’s lives and decisions.

Hessler tells these stories and the experience of the revolution with a genuine respect and empathy for the people involved, and without much of the usual patronizing interventionist snootiness of western journalists reporting on other cultures. He is very clear about his position on various moral issues but does not allow this to cloud his understanding of what these people who grew up in this system believe and think about the world around them. His tone is very much like the tone I am familiar with from foreigners living in Japan who actually love and respect the country but aren’t foolish enough to think that the only way they can fit in here is by being and thinking Japanese: a kind of detached and respectful love and simultaneous exasperation, and an appreciation of how differences can be simultaneously frustrating or crazy but also necessary and beneficial, and enough humility to understand that his own perspective is not universally right or effective. Through this perspective he tries to understand values he doesn’t share, actions he would never take, and decisions that on first blush look completely crazy.

Hessler also approaches the revolution from a relatively open-minded standpoint (for a westerner, and especially an American). He talks to people from all sides of the political battles, and he attempts to identify facts and understand patterns and systems where most journalists would just look for confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Through his careful work we learn that the Muslim Brotherhood was massively overstating its membership and its charitable works; that many Egyptians came to think the Brotherhood was an American plot; that many people in leadership positions on all sides had no plan or system for the revolution; and that much of politics in Egypt did not change with the revolution. We get a street-level view of how mistakes happened and how some decisions and responses were inevitable or uncontrolled, and we see how events or processes that from the outside looked carefully planned and executed were actually happenstance. This is interesting and insightful stuff, and the first time I’ve tried to understand the Arab spring in any detail.

For this insight into the revolution and the stories of the people he knew, this book is definitely worth reading. However, it suffers from a couple of flaws that I think are all too common in journalistic work. First and foremost, just like the other book by a journalist that I recently finished, there is no real conclusion and a poor logical structure. I don’t know what journalists learn at school but a common flaw of opinion and discussion pieces by journalists is that they don’t know how to build up from evidence, using logic, to a conclusion, and this seems to happen in their books too. In this case I don’t necessarily need to see logic or some kind of scientific method of Egyptian revolutionary studies, but I’d at least like a conclusion, and the book just kind of fizzles out without saying anything. Like much of journalistic work, it ends up being a discussion of a big national event through how it affects 3 or 4 random people the journalist knows. That’s a nice story but to my mind it’ s not saying anything. Choose a different 3 or 4 random people and I’d get a completely different set of consequences of the revolution, a different sense of its importance and its effects, and a different understanding of the world. That’s well and good as a story but it’s also very limited as a form of essay about a revolution. I want more! And somehow I don’t get it. The stories get wrapped up but nothing else is finished or even said, in the end. It’s a strange feeling to read 100s of pages of non-fiction and come out having learnt a lot and seen a lot but simultaneously having learned nothing. Kind of like reading a modern newspaper, I guess.

But besides this, and the slightly loose way in which the narratives of the different people and ancient cities intertwine, this book is excellent. It is sensitive to the people, it gives a feeling of being in Cairo without losing the sense of being an outsider, it’s not patronizing or chauvinist, and it gives people outside Egypt an insight into the revolution that is aware of its own limitations, careful about its own subjectivity, but thorough within the limitations of its writers frame and abilities given the context in which he collected his stories. I strongly recommend this book as both a series of biographies, an account of the revolution, and a study of a country. Despite its flaws and its ultimate lack of conclusion, it’s a powerfully empathic discussion of a difficult time that has already been warped into propaganda by western governments and media, its truth lost to time. At least with this book we can dig up a little of the truth, even if only glimpses, and understand something of the archaeology of the revolution, just as its title suggests.

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.

fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.


I have just had a knee reconstruction and have spent the last 6 days wallowing in self-pity in a hospital bed in Tokyo, completing the last (I hope) uglinesses of three months of body horror (report to come). With little else to do I have resorted to Netflix, and of course I have watched Tiger King. So far I have just finished episode 5 (I was distracted by The Innocence Files, which I strongly recommend), but by the end of Episode 5 I was convinced that the main character of Tiger King, Joe Exotic, is very similar to Trump, and his public and political reception in America is an example of why Trump was not an isolated phenomenon. Americans, I think, have a problem with people with narcissistic personality disorders – too many Americans admire them – and are way too easily fooled by conmen. Here, I will explain why I think Joe Exotic is similar to Trump and what his public reception says about Trump’s rise.

First some basic background. Tiger King is a documentary about these super weird Americans who keep big cats as pets and money-machines, in these weird and horribly shitty rural zoos that should be closed down with extreme prejudice. The story is that it was meant to be a doco about one particularly weird and flamboyant member of this strange society, Joe Exotic, but during the making of the doco Joe tried to get a rival killed and so the whole thing spiraled out of control. I haven’t got to that bit yet, but everything leading up to is pretty disturbing. The main character is Joe Exotic, a gay gun-toting zoo owner from Oklahoma who has two husbands (not legally I guess?), both of whom are straight, and has a menagerie of something like 220 lions and tigers that he shows off to the public in flamboyant performances. He makes a lot of his money from cub petting, in which he takes newborn cubs (before the mother can lick them!) and allows customers to snuggle and play with them, until they reach about 12 weeks old, after which he dumps them in the zoo with the rest of the adults, where they become mostly just a financial burden (so he killed them or trafficked them). His opponent is a woman called Carole Baskin who runs a (rather dubious looking!) animal sanctuary for abused big cats, and has spent years trying to shut down Joe’s operation, including using a sneaky (according to the doco!) copyright trick to force him massively into debt. Rumour has it that Baskin killed her first husband and fed him to a tiger, information the doco does very little to dispute even though it seems pretty obvious that her husband was up to something shonky in Costa Rica and probably got himself killed down there. There are a few other tiger owners – one called Antle who has a sex cult and another who is a dodgy former criminal – and there is a ragtag crew of people who work for Joe Exotic and go to enormous lengths for him (one of these, who apparently was misgendered in the doco, lost an arm to a tiger and kept working for Joe). In his little menagerie-kingdom Joe keeps a lot of guns and explosives (he is clearly not one of those super-rare “responsible gun owners” that his libertarian political campaign manager would have us believe is the norm), meth and pot, and a lot of boys toys. In general Joe treats the tigers badly, and his relationship with his cats is emotionally very hot and cold and is basically transactional. They make him money, and he plays with them, but he doesn’t trust them and he doesn’t particularly seem to respect them.

It should be added that this documentary is really not very objective and although it’s great viewing, as a documentary it’s shit. It obviously has taken Joe Exotic’s side (at least in the first 5 episodes) and doesn’t show much objectivity about its subject at all.

So how is Joe like Trump? Let us count the ways:

  • He has the same personality disorders: He obviously has narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, just like Trump, or as some might put it he has the Dark Triad. His relationships are entirely transactional (he basically buys his straight boyfriend with meth) and everything is all about him. This is most clearly seen at the funeral for his second husband, which he makes all about himself, and the subsequent marriage to his new boyfriend within two months, which he uses to humiliate and break his dead husband’s mother. It’s visible in the way he treats his animals, his insatiable need for fame, the way he treats his staff, and the way every emotion he ever shows is clearly and obviously a performance. He can never be wrong, nothing is ever his fault, and the whole world is out to get him.
  • He is deeply misogynist: The videos he makes of Carole Baskin are really shocking, and he cannot control himself when he is talking about her. Even when he is running a political campaign he is making campaign videos calling her a bitch and a whore, and on his youtube channel he put videos of her as a sex doll being face-fucked with dildos, and being fed to his cats. He has the same reaction to a woman challenging him as Trump does to female journalists.
  • He is messy and disorganized and terrible with money: Just like Trump, he is incapable of running or organizing anything, and only gets anything done because a group of strangely loyal misfits jump at his every order and do everything he wants, even when everything he wants is constantly contradictory and changing. He also obviously can barely keep the farm afloat, where a better manager would turn it into a cash-making machine. Whatever money he does get he squanders on bullshit, like meth and trucks for his straight husbands or guns and ammo. This is no clearer than in the stupid brace he wears on his knee for much of the series – he obviously has not got health insurance and hasn’t paid for it for his staff (likely the real reason Saffer chose to have his damaged arm amputated – with no health insurance he could not pay for the reconstruction surgery). He would rather flamboyantly suffer than buy one less truck a year for one of his husbands and pay for health insurance for himself, let alone his crew.
  • He has dodgy mob connections: He obviously has access to a regular supply of meth, and is able to traffick lions and tigers however he wants, and in the first (?) episode we see him cozying up to a drug dealer who is so shady it’s hard to believe. Not only does he have these dodgy criminal connections, but he also obviously admires them – and they obviously see him as an easy mark.
  • He is an easy mark: Like most of the senior figures in the GOP, while he is running a long con on his friends, associates and supporters, Joe Exotic is also easily being conned by others. He got done like a dinner by the Kirkham guy, and when Jeff Lowe gets to him he is so easily tricked into giving up control of everything. Trump is the same – this is why he is owned by Russia. The biggest con-artists are also the biggest marks.
  • He has no interest in truth: He is a classic bullshitter, just like Trump. Whatever he says is true, and if he contradicts himself two days in a row it doesn’t matter because he does not recognize the difference between truth and lies. Words don’t work for him as they do for us.

So of course, just like Trump he runs for political office. First of all he tries the presidential campaign but then failing that he runs for Governor of Oklahoma, with a libertarian (idiot) for a campaign manager and a platform of low regulation. His platform and campaign imagery are so Trumpian – there’s even a scene where he tells some shlubb that if he is elected there will be “someone as broke as you” in charge, trying to market himself as a man of the people. Unlike Trump he doesn’t win, but he does get 18% of the vote. And when people are interviewed about why they will vote for him they give exactly the same reasons as people give for Trump: he’s just like us, he tells it as it is, he’s not politically correct and that’s good, etc. The interviews with his supporters could have just as easily have been at a Trump rally.

Furthermore, his chief enemy (in business, not politics) is so obviously identifiable as a Hillary Clinton-like figure: an older white woman with a real set of goals, who is methodical and prepared and speaks clearly and with intent, who every single media outlet seems to have described with the same adjectives as Clinton – desperate to be liked, unlikable, untrustworthy, etc.

This is the enduring puzzle of American politics. How could an obvious fraud, grifter, gangster, womanizing rapist psychopath like Trump be popular in America? We see the same thing with Joe Exotic: in a Morning Consult poll of 400 viewers of the show he had the second-highest favorability ratings and Carole Baskin had the lowest, and her husband the second lowest – below a libertard gun nut, a tiger-killing narcissist, his meth-head husband, another tiger trader with five “wives” in a sex cult, a rich fraud from Vegas who uses tigers to fuck models (or at least put their pictures on instagram), and another tiger trader who wishes he could learn how to “control women” the way the sex cult dude does. How do Americans judge older white women on a mission to be at the bottom of this pile?

I previously described the Trump campaign as similar to WWF, a giant fraud that all its fans know is a fraud but love anyway. Tiger King is another insight into this strange cultural phenomenon that seems to be unique to America, where people fall easily for frauds and gangsters and love them even after their obvious shonkiness is revealed. There is nothing authentic or real about Joe Exotic – he is a narcissistic, manipulative and vicious bastard who uses people for his own ends, and has never shown a true part of himself in his life – but despite the rest of the world watching this doco and recognizing this immediately, somehow to Americans he is authentic and serious in a way that a softly-spoken older white woman can never be.

America has a problem with grifters, psychopaths and narcissistic frauds. Too many Americans cannot understand when they’re being taken for a ride, and too many Americans enjoy being fleeced. This is the essence of Republican politics – it’s a giant con job played on people who are eager to be fleeced by men the rest of the world would not consider fit to lick our boots. It’s terrifying, and if Americans can’t break out of this strange fugue state and start understanding the way they’re being conned, their country is done for.

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