Friday, January 2, 2015

literary criticism of Adam Roberts' work

I've written quite a bit about Adam Roberts' SF on this blog. I thought that it was finally time to collect it (including some material never posted on the blog) on a more permanent site whose home page is here. For the occasion, I've written a new piece on his novel Polystom.

From here down is a copy (without the full bibliography) of what's on the main site:

Some notes on reading Adam Roberts

Books that I've written about are linked below. Each of these essays is in a different formal style in keeping with the individual work that the essay is about.

  • Salt (2000)
  • On (2001)
  • Stone (2002)
  • Park Polar (novella) (2002)
  • Jupiter Magnified (novella) (2003)
  • Polystom (2003)
  • The Snow (2004)
  • Gradisil (2006)
  • Splinter (2007)
  • Land of the Headless (2007)
  • Swiftly: A Novel (2008)
  • Yellow Blue Tibia (2009)
  • New Model Army (2010)
  • Anticopernicus (novelette) (2011)
  • By Light Alone (2011)
  • Jack Glass (2012)
  • Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014)
  • Bete (2014)

The order that I wrote about these works in was, if I remember rightly: 1) Stone, 2) On, 3) Splinter, 4) Yellow Blue Tibia, 5) Anticopernicus, 6) Polystom, if you want to read only the more recent ones.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Lew and Pru romantic comedy philosophical thought experiment fanfic

Once there was a post by John Holbo on a blog called Crooked Timber that was about a philosophical thought experiment from Amartya Sen -- 'his celebrated Prude/Lewd example' -- which G.A. Cohen summarized in Rescuing Justice and Equality as follows:

Lewd has two relevant desires: he likes to read pornographic books, and he would like Prude to read one, because he thinks doing so would corrupt Prude into liking pornography. So strong is that desire that Lewd would prefer Prude to read the book, rather than read it himself; his desire to corrupt exceeds his desire to enjoy his own corruption. For his part, Prude dislikes reading pornographic books, and he also dislikes Lewd reading them; he wants no one to read them, but he prefers reading the book himself to Lewd reading it: that way, he thinks, less danger lies. In light of the strengths of their preferences, Prude and Lewd agree that Prude (alone) will read the book. That is their joint first preference, and so it is required by the Pareto principle. Sen claims that the principle thereby endorses an illiberal result. (p. 187)

John Holbo suggested that stories about this pair be written, people gave various ideas in comments, and from all these ideas I decided to write philosophical fanfic.

Here it is: a romantic comedy adventure story with thought experiments. And pornographic novels.

Monday, November 17, 2014


(Anyone who's reading this blog for some other reason, sorry for all the recent poetry reprints. It's just a convenient place to put them, when I want them to be re-read for some reason. This one was published in my third chapbook, _Doctor of Dead Letters_.)


I should have been prepared
By those TV shows
"Touched By An Angel"
"Joan of Arcadia"
How many actors have dressed up as God?
I used to wonder
If I, too
Could clip a halo-light on to my collar
Deadpan "I am an angel from God"
And become a religious experience

I should have been prepared
By all those actors
When the limo pulled up on the busy late night street
And the window rolled down
I saw his expensive tie
As he looked out coldly
And I thought "Must be some obnoxious rich guy"
But it was God

I should have been prepared
Couldn't he appear as anything, anywhere
A burning bush or a light from the sky?
This time he had a dome light
He turned to look at me and asked if I was saving something
I assumed that he meant the parking space
I was standing in
And said "not for you"
That may have been a mistake

I should have been prepared
There's a long tradition about how to talk to God
Humility, personal virtue
Reminding him of his good side
But of course he knew how I'd answer
And now I'd said it
"I am the creator of worlds", he said
"Where were you when I made the stars?
I am the Alpha and the Omega
And that parking space is mine
Your soul is mine"
And all of a sudden I knew who He was
He didn't have to do tricks like the TV actors do
When God wants you to know it's Him, you know it

I should have been prepared
I stuttered a bit
And having started with bravado, had to go on
"You are the destroyer of worlds too
The same stories that tell how you
Reimburse people in heavenly small claims court
Tell how you put others away for eternity
And when we say we don't understand
You start going on about how we're children
Or sheep. How we're your shiftless slum tenants."
He stopped me with a look

I should have been prepared
But He was merciful anyway
He'd heard my kind of blather billions of times before
Silently I knew that I'd been given another chance
And I stepped back out of the parking space
His. His.
And as his limo pulled up
I started to sing Hosannas

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Oscar in Samsara

I heard the words of the Buddha
They were about skandhas, sense-impressions
Sense-impressions – piles of five, for the five senses, heaps

That was the flash of enlightenment
I heard the Buddha laugh

Those heaps, impermanent and valueless,
Were trash
I love trash

Nothing stays the same
Nothing is made of itself
The trash lies in piles, in the way
Kick it, and the foot
That kicks is trash

That is the truth
Intended to make us happy
To give up desire, attachment to trash
That is the trash of truth

Everything dirty, growing, in spots
Never to be seen again
The faces that I love
Temporary, uncaptureable
Even the monuments grow dingy
Even the innermost thoughts
The world, and its images
A giant garbage can

Walking along the railroad tracks
I saw them, and turned to the four year old
Walking with me
Look, rusty bolts!
And fasteners to turn on them
We brought them home
They became part of us
Polished, less rusty by many turnings
Finally put away
When trash passes, there is suffering
The bolts, did they last?
They were like what we ate

A picture is the trash of a moment
Snapped off
Poems are word-trash
When words go, they will go too
Memories, feelings
Rot away, change color, get dusty

The first kiss that mattered
We were surrounded by paper
Bales and bags of it
Piled, in the trailer where we worked, recycling it
Amidst all the trash that we moved
The work, the kiss, the life
The four year old, later
The bolts and the fasteners
All from trash
A gift from my mother the day I was born
The perception of it
Small stones, colors
Are picked up, rejoiced
The pink and green and brown
And stubborn rockiness of them
And saved, and lost
And suffered, with each loss
The pattern passed on
To the recycling center
The bags and bales and heaps

Buddha, there is a problem
It is everywhere
Everything, there are no boundaries
Within the garbage can
No eye to see it
But the momentary notice
Of each person, pattern, hope
Though it leads to mourning
Trash slipping away from trash
Though nothing can be kept
That is where I'm stuck
Particular, attached
To these bits of it
In all its stubborn grime
I love it because it's trash

Monday, October 13, 2014

a model of the universe

I self-published my 6th poetry chapbook, a model of the universe. It has my (mostly) non-political poems from the last decade. Some of these are among the best things I've written, though thematically the chapbook doesn't hang together as coherently as the last one. Some of these poems were originally up on my personal Web page, which has since been mostly deleted so that they aren't up any more. The ones that were put on this blog aren't the best, but I've linked to them below.

The table of contents:

a model of the universe
  • The Rock
  • Untitled Nov 30
  • some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside
  • The Universe
  • Maps (Four Explorers)
  • Out of Order
  • Muse of Fire
Everything I learned as a child The Valley
  • Alive
  • Point of View
  • In the Valley
Everything Else Here's the introduction:

Poems in the first section tend to have uncertain boundaries, as befits the universe: the second (Untitled Nov 30) is an infinite loop that can be started anywhere; the fourth has its title and introduction embedded in the poem.

Poems in the second section were inspired by (and sometimes put in the comments of) Jenna Moran's Hitherby Dragons site (

The third section, "Everything I learned as a child," should probably have been titled "what I learned as a parent while watching my children watching TV," but that doesn't sound as good. Major companies who wish to sue me should note that these are parodies (as well as being major revelations of mystic truth suitable for the ages).

The last poem, Pink Triangle, is a direct parody of the song of the same name by Weezer.

for my parents

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 was 2001

I recently self-published my 5th poetry chapbook, "9/11 was 2001: a decade of political poems". I'm pretty pleased with it; I think it's better than all but one of my previous attempts.

Many of the poems in it here been published in draft form on this blog. Here's the table of contents:

2003: The Hostage Crisis
2004: Red, White, and Blue
2005: The Salvador Option
2005: As You Know, Katrina
2006: Signals
2006: Pebble
2007: After the Clash
2008: Larval Poets Manifesto
2009: For Obama's Inauguration
2010: The Ones Who
2011: Snow Storm
2014: Global warming activism / the dream

The rest of the poems are probably findable through Google, written in some comment box somewhere. If someone wants a physical copy, or even a PDF, of the whole chapbook, Email me at rpuchalsky followed by 1 followed by gmail dot com, or leave a message in comments below, and I'll try to get you one.

Each of the poems in the chapbook has an individual introduction, which I'm not going to quote here. But here's the introduction for the chapbook as a whole:

These poems were written from 2003 - 2014. It doesn't require close reading to see an obsessive concern with years, numbers, facts. It was a period dominated within the United States of America by myth, first and foremost the removal of the 9/11/2001 attack from history into the realm of timelessness, as the ever-enduring cause for a war everywhere against all enemies – not even against enemies, against terror itself. This all-encompassing war was used to justify a series of quite real wars, the invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003-2011 being the most destructive in terms of the number of people killed. But there were other myths, too, such as the one that said that the natural world was as it was and that nothing people could do could change it.

My first training was as a scientist. Since then I've worked as a sort of librarian, making Web sites that provide environmental and financial information to the public. It's been tempting to believe that if somehow people could be informed, these myths would be exposed as unreal. Many of these poems struggle with that idea, which has proven as far as I can determine to be false. People want to believe, and when the belief fails, people want to forget.

Many poems are written with an aspiration towards aesthetic timelessness, to the idea that people could be reading them hundreds of years later and find the poem just as affecting as they do now. These poems can not do that. They are highly focussed in time and place, sites of memory. As such, they need context: I've written a brief introduction for each one.

This chapbook is dedicated to Carl Russo, a leader of the Florence Poets Society, and to Jameson Greeley Lavo, who I met through Occupy Northampton. They are missed.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mark Bray's "Translating Anarchy" / Occupy (VI)

I recently read Mark Bray's book "Translating Anarchy", and this post will refer to it extensively. It's also the long-delayed sixth post in my series on Occupy, a post in which I'll focus on organization and ideology. (The first five are linked here).

Translating Anarchy is a worthwhile book, well worth reading as an organizer's view of OWS. But a lot of it is concerned with arguing that important organizers of OWS were mostly either anarchists or held anarchistic ideas. I already believed this, so I'm not really going to engage with this major part of the text. I read the book primarily to find out whether Bray's view of OWS at the center was similar to the one I got from an Occupy group in a college town at the periphery. In the aspects that I'm interested in, I'd say that it was. The rest of the book has helpful sections that were new to me (the chapter on the media with how the movement was expected to follow the rules of "communication with the elite" and "mimicry of the elite") and sections that I found not so helpful (a brief history of anarchism may be necessary for some readers, but tends to become a definitional exercise favoring the writer's preferred kind of anarchism). This post isn't really a review, because I'm going to focus on one particular part of the book that I disagreed with.

An unfortunate coinage in the book is the phrase liberal libertarianism (sounding very similar to Bhaskar Sunkara's "the anarcho-liberal", but as a footnote explains, intending to describe people who are "less explicitly ideological and more interested in free expression and a lack of constraint"). First of all, there are already in the U.S. two contesting meanings of the word "libertarian", the usage "a right winger who believes in individual freedoms for rich people" driving out the original meaning of "an anarcho-socialist". Adding a third meaning does not seem likely to help. And, as with Sunkara's "anarcho-liberal", this is a descriptive term that the people purportedly described by it do not use. What does Mark Bray mean by the phrase? A quote from pg. 91 of Translating Anarchy: "Liberal libertarianism rejects anything that smacks of coercion even when directed toward those who are actively working against the interests of the group." Bray goes on to describe an example: the OWS spokescouncil is interrupted by notorious disrupters A and B,but they weren't the real problem. "The problem was the people who responded to [the facilitator's'] attempts to quiet him by shouting, 'Let him speak!' Without the enablers, disrupters wouldn't have had any leverage." According to the liberal libertarians, "Any attempt to silence anyone in any context was anathema. Doing so, in their eyes, would be replicating 'the system.'"

This is a case in which Bray and I see the same thing, but put very divergent interpretations on it. It's quite true that in every Occupy group that I heard of, people were "driven away in droves by disrupters" (pg. 92). But note where Bray locates the problem: with the liberal libertarian who "fails to recognize that there are times when the way to end coercion is to coerce. After all, a revolution is the most coercive thing there is, but to most anarchists it's silly to decry militant action against the state and capital as 'coercive' given the context of exploitation." That's an interesting way of describing facilitators repeatedly failing to facilitate meetings due to an unworkable meeting structure. Why do the liberal libertarians have this power to enable disrupters? Because what they are guilty of is taking OWS ideology seriously, and trying to follow ostensible OWS structure. When people joined Occupy, they were told (informally, of course) that they were now in a group in which every opinion was important, that anyone in the 99% was part of our movement, and that we operated by consensus with decisions made by a General Assembly in which anyone could speak. If the word "organizer" means anything, that's a problem of the organizers, not the organized.

I think that Bray is approaching this problem from an entirely wrong direction. Rather than getting into an argument about how "the way to end coercion is to coerce", I'd say that there's much wider agreement that freedom of association implies freedom of disassociation. People gathering to effect political and social change are doing work. Anarchism does not mean that you are stuck with the co-worker from hell. There has to be an easy way for the collective to say "Sorry, we can't work with you because you're being disruptive, goodbye." There's no need to get into a difficult and quite contested argument about revolution vs evolution, and in general start an unconvincing explanation about how coercion is necessary and coercive means can lead to good ends. Bray does write about the right of disassociation, but it's a kitchen-sink justification when it should be a sufficient one.

I got the distinct impression, reading the book, that Bray himself doesn't really agree with OWS ideology or structure. Although OWS ideology insisted that consensus decision-making needed to be used, Bray says that he worked with breakout groups of various kinds or simply decided what he thought was best to tell the press without reference to any group-agreed-on line. From pg. 194: "Yet, although many actions were planned through the Direct Action WG [Working Group], a number of the largest and most significant actions were planned in private by affinity groups before being presented to DA or the GA for a rubber stamp." If I may generalize in order to shorten this already lengthy post, I don't think that many OWS organizers really believed in OWS' ostensible structure, and routinely circumvented it.

Whose problem was that? Bray has written about a book about how OWS was animated by anarchist ideas, and I agree with him. People on the left tend to attach the word "liberal" to anything they don't like, and Bray blames this problem on the liberal libertarians. On the contrary, I see the unworkability of OWS structure as being a direct outgrowth of anarchist ideas. Bray spends some time explaining how some people used "horizontalism", "direct democracy", or "direct action" as code words for anarchism. People took these phrases seriously. Should they have?

Anarchist organizers have to make some serious choices at this point. When the next movement springs up, are anarchists going to say that consensus flatly doesn't work for a mass movement? They should. Bray is quite aware of this problem, and writes about how Bakunin's anarchists worked by majority vote, or 2/3 for major decisions. But I'm impatient with hero worship of anarchists who have been gone for a century, and I think it's much more convincing to say that based on our recent experience of a few years ago, consensus decision-making should be rejected. And, to take aim at a few other Occupy sacred cows, that not everyone below the 1% income level is magically part of "the 99%" without regard to their beliefs, that working people may have goals and interests quite different than those that we wish to assign to them based on anti-capitalist theory and we can't really speak for them as a whole, and that not everyone who walks in off the street should have equal control of a movement in which different people do different amounts of work.

How would that avoid a return to charismatic leadership? One person in Occupy told me that what we really needed was another MLK Jr. or Cesar Chavez. This strikes me as being similar to saying that what America really needed was for Obama to be elected, although of course MLK Jr accomplished quite a lot more. People of color who I met in Occupy had often had their formative experiences and expectations set in these American mass movements, and were often very impatient with the Occupy style, preferring something more disciplined and less subject to the whim of whoever happened to show up at GA.

It's an unsolved problem, and anarchists would be better off confronting it squarely. Even the solutions that were attempted in the latter half of OWS do not seem to me to be solutions. The spokescouncils had "delegates", not "representatives". To me this appears to be a distinction without a difference. Yes, the delegates were supposed to merely bring the decisions of their groups to the council rather than making their own, and could be recalled at any time. But if these councils had ever actually made decisions, would the delegates really have gone back to their groups to get their new input on each new suggested change or compromise? No, they would have become representatives soon enough, or if they were often recalled and the decisions they were making were actually important, it would have led to confusion as the people who were familiar with the work were often replaced.

People on the left who disparage the liberal libertarian, or the anarcho-liberal or any other of what I consider to be variations of the same basic idea, always disparage the impulse towards localism. But perhaps -- rather than setting up a system that does not work and whose organizers routinely circumvent it -- it would be better to accept that horizontalism implies working within small groups. For instance, one of the staples of latter Occupy was the debate about Oakland, cast as an abstract dispute between "violence" and "nonviolence". Why was it important for those of us on the East Coast to say anything about Oakland as if our opinions were important? I trusted the people in Oakland to make their own decisions about what was right for their community. Bray writes about how OWS adopted the phrase "diversity of tactics" to cover both those who wanted to form black blocs and those who didn't, but of course this was merely a cover for necessity. There was no way in which the convinced advocates of "violence" (e.g. breaking windows) or "nonviolence" (e.g. not breaking windows) could ever really come to a consensus, not unless they were in locations where they actually had to live with what the others had done.

And if federations of local groups have to be made, barring some kind of wholly new Internet-based direct democratic structure, it would be best to accept in advance that these are pretty much going to end up as having majority voting, representatives who are called delegates, and charismatic leaders. Hey, it was good enough for Bakunin! (There, I did it.)