I had visions; I was in them; I was looking into the mirror

Infinite Jest

Short Version: you really ought to read it.

Long Version: I’m having a hard time approaching Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page paperweight. I put such a high premium on style that Wallace’s deliberate rejection of it tempts me to write the whole project off. And when you conflate voices in the way that Wallace does, you obscure the art behind it. The difference between a character onstage struggling for words and the actor struggling to remember his lines is a tough one. Similarly, when Wallace jumps from arch phrasing to the conversational (“And but so …”), I can’t tell whether that’s deliberate genius or just sloppy craft.

And yet.

Infinite Jest is one thousand pages long. While not every word in there is necessary, this doesn’t mean that any of them are wasted. Wallace stacks words on top of each other like impressionist brushstrokes, until you forget the nightmare of pastel blobs and see a compelling picture. The end result is what every novelist in the 20th century was aiming at: a real world encapsulated in a book. Wallace creates a world full of oddball characters, but they are odd in such real ways that you forget that they’re fictitious. Everything about the novel makes sense – which, considering it takes place in a not-too-distant future with HDTVs on every wall, movies distributed by mail and online network and a calendar of corporate sponsors, is no mean feat.1

Infinite Jest is a novel about Enfield, MA (a thinly fictionalized version of the town of Brighton). It’s a tale of two cities: the Enfield Tennis Academy, home of the teenaged tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza; and Ennet House, a halfway house for addicts with criminal backgrounds, home of big Don Gately. Hal and the rest of his family live under the constant shadow of his dead father, James Incandenza, director of cult films and contributing inventor to the process of annular fusion. Don wrestles not only with his own addiction, but his struggles to understand the methodology of AA and his duties (as resident staff) to keep the other addicts in line. Into this fragile world surfaces “The Entertainment” – a short film so lethally addictive that, once watching it, you cannot want anything other than to watch it again.

Infinite Jest is about the ways that people screw themselves up in the pursuit of happiness. The beginning half of the novel lays this theme out bluntly, like the conversations in the Book of Job: a U.S. intelligence agent (dressed as a woman) and a Canadian assassin (confined to a wheelchair) talk about their respective countries while the sun sets, and then rises again, over Tucson, AZ. The Canadian observes that in a country which rewards gratification as much as the U.S. does, “The Entertainment” cannot be stopped. The American makes the point that the austere life the Canadian leads has no point to it: what is the community to him, or he to the community? This same debate, about the addiction of pleasure vs. self-abnegating authority, plays out in every segment of the book: in the struggles of competitive high school tennis; in the bizarre euphemisms of AA; in depression that renders the inside of your head intolerable; in a boy rendered mute by the inward focus of his gaze.2

Infinite Jest is one of two novels that’s required reading if you want to understand the 90s, the other being Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon is the 90s looking forward: how the technologies of the future would be shaped by, and would help us overcome, the biases of the past. Infinite Jest is the 90s looking backward: how the quest for status and the pleasures of intoxicants never satisfied our search for meaning. Both books are long, full of irony and poignancy and long tangential asides. But they’re both essential reads. Even if you lived through the 90s.

1 In fact, the novel seems so real that only two things struck me as implausible in the entire book: people who are so addicted to marijuana that it renders them unable to leave the house, and a Colt revolver with a safety on it.

2 Oh, and P.S., fuck you, David Foster Wallace, for writing so poignantly about what goes on in the head of a suicide and then killing yourself. Fuck you. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to stand on the rooftop and utter your cry for help, wait until the trauma counselor’s up there on the ledge with you, talk with her until the news cycle’s forgotten you, and then jump anyway. That’s not allowed. Go fuck yourself, David Foster Wallace. Fuck you and I mean it.


tell all of your friends what you’ve seen

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Amazing. Gobsmacking. Addictive. One hell of a novel.

Many novels begin with some epigram, used to illuminate or foreshadow, before the opening chapter. Stieg Larsson’s posthumous debut novel begins with the following:

Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.

No follow-up, no context and no prescription to cure it. Larsson’s not proposing a way to treat this endemic culture of violence and abuse. He’s just telling us about the setting and what we should expect from it.

Our tour guide through this cesspool is the titular Lisbeth Salander, a borderline Asperger’s who dropped out of high school and works as a researcher for a security consultant. She responds to affection with blank stares or active distrust. But behind her unblinking facade is a rigid code of self-written ethics and a penchant for vigilante justice. And it doesn’t hurt matters that she is (by the admission of other characters) Sweden’s best hacker. She is Larsson’s champion: a woman who appears to be the typical victim-in-waiting, but is actually a Fury made flesh.

To the story itself: we first meet Mikael Blomquist, an attractive, stubborn and fiery financial reporter, as he’s walking out of a Stockholm courthouse where he’s just been convicted for libel. His reputation in tatters and the magazine he publishes on the brink of bankruptcy, he still has the presence of mind to hesitate when offered an unusual job. But the job, offered by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger, captivates him: find out who murdered Vanger’s grand-niece, Harriet, thirty-six years ago. Before too long, circumstances drag Blomquist’s path across Salander’s, and the two of them soon team up to bring a dormant murderer to justice.

I haven’t found a novel this compulsively readable in months. I went out of my way to find excuses to read it. Smart, passionate, clear and engaging. Recommended without qualification.

A TV miniseries based on the novel was recently released in Sweden, and the film rights have supposedly been optioned in America. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Community lately, but I can picture Alison Brie (Pete Campbell’s wife Trudy on Mad Men) as Lisbeth Salander very easily. She can pull off that unblinking repression very well. I’d post a photo of her, but they’re all too glamorous: picture her in punk hair and nose ring.

Update: I found a picture of Alison where she isn’t smiling. Still a little too glam, but you get the idea.

50 books: 2009

Best Science Fiction / Fantasy
Nominees: To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Stress of Her Regard, Accelerando, Earth Abides, Perdido Street Station, The Dispossessed

Winner: The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s strength has always been to illustrate the odd quirks of human society by depicting them through the eyes of aliens. In lesser writers, this might come across as a condemnation; with Le Guin, it’s simple re-evaluation. How does the commodification of labor, food, comfort, shelter and everything else we take for granted in a capitalist society shape us? It may be the most efficient means of distribution yet discovered (as I believe), but it is if nothing else odd. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed makes that clear.


Best Mystery / Crime / Espionage
Nominees: The Tailor of Panama, The Surgeon, Persuader, No Second Chance, Shutter Island, Paranoia, One Shot, Gone for Good, The Hard Way

Winner: Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane. A tough one, really. All the Harlan Coben and Lee Child novels were roughly equivalent – good, diverting, fast-paced but ultimately just a little too contrived to merit a Best In Year title. But Lehane has a smooth, strong style like the pull of gravity. His tale of two federal agents investigating a disappearance in an insane asylum keeps the reader rattled, uncertain and hooked all the way through. Read it before the movie comes out.


Best Literature
Nominees: The Master and Margarita, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The House of Sand and Fog, Brave New World, No Country for Old Men, The Baroque Cycle

Winner: No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Stephenson’s penchant for long-winded asides, though entertaining and informative, keeps his novels from being the focused vectors of craft that they ought to be. And Bulgakov’s whirlwind satire of Stalinism vaults confusingly – though whimsically – from point to point. It’s McCarthy’s highly regarded novel that earns the top slot. Though all of his best novels concern the absurdity of human plans in the face of mortality, No Country makes those plans easily accessible to a modern audience (how to steal two million dollars of the mob’s money). And he gives mortality a face and a name, in the person of Anton Chigurh.


Best Non-Fiction
Nominees: Fast Food Nation, Kitchen Confidential, A Brief History of Time, Your Religion is False, Gang Leader for a Day, Wanderer, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire.

kitchen-confidentialWinner: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain. I wanted to give it to one of the political depth charges I read this year – Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Sharlet’s The Family, Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis. Ultimately, however, they all padded their word counts with exhaustive details that showed the depth of their research but sacrificed the grace of their story. Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, on the other hand, paints a vivid, unflattering and engrossing picture of the transactions going on in each restaurant kitchen in America. It’s a wild ride, and Bourdain deserves the fame this book has brought him.


Best Reread
Nominees: Declare, The Stars My Destination, Red Mars, The Ophiuchi Hotline, This Immortal

red-marsWinner: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson. Perhaps I’m cheating somewhat here, as I never finished Red Mars as a teenager. But that gave Robinson the greatest burden to fight against. I knew what to expect from Powers, Bester, Varley and Zelazny going in, but I had low expectations for Robinson. “I couldn’t slog my way through this before,” I thought, “what hope do I have now?” Boy, was I off. A sweeping, detailed, realistic and ultimately very human look at how a disparate group of humans might terraform our neighbor planet.


Biggest Surprise
Nominees: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Surgeon, Xenos, The Confusion

brief-wondrous-life-oscar-waoWinner: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. Picking up this critically acclaimed novel, I was expecting a dense bildungsroman set in the Dominican Republic, one of those Important Novels that everybody reads but nobody enjoys. Instead, Diaz treated me to a breezy trip through three generations of laborers, hustlers, players and geeks. He sprinkles his anecdotes with note-perfect references to sci-fi and early 80s RPGs as well – and trust me, I would have noticed if he got them wrong. Read it, love it.


Biggest Disappointment
Nominees: Button Button, Emergency, Jack and Jill, How the Mind Works.

neil-strauss-emergencyWinner: Emergency, Neil Strauss. Jack and Jill I should have known would let me down; more than enough critics have heaped their derision on James Patterson for me to be wise. And my inability to plow through How The Mind Works says as much of my short attention span as Pinker’s dense, myopic writing style. But Emergency was pitched to me as “how to be Jason Bourne […] a veritable encyclopedia for those who want to disappear” (thanks, Tim Ferriss!). Instead, I got a series of self-indulgent anecdotes by Neil Strauss on how he could have obtained the documentation and survival skills to go off the grid. But didn’t. It’s part of the growing genre of Do Something Weird Just For The Sake of Writing A Book About It (The Year of Living Biblically, Julie & Julia): the niche blog as bestseller. It’s interesting to read. But if you want actual useful information, go elsewhere.


Most Fun
Nominees: Boomsday, Anansi Boys, Kitchen Confidential, Paranoia, One Shot

lee-childWinner: One Shot, Lee Child. Really, any of the Lee Child books could have answered here. Jack Reacher, his sullen, hulking ex-MP hero, is like Sherlock Holmes meets Jack Bauer: competent enough to take anybody down with his hands or with a gun, but usually capable of outwitting them first. Perfect beach or airport reading.

and they brought prosperity down at the armoury

The Dispossessed: One of those novels I wish I’d found sooner. Le Guin has a beautiful economy of language not often found in fantasy writers: making the terse but poetic choice, rather than bombarding a scene. The Dispossessed feels like an epic, though it comes out fairly slim.

And like all good science-fiction, the story focuses less on a naturalistic depiction of how a What-If would come to pass than what such a What-If would mean. Le Guin rejects the notion of a true utopia, depicting the lunar colony of Anarres as an anarchist state slowly ossifying into a socialist oligarchy. Anarres is poor, while its neighbor Urras is rich. But it’s the richness of cloying food and it makes the protagonist – Shevek, an Anarrean physicist visiting Urras, the first person to do so in over a century – literally ill.

Le Guin has always excelled at making the alien seem truly alien, and her depiction of how a true anarchist would react to a capitalist society reads very true. She doesn’t use Shevek as a platform for anti-capitalist polemics: people on Urras are wealthy, happy and comfortable with their station in life. But to someone who doesn’t want property, life on Urras is mystifying and weird. Adequately conveying the stilted weirdness of a capitalist society is no mean feat – considering that Le Guin, her audience, and the publishers who made such a novel possible spent their whole lives in one.

(As an economist, I always read anarchist fables looking for solutions to the calculation problem. The Dispossessed doesn’t provide one, although a good portion of the book deals with a famine on Anarres. Maybe it’s implied)

Why We Fight: A meticulous recounting of the history of American presence in the Middle East would be enough. Start with the Iranian coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; continue through the U.S.’s efforts in training, arming and bankrolling the Taliban in the 70s, our installation of Saddam Hussein in the 80s and the troops in Saudi Arabia in the 90s. Why We Fight accomplishes all that.

Documenting the growth of the defense industry in the United States since the Eisenhower era would be enough. Begin at the end of the second World War; continue through Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, etc. Add the nature of American representative politics and the inextricable link between defense contracts, jobs and votes which guarantees escalations in defense spending.

Taking a look at the aftermath of the September 11th attacks would be enough. The world went from universally supporting America (there were marches of solidarity with the U.S. in Tehran and Pakistan in the days after the attacks) to distrusting and fearing America. What changed in that time?

A movie that did all that would be enough.

Where Why We Fight triumphs is twofold. First, the documentarians interview several prominent conservative voices to answer these questions. And not in an attempt to bait them. And not cherry-picked fringe cases either: William Kristol, Richard Perle and John McCain are among them, as well as several Naval pilots. The movie’s prejudices are obvious, but these speakers don’t get the sneering dismissal that (say) Michael Moore would give them.

Second, the way the movie manages to weave together disparate threads into a single story. The narrative begins with a retired NYPD cop who lost his son in the September 11th attacks. A Vietnam veteran, he decides that an appropriate tribute might be to get his son’s name written on a piece of munition – like an aerial bomb – to be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This story weaves in and out with several others, like the story of a Boeing weapons technician who helped invent the “bunker buster.” Only later in the film do we hear that this technician, Anh Duong, fled Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War – a war that the retired NYPD Officer fought in. And only much later do we learn that the bomb with his son’s name on it – like all bombs dropped in the first 60 days of OIF – missed its primary target.

Why We Fight was the name of a series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra during World War II. The U.S. has established a military presence in over 130 countries around the globe since that time, and fought a variety of police actions, covert operations and wars in that time. This documentary seeks to answer the same question Capra’s films did, albeit with a more critical tone. And it finds no definitive answer. The documentarians interview an eager young recruit, two Naval stealth bomber pilots, a retired Lt. Colonel from Pentagon intelligence, Dwight Eisenhower’s son, Gore Vidal, a few military historians and a CIA consultant to get an answer and finds nothing. It’s no one person’s fault – certainly not President Bush’s. But when you combine a perpetually growing defense industry, a global military presence, a first-in-class hunger for resources and a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, the question becomes not why we fight, but why wouldn’t we.

“It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever.” – Chalmers Johnson

and he points to his survival, and he points me down the road

Perdido Street Station: Weird, original and engrossing; a blend of Cronenberg and Dickens. China Mieville builds a city full of fascinating characters and baroque institutions: the steampunk slum of New Crobuzon, where cactus-men jostle with insect-headed khepri and where the militia stalk the skies on tramlines, capturing criminals and sentencing them to Remaking. In this dense little world we find Isaac van der Grimnebulin, rogue scientist, chartered by a nomadic bird-man (a garuda) to restore his mutilated wings; Lin, his khepri lover, an artist commissioned by a grotesque crime boss to sculpt a statue in his image; Derkhan Blueday, itinerant journalist, who writes for the underground tabloid Runagate Rampant. The sinister government project that unites these three threads will unleash a murderous terror on the city that no one knows how to stop.

Mieville does a lot of detailed, ingenious scene-setting in the first half of the novel, but then devolves into standard Fantasy Quest Problem Solving in the latter half. I suspected Mieville had some tabletop RPG roots, given how the latter half focuses on assembling a party and fighting monsters; Wikipedia confirms it. Not to say that the latter half of the novel is bad, mind you: it just doesn’t have the same grand, Neal Stephenson-esque scope. We get no more tantalizing glimpses of a rich world – vodyanoi stevedores on strike, the intricacies of the Mayor’s office, the institutional brutality of the militia, etc. It goes from being an urban epic to an urban picaresque.

Mieville’s politics are evident but not obvious: a sympathy for labor, a faith in the power of journalism and democracy to shake the foundations of power. Also, you have to go into the novel with the understanding that New Crobuzon itself is the protagonist, not any of the humans or xenians involved. The prolix descriptions Mieville devotes to each overcrowded, architecturally jarring neighborhood will convince you of that. I have little use for overly detailed descriptions of scenery, but I recognize this as a personal quirk.

It’s a tricky read, but I recommend it.

The Ophiuchi Hotline: My second time reading this. I remembered a few of the interesting scenes but not it’s overall scope: a distant future, where the human race has been kicked off the planet Earth by the fifth-dimensional inhabitants of Jupiter. They survive in underground cities thanks to technological advances beamed at them, in code, from the star 70 Ophiuchius. Not all of these advances are distributed freely, of course, and when our protagonist Lilo gets arrested for illegal genetic manipulations, she’s sentenced to death. Yet the mysterious political mastermind called Boss Tweed (really) offers her a way out, if he’ll come work for her …

A breezy little read. It shows the tentative beginnings of what we’d today call the transhumanist strain of sci-fi: the idea of humans changing themselves, through technology, into something no longer recognizable as human. Of course, Ophiuchi‘s far too short and hardly shocking enough to get published today. It would need at least three hundred more pages, more detailed descriptions of fantastic settings, and a few jaunts behind the doors of perception or to the other end of the galaxy.

if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad

This media blow hasn’t read anything in a while.

Brave New World: Again, I read a book that everyone else on the planet has read years ago. I have nothing to add to the decades of critical acclaim heaped on this book, so I’ll talk more about my reactions to it than a critique of the book (savagely funny, frighteningly telling, oddly paced).

First, I went in expecting something more of the tone of Nineteen Eighty-Four – not a biting satire obsessed with sex written in a postmodern style. Which isn’t bad – it’s very true to the moral of the story – but it was certainly a surprise. Could you imagine a book written by an American, today or in the recent past, which features seven-year-olds engaging in “erotic play”? American Puritanism has always been stiffer than British Victoriana in certain ways. Sure, we invented the blues, but we also held onto slavery quite a bit longer (cause/effect? anyway).

Second, I don’t quite know the effect the story had on me. For one thing, its brilliant, reductio ad absurdam critique of fascism, corporate psychology and Keynesianism suits me just fine. I don’t genuinely believe that we’ll all worship Henry Ford in the future (and Huxley probably didn’t either), but science fiction isn’t a lens through which we view the future. It’s a lens through which we view the past – what concerned the author and his contemporaries at the time the novel was written. So, on that level, the novel works.

But I don’t know that I buy every criticism. “There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant,” Mustapha Mond tells John the Savage at the end of the novel. And I believe that. At the very least, I see that as an ideal. I believe that relief of human suffering is one of the noblest ends to which one can commit a life. You can measure the progress of civilization by how far it takes humans from the state of nature – when we died young, hungry and often at each other’s hands. The romance of chivalry, exploration and surviving by the sweat of one’s brow that Shakespeare (and through him, John the Savage) idealize is just that – an idealization, passed down to us by the one person in one hundred who was taught to read.

And yet I wonder if I would still think that if I hadn’t been so thoroughly conditioned to. I had a comfortable childhood and live a steady life now. The adventures I allow myself exist within controlled confines – train trips to Baltimore, weekends in Reykjavik. Am I just one of the Deltas clamoring for their soma ration – ignorant of what real freedom is because I’ve never known it?

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: That rarity among 70s kung-fu flicks: a well-paced story that a Western audience can access with little trouble. Leonard recommended this in an AVClub column on gateways to geekery as a good intro to the genre. I wanted to stick up for Fist of Legend or Five Deadly Venoms or even, just to be snobbish, Magnificent Butcher, but, having seen the movie, I can’t fault his choice.

The plot’s an afterthought, but here: callow student Gordon Liu (whom Western audiences might recognize as bearded master Pei Mei from Kill Bill Pt 2) joins the revolution against the Manchu dynasty at the instigation of his philosophy teacher. When things go south, he flees the city to the esoteric Shaolin Temple where he hopes to learn martial arts. The Buddhist monks enroll him in a sequence of bizarre and demanding trials to build up his body and kung fu: think “wax on, wax off” on HGH. Then he returns and kicks butt all over the place.

If film students should watch William Goldman films for dialogue, Spielberg movies for pacing and Kubrick for cinematography, they should watch Shaw Brothers’ films for editing. Not scene transitions necessarily, but the way the Shaws compose a fight scene. You never lose track of who’s doing what or in relation to whom – a rarity in this era of Tony Scott smash cuts. More importantly, you can always tell who’s winning a fight, even if no one draws blood, thanks to musical cues, camera angles and pacing. Watch Gordon Liu fight the monastery’s abbot to see what I mean.

This is the film (along with Five Deadly Venoms, Shaolin and Wu-Tang and Mystery of Chessboxing) that inspired the Wu-Tang clan’s debut album. This is The Realness.

accidents mean no one’s guilty; ignorance means someone’s killed

This media blow might get political, but that’s no fault of mine:

The Lives of Others: Oscar-winning German film from 2007. Set in East Berlin in 1984, it follows a Stasi captain ordered to surveill a popular playwright and his actor girlfriend. The passion in their lives draws him in, until he finds himself bending the rules to keep them safe. Like The Conversation, but heartwarming and taking place outside of Gene Hackman’s head. Phenomenal – moving, funny and rich in historic detail.

(Note: National Review called it the best conservative movie of the last twenty-five years – which, coming from a magazine that’s spent hundreds of pages defending warrantless wiretaps and detention without trial in the last decade, ranks as one of the sicker ironies I’ve read in some time)

Half-Life 2: Acquired it with the Orange Box; finished it last week. I see what all the fuss is about! The grossout horror aspects don’t do it for me (zombies! ceiling barnacles!), but the shooting felt more intuitive and intense than any other FPS I’ve played in recent memory. The house-to-house urban levels (Anticitizen One and “Follow Freeman”) justify the sticker price – which isn’t much in 2009, so go get a copy.

And the in-game dialogue does not disappoint (as it shouldn’t, coming from the makers of Portal). Dr. Breen’s tired lectures to the troops at Nova Prospekt beat the writing in any given Michael Bay movie, hands-down. “This brings me to the one note of disappointment I must echo from our Benefactors …”

I started in on HL2:Ep1 but logged off pretty early. Given the cataclysmic ending of HL2, I figured that Ep1 would put you in control of Alyx Vance as she fled City 17. Now that would have been cool. But no, once again it’s Gordon Freeman, forced to invade the same Citadel he just spent several hours blowing up. I’ll pick it up again once time has cooled its memory, I’m sure.

Slan: Typical ’40s pulp – lots of action, lots of breakneck pacing, lots of pseudo-scientific talk. In the distant future, the human race has united into a single global police state, fanatically devoted to one end: killing the super-mutants called slans. Slans look exactly like humans, except for the golden tendrils emerging from their skulls that give them telepathic capabilities. That, plus their superhuman speed and reaction time, make them a threat to the human race.

The story moves along at an engaging clip, pausing only on occasion for lengthy lectures on the history of the current situation. In these lectures we get a definite sense of the time in which van Vogt wrote this novel: 1940, when the world hadn’t quite lost its fascination with fascism yet. Because fascism isn’t just jackboots and insignia (though those are essential). It’s any political system which treats culture, genetics and politics as different facets of the same machine, a machine that, if it were only tempered just so, could launch the human species at a lightning pace.

Still, it’s pretty understated. Get past that and you have a classic piece of sci-fi history.

Buffy: I haven’t forgotten you. A couple more episodes, then I’ll have my next batch of 5.

Black Summer: Superhero comics stem from adolescent power fantasies, and the passing decades have not matured that appeal much. Sure, comic books sometimes touch on political issues of the day, but almost always within their own limited language – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if a super-soldier punched Hitler in the face? and he had a sidekick who was my age?” At the end of the day, it’s still wish-fulfillment. And that’s fine. Indulging in wish-fulfillment gets the human race out of bed in the morning. But let’s call it what it is.

Black Summer is an independent comic series written by Warren “&%$#” Ellis and illustrated, sometimes too ornately, by Juan Jose Ryp. It tells the story that brings the Seven Guns, America’s only cybernetically enhanced vigilante team, out of retirement. Each of the Guns combines cutting-edge information processing nanotech with handguns of unequalled power – some can run faster than light, some can throw tanks at helicopters, some can see through every satellite or computer in the world. Four of them can hold off an Army battalion.

The series begins with the most trusted member of the Seven Guns, John Horus, killing the President and Vice-President with his bare hands moments before they’re scheduled for a press conference. He appears before the White House press corps and charges the (unnamed) President with a number of crimes, including but not limited to prosecuting an illegal war in Iraq and ordering the torture of enemy combatants. He demands a new election take place as soon as possible, and then flies off.

To Ellis’ credit, John Horus is insane. No one – not even his teammates – thinks that murdering the President will solve what’s wrong with America. As one of his allies puts it, John Kennedy was so unliked that he barely got elected, and now look what people think of him. So is Ellis saying violence won’t fix the system? That violence is an ugly but necessary first step? That the system can’t be fixed?

I don’t know that he’s saying any of those. I think Ellis took a dark idea that writers have been batting around since Watchmen (“what if someone truly invincible, and maybe a little bit crazy, were as mad at the President as I am?”) and ran with it. The result is an interesting, and brutally violent, little story. I don’t think it’ll change anyone’s mind on anything important. But, again, it’s a comic book.