Review: The Way We Die Now

The Way We Die Now is not the best book I’ve read this year but it may be the most important. In Seamus O’Mahony’s opinion, modern society has forgotten how to deal with death. There are many reasons for this, the collapse of religious belief, the demolition of the extended family, the triumph of the scientific and rational worldview, even our delusions of curing death “real soon now” contribute to our collective denial. Yet death persists. Death remains absolute, sovereign, implacable, terrifying, “majestic and cruel.” Even if we realize our singularity fantasies and greatly extend life death will never be banished. Even the gods die! We must face death, but must we turn it into a carnival of “medical excess?”

I have seen medical excess. My mother was diagnosed with Stage IV Glioblastoma: a form of brain cancer that is so deadly it’s been nicknamed the terminator. Actually, the terminator is flattered by the comparison. Some survived their encounter with fictional terminators. Nobody survives stage IV Glioblastoma: “there is no stage V.” When I heard mom’s diagnosis I looked for actuarial survival statistics. Credible statistics for common fatal diseases are harder to track down than you might expect. I eventually found a paper that cast survival times in a useful form. Median survival was less than three months for younger and healthier patients than my mother. She died about two months after her diagnosis – right on statistical schedule. The universe does not make personal exemptions.

Her death was inevitable, but the expensive, futile, painful and isolating medical gauntlet she endured was not. She just wanted to go home, perhaps to “turn her head to the wall,” perhaps to binge on The Big Bang Theory – she still enjoyed a few silly shows. It doesn’t matter what the dying choose to do with their remaining hours, but it sure as hell matters that we honor their choices and the Way We Die Now makes a compelling case that we are failing “to be brave.” I know I acquiesced to the medial default for my mother; I still feel I should have fought harder for what she wanted.

According to O’Mahony, the medical default is full intervention even when it’s pointless and wasteful. He also notes that doctors are in a no-win situation. If they suggest doing nothing they’re accused of euthanizing patients. If they go full interventionist Rambo they’re inflicting needless suffering and profiting from the dying. Both extremes often end up in court, as if we could fix death with more litigation. Obviously, something in the middle is the best course and O’Mahony argues that doctors should not set the middle course.

Our infantile society needs to grow up and face death like adults. Nothing makes our magical thinking about death clearer than Somerset Maugham’s1 observations about a “dog’s death.” Maugham hoped he was lucky enough to die a dog’s death! A dog’s death is meant to be a horrible thing but is it really worse than human medical excess? When it comes to sick animals we are clear-headed and compassionate. We don’t subject them to futile treatments, we make them comfortable and take away their pain. I once had a cat that came down with pancreatitis. She wasted away on the top of our fridge until one day we took her to the vet. Her death was calm and without terror. My cat had a better death than my mother. I suspect many pets die with greater dignity than their owners. This is fundamentally wrong and we all know it.

There are no easy answers; it sucks to be mortal. We can’t say until we face it ourselves how we should die so how can we dictate to others? I only hope that when my time comes I have it within me to follow the one bit of advice O’Mahony offers that may apply to all us – “be brave.’


  1. The Way We Die Now relates many stories about “celebrity” deaths.

The Collapsing Empire: Goodreads Review

The Collapsing Empire (CE) is a breezy fun to read space opera. Because I rate books on Goodreads mostly on how much I enjoyed them I gave CE a solid four. If you’re looking for a few hours away from planet moron (Earth) CE is worth the time. While I enjoyed CE it’s unlikely I will be following this series as it unfolds in however many books the author and his publisher manage to flog in the future. I’ve reached the point in my life where entertainment is no longer sufficient. I demand new ideas and different ways of looking at things from what I read. By this standard CE barely rates a one.

The only moderately new notion here is that of “The Flow.” The Flow is CE’s magic element. It’s the story element that enables a human interstellar civilization. The Flow plays the same role in CE that the ocean does in Moby Dick. The ocean is not considered a character in Moby Dick but try imagining the novel without it! Remove The Flow from CE and you are left with stock characters, stock court politics, stock predictable disputes, and a tiny little universe that, trust me, feels more stunted than a night spent under a clear dark sky looking at real stars.

As a final note: I’d advise the author to refrain from dispensing his opinions about real-world politics. Nothing ruins a book faster than conflating actual authors with their fictional characters. Many years ago I was on the verge of reading Anne Rice’s vampire books but then I had the good luck to see an interview of Anne Rice going on about how her characters were her lovers. She wasn’t being metaphorical; the woman is nuts. I decided right on the spot that it was unlikely such a delusional nitwit was worthy of my sustained attention. Authors labor under an unspoken Fight Club rule. “The first rule of fiction writing is: stay the Hell out of your fiction writing!”

Euphoria: Review

euphoriabookLily King’s excellent new novel Euphoria derives from an incident in Margaret Mead’s life. Margaret Mead achieved fame as a young woman with her 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa. Usually, scholarly works do not attract mass audiences but the good bits of Mead’s book read like soft-core porn and introduced the radical idea that sexual behavior in adolescence may have strong cultural overtones. Nowadays we lump such deep revelations in the “No Shit Sherlock” category!

Some of this is brilliantly alluded to in Euphoria. The strong female character (Nell) had written a popular book that her husband (Fen) envied and peers deprecated. The three main characters, Nell, Fen and Bankson, are social anthropologists doing field research in New Guinea in the 1930s. All three have serious doubts about what they are doing. They obliquely acknowledge the sheer conceit of foreign neophytes descending on an unfamiliar culture and, without speaking the language, being familiar with the environment, or knowing jack shit about the local economy, “decode a people,” in a few short months.

Early social anthropologists liked to cast themselves as “anti-missionaries.” Euphoria echoes this sentiment in a few passages. Anthropologists were there to learn about a culture not obliterate it with Christian sky fairy fantasies. The admirable agnosticism of social anthropologists, you cannot take one myth seriously when you have studied hundreds, is still blunted by an infantile dedication to the absolute primacy of culture. We are not animals but Rousseauian “blank sheets” that our culture scribbles on. Many contemporary social scientists of the left, “Are there any other kind?” bitterly dismiss criticism of this ludicrous axiom as “White Privilege.” The social anthropologists of Mead’s day may have been a bit delusional and naïve, but they didn’t create utter bullshit like Critical Race Theory or, I kid you freaking not, Microaggression Theory.

My only complaint about Euphoria is that it romanticizes a “soft pseudo-science.”  Anthropology has two major branches: physical and social. Physical anthropology deals with things like comparative anatomy, radioisotope dating, geological layering, and DNA; it is very much a real science! Social anthropology is all squishy, personal, and non-verifiable; it is not a real science.  It’s not even, to use Rutherford’s exquisite burn, “stamp collecting.”  Euphoria makes this all clear to scientifically literate readers. In many ways, Euphoria is a better introduction to Mead than Mead herself: recommended.

How Dante Can Save Your Life: Review

dantesavelifeDante’s Commedia may save your life, but I wouldn’t bet on this book doing the same. How Dante can Save Your Life is both interesting, annoying, and ultimately disappointing. If I had stopped in the middle of this book I would have rated it higher. It certainly started out well but, what can only be described as the author’s whining, slowly degraded my view.

The seriously religious do not perceive reliable approximations of reality. They are drifting with their phantoms, looking for things that cannot be rationally demonstrated to exist. Though I admire the discipline and restraint many intelligent religious people exhibit it’s simply impossible to take their cherished beliefs seriously. Those of us that demand verifiable reasons for accepting propositions will never accede to the belief that the purpose of life is to return to God. The author repeatedly returns to this theme as he reads Dante and shares his own life.

The author, Rod Dreher, and his family endured serious grief. The best part of this book is his retelling of his sister’s death from cancer in her forties and her community’s outpouring of love and support. I don’t think the author would disagree that his sister’s death, and the book he wrote about it, greatly contributed to his career as a writer.

It was at this point the author had a crisis that lead to Dante. Cemeteries are for the living not the dead, as is myth. Dante created an extravagant and great myth and like all great classics his epic poem has much to offer readers in any age. The author uses it as a type of self-help book to work through his family problems.

His problems are common. Many of us have seen loved family members die horribly, many of us have suffered crippling injuries, many of us have distressing careers, and many of us have family members that are struggling with themselves and us. Yet some of us are tough enough to see life as a random clash of blameless atoms and that whining will not fix anything.

In Dante’s view, this is the great sin of pride that unchecked leads to Hell. Lucky for us Hell and Heaven are myths. Art, however great, is not reality.

Pandora’s Star: a Grand Sprawling Entertainment

pandoras-starIn my fevered youth I was an avid fan of science fiction but as I crossed the Rubicon of middle age I read less and less of the genre. For years I preferred nonfiction: mostly science with a smattering of history and biography. Then, about five years ago, I started reading science fiction again.

What kept me away? Most of the authors of my youth had died: Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Anderson, Herbert and Dick – all gone! I had to find new – to me – authors. I knew and loved Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon, Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Anathem, but after four or five thousand pages of Neal it was time to move on. My first post Stephenson, new to me, author was Iain M. Banks.

Banks specialized in what’s often called alien infested space opera. His universes are overflowing with life. Aliens are everywhere, inhabiting niches that most biologists would poo-poo as impossible. I prefer more empty and serene universes but Banks’ books like The Algebraist, Surface Detail, and Consider Phelbas whet my appetite for his crowded milieus. I was looking forward to following Banks for years but it wasn’t to be. Iain M. Banks died of cancer, at the ridiculously premature age of 59, leaving fans all over the word wanting. There is no greater outrage than mortality!

After Banks’ death I looked around for other operatic authors; it didn’t take me long to find Peter F. Hamilton and Pandora’s Star. Pandora’s Star is a huge, highly entertaining, example of what I call restrained science fiction.

Restraint is what separates science fiction from fantasy. Fantasy tolerates an anything goes mishmash of logical inconsistencies. Literature has a term for this: Deus ex machina. Modern fantasy is a veritable high-tech Deux ex machina factory churning out beta-male vampires that take implausible romantic interests in their food, prepubescent wizards jerking off in boarding school, (Oh it happened), fireproof maximum babes with pet dragons, and armies of oxymoronic brain-dead brain eating zombies. Only scripture piles on more logical nonsense than fantasy.

I enjoy fantasy as much as the next nerd but it’s not science fiction. Proper restrained science fiction admits a small number of “magic suppositions” but otherwise rigorously adheres to what we know about physical reality. You need some damn science in your science fiction people. The universe of Pandora’s Star presumes a few impossibilities; it assumes wormholes and faster than light (FTL) travel. FTL is a standard plot enabling device. Civilizations spanning thousands of light years simply cannot exist, on human time scales, without it. Pandora’s Star makes three more “impossible” assumptions which I will not divulge because ruining good books should be a capital crime. Aside from these allowed departures from reality the universe of Pandora’s Star sticks to scientific bricks and unfolds with lovely consistency.

Most science fiction writers make impossible assumptions but great ones take them in unexpected directions. Consider wormholes. Wormholes have been a staple of science fiction forever. Three, not entirely restrained, TV series had contemporary soldiers marching through them every week for years. They’ve popped up in every two-bit tale that needed quick point A to B plumbing. Wormholes are a cliché and their presence often signals unimaginative hackery. If you’re going to confront me with wormholes you better damn well show me something new or I’m outta your lame book. The opening chapter of Pandora’s Star is one of the most humorous and imaginative use of wormholes in science fiction. A few pages later Hamilton sends trains through wormholes. It’s Sheldon Cooper’s wet dream: trains in space. I had to smile and keep on reading. Pandora’s Star is a big book, almost one thousand pages, but like all great sprawling books it’s too damn short. Fortunately, there’s a second book, Judas Unchained,  that keeps the story rolling. I haven’t had this much fun with a science fiction since Dune. It’s that good.

 

Marcus Aurelius tunes my RSS Feeds

emperors-handbookThe Emperor’s Handbook is a new translation of Marcus Aurelius’ classic The Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a second century Roman emperor and stoic philosopher. You probably know him as the old guy (Richard Harris) that chose Maximus (Russell Crowe) as his successor in Gladiator.  Marcus is counted among the “five good Roman emperors” [1] and his Meditations has been hailed as the single best book ever written by a major ruler. Nowadays every semi-literate hack that’s held office dumps memoirs. The more vacuous excrete before holding office! While political autobiography is usually the vilest form of pornography and begs the question; is book burning all bad?  There are exceptions and The Meditations is a magnificent example.

The Emperors Handbook is a sequence of short notes. Some are sentences like:

Not knowing what other people are thinking is not the cause of much human misery, but failing to understand the workings of one’s own mind is bound to lead to unhappiness

How shameful and absurd it is for the spirit to surrender when the body is able to fight on!

What is useless for the hive is of no use to bee.

Others take a page or two. It’s not clear that Marcus intended to “publish” his notes and this may partly account for their frank and honest elegance. I don’t read ancient Greek, the language Marcus used to compose his notes, so I cannot judge his original style but the Hicks brother’s English translation is an absolute delight.  I often found myself rereading passages aloud to fully savior Marcus’s phrases; they ring like poetry and tell like prose.  This guy would crush modern Internet trolls!

The most striking thing about Marcus’s passages is their stark modernity. If you ignore the allusions to multiple gods and references to 2nd century contemporaries many of Marcus’s 1,800 year old notes might have been composed yesterday. The following would not be out-of-place in the preamble of any modern mathematical logic text.

Reason and logic are governed by their own laws and employ their own methods. They launch themselves at will, and they head straight for their target. This is why we call actions that seem to us reasonable and logical “right,” because they are right on target.

Of course the real measure of any work is: does it change the way you think and act? A lot of Marcus’s stoic advice will be hard for us. He repeatedly stresses the importance of playing your part in the greater scheme of things. In his view the universe is either meaningless atoms smashing together or it’s arranged by providence. If the first case holds then we should play our part because we are social beings and need the cooperation and support of others to fully prosper. If the second holds then we should strive to find our designated purpose and execute it to the best of our abilities. Either way we should do our duty without whining.  A stoic man’s “got to do what a man’s got to do.”

I’m more of a skeptic than Marcus, and I have the benefit of 1,800 more years of history and science to drawn on, so until there is overwhelming, ultra-hard, fully repeatable, and independently verified scientific evidence to the contrary, it’s almost certain that life is meaningless and random! The “atoms” that smash together in the 21st century have a richer taxonomy than their hypothetical 2nd century antecedents but they are just as meaningless. The notion that we have a duty or purpose is ludicrous. We are, as Richard Dawkins wrote in the Selfish Gene long ago, robots evolved to propagate genes. And, as many have noted, it’s not clear that “intelligent robots” are ideal for gene propagation: bacteria and ants are doing a better job. I cannot accept the unsubstantiated notion of duty so I will not play my alleged part. The greater scheme will have to manage without me.

Though I reject “duty” I still find much of use in The Meditations. Of great value is Marcus’s long view.

Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried by oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are “out of sight, out of mind.”

That pretty much sums up my approach to the Obama administration. Marcus also has sound advice on Internet filtering.

Bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.

If you find something predictable and shrill do a quick calculation. Does the signal justify enduring the noise?  I went through my long list of Feedly RSS feeds and deleted two prominent sources of noise:  The Raw Story and Breitbart. These sites are loud practitioners of look at this idiot journalism. One side is predictably far left-wing and the other is predictably far right-wing. Occasionally they cough up something worth a look but usually their articles, and attending moronic troll infested commentary, is a complete waste of time. Is such drivel worthy of my gaze? Applying Marcus’s rule I had to cut them loose. Thank you Marcus for pruning my RSS feeds.

[1] Most Roman emperors were brutal corrupt monsters.

Review: Into the Wild

intothewildAnyone contemplating a “return to nature” would be well advised to read Into the Wild first. This gripping little book investigates the last journey of Christopher McCandless: a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilds north of Denali in the early 1990’s with the intention of living off the land. He was woefully under-equipped, both materially and mentally, and in less than four months he starved to death.

People fall into two camps when hearing Chris’s tale. There is the “too stupid or crazy to live camp” and the “we understand what he was trying to do camp.”  Like the author, Jon Krakauer, I’m in the more sympathetic camp. We’ve all imagined putting civilization’s bullshit behind us and getting back to a more primal way of life. The human animal evolved in the wild.  For over a hundred thousand years we roved the Earth in small nomadic groups of hunter gatherers: civilization is a recent invention and our inner animal is not entirely OK with it.

Chris’s desire to experience raw unfiltered nature is universal. When I was Chris’s age I took off on long solo backpacking trips. I wasn’t acting out Thoreau’esque desires to embrace nature; I just couldn’t always find a partner. On one of my trips I got lost in the Canadian Rockies and decided to follow a river down a mountain. It was a mistake and I eventually came to an impassable roaring cataract. For a few minutes I felt a bit of what Chris endured when the Teklakania, a river he had easily crossed in early spring, had swollen into a raging torrent that trapped him in the Alaskan backwoods. If you live by a river you know they are ever-changing beasts. I am not sure Chris understood this and it cost him his life. I didn’t cross my river and Chris wisely chose not to cross his:  freezing water and fast currents kill the best swimmers. I spent a day backtracking and eventually found the trail I left. Chris wasn’t so lucky.  A month after the Teklakania blocked his return from the wilds Chris was dead from starvation.

Chris wasn’t ready for his trip and given his superior intelligence I am pretty sure he knew it, but he didn’t care and it’s hard to understand why. When people embark on new, potentially fatal, endeavors they either prepare or don’t realize they should!  There are many amusing stories of clueless dolts getting way in over their teeny tiny heads and paying dearly. Hubris, it’s not just for ancient Greek heroes; it kills every single day. Part of training for anything is admitting you don’t know Jack, and, if you’re putting your sorry ass on the line, getting some pointers from people who do! Any good diving, climbing, or kayaking course will quickly drive home the point that mommy nature is one big capricious ass kicking bitch that will crush you without a femtosecond of remorse. Training addresses the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” by giving us opportunities to recognize dangerous situations while we still have some control over events.

Chris thought he was preparing for his Alaskan adventure. He talked to hunters about stalking game and meat preservation. He studied botany monographs of edible wild plants. He told people who picked him up while hitchhiking to Alaska what he was up to and patiently answered their many warnings and objections. The one thing Chris did not do was spend time with someone who had real Alaskan backwoods experience.  This amazing omission rendered his other conscientious preparations delusional and dangerous.  Chris’s notes, recovered from the margins and blank spaces of books he carried, tell how he slowly learned that he could not wander the land at will. Summer off-trail hiking north of 60th is usually a muddy, boggy, bug infested, energy draining slog. They detail his frustrations trying to smoke a moose carcass. He didn’t try the air drying method. Finally, they show that near the end he understood his peril and bravely faced it without self-pity.

To me Chris’s biggest mistake was not walking into the Alaskan bush but rejecting his parents, particularly his father. This colored his entire approach to authority figures and made it very difficult for him to seek out and profit from the experience of others.  Our hunter gather ancestors worked together to survive. They depended on and learned from each other. They knew that rejecting your clan and wandering alone was extremely dangerous.  Well guess what, a hundred thousand years later, it still is! The next time you think about fleeing into the wild keep Chris in mind it might just save your behind.