Category Archives: capitalism

Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

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A critique of capitalism in “Jupiter Ascending”

[Jupiter sized spoilers ahead: Beware]

Last Friday, my spouse and I went to see Jupiter Ascending for Valentine’s Day. Due to its poor reception by critics and the public in the US, I hoped it’d be a fun “bad” movie. However, I found it to be a beautiful movie with an intriguing plot. This brief preview will give an overview of the movie. Abrasax Industries “seeded” the Earth one hundred thousand years prior, although people on Earth are unaware of this fact. The three Abrasax heirs inherit their wealth from their mother and are the villains in the movie. Each sibling corresponds with a particular problem relating to capitalism. (For a quick, cute overview of Karl Marx’s view of capitalism, communism, alienation, and utopia, you can view this short Super Mario Brothers 8-Bit Philosophy video.)

The protagonist from Earth is Jupiter Jones. Her mother immigrated  to the US while pregnant with Jupiter. Jupiter works as a maid with her family in Chicago and hates her work. She wants to buy a telescope and decides to go along with a plan to sell her eggs at a fertility clinic. This plan is developed by her cousin who intends to get more of the money from the transaction than Jupiter. It is obvious that Jupiter is being exploited by her cousin. At first, this appears to be a Cinderella-like tale where Jupiter will be able to leave her challenging life as a laborer behind.

On the other hand, the Abrasax family is a dynasty that owns planets (and their inhabitants) as property. When the head of the dynasty dies, her three children, Kalique, Balem, and Titus, begin plotting and fighting over their inheritances. This family seems similar to the power elite discussed by sociologist C.Wright Mills. If inheritance laws exist without controls, then more and more wealth will concentrate in the hands of a few.  Those few will eventually be like royalty, even if they do not technically have titles. The movie asks and attempts to answer the question, what if inheritance remained and laws didn’t keep the wealthy in check?

Balem will inherit the Earth unless the his mother’s genetic reincarnation appears. He sends assassins to murder the genetic reincarnation, which is revealed to be Jupiter. On the other hand, Kalique and Titus both want her alive to use her. Caine, whose DNA is a splice of human and wolf DNA, is an excellent tracker and is sent to track down Jupiter. He becomes a romantic interest. However, he also represents alienated labor.

As Jupiter finds herself drawn into the battle that she knows nothing about, she realizes that these siblings see no problem with owning a whole planet and harming its inhabitants. Furthermore, she discovers that the family harvests a youth serum, but it takes many lives, or rather human deaths, to create it. The first of the siblings she visits is Kalique. Similar to a fairy tale villain, Kalique, values her own eternal youth and beauty at the expense of others. In modern global capitalism, people extend their own life chances and beauty, while breaking the backs of others without access to the same goods and services. Kalique demonstrates this to Jupiter by entering a pool of water and emerging younger. The elixir is extremely valuable. It benefits Kalique to help Jupiter gain her title for Earth in that it decreases her brother’s wealth and power.  (In one of the part of the movie that I felt was the most humorous, Jupiter has to go through a long, bureaucratic process to gain her title. She notes that she’d never complain about the DMV again.)

Next, Jupiter winds up in the hands of Titus, who wants to steal the Earth (and its valuable elixir) from both his brother and Jupiter. Titus notes to Caine when alone that he, himself, is a liar. I think that this represents the fact that capitalism leads people to becoming unethical. When profits and power are the ultimate goals, it justifies all kinds of heinous actions. Titus, a hedonist, tricks Jupiter by saying that he wants to end the trade that will harm the Earth. He convinces her that by marrying him, she will be protecting Earth and its inhabitants. He sends Caine out the airlock but lies about it to Jupiter. Caine comes to rescue her just in time, which reminds me of the marriage scene in Princess bride. Titus is willing to lie and murder for gaining the means of production (e.g., the planet Earth.) Likely, he wants to keep fueling his grandiose, hedonistic lifestyle.

Finally, Jupiter ends up in the hands of Balem. Balem would rather harvest the Earth immediately than let Jupiter take ownership of his property. He kidnaps her family from Earth and offers her a choice.  If she signs her title over to him, he will spare her family. Furthermore, the Earth won’t be harmed while she lives. This is actually an excellent analysis of capitalism. Often, in modern capitalism, resources are plundered and the costs are placed on the next generation.  The capitalists and workers may not even lived to see the horrible consequences that have been deferred to later generations, including environmental consequences.  Therefore, Jupiter can choose to save those she loves, but she’d have to delay the suffering to billions of people in a later time period.  Jupiter, in the end, makes the right call in terms of saving all the people on the Earth, although it means sacrificing those she loves most. She realizes the importance of the lives on the Earth, not just the ones in her own in-group. While she was willing to make the sacrifice, she manages to fight Titus and escape with Caine’s help. Essentially, the ends of capitalism are not to benefit people. Instead, the goal is to maximize profits, which is what all three of the Abrasax siblings wanted, although they had different motivators.

In this movie, human beings aren’t just machinery, our lives and deaths literally become the commodity itself. We are the product. In the end, Jupiter owns the planet, but she does not exploit that fact.  She stands in solidarity with other humans; she continues her productive labor as a maid.  Her labor as a maid is valuable, and she appreciates returning to being part of the proletariat. This movie does not have a true Marxist utopia at the end.  Abraxas Industries and the family are still at large in the universe. And the people on earth excluding Jupiter and Caine have no idea that they are a part of a much larger system of oppression, similar to how many people do not realize how they are being exploited in global capitalism due to hegemonic ideology.  Eventually, we will be vulnerable again when Jupiter dies. Just like in “The Matrix” people have to wake up before they can start to save themselves.

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