Adrian Goldsworthy

The noblest Roman of them all? I don’t think anyone has tried to make that argument. Adrian Goldsworthy will, however, grant that Augustus was a mostly benevolent military dictator who, contra the adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely, actually mellowed as he ascended to divinity. Goldsworthy goes into most detail talking about Augustus’ rise to power, which is fitting given that it is the most complicated and remarkable part of his story. I’m still not sure how to explain it better than Shakespeare’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” He was the golden child.

A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe
Geoffrey Wawro

An excellent account of the opening phase of the First World War, focusing on the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire was the real sick man of Europe in 1914, and when war came it quickly experienced a total moral and material collapse (the two were intertwined, as morale tends to sink when you have no ammunition, clothes, or food). One wonders, however, what options there were. In today’s parlance we would speak of the Empire facing an “existential crisis,” especially facing a rising power in Serbia that was determined to stir the Balkan pot. That said, the response was short-sighted as well as vicious. As her last foreign minister put it: “we were bound to die; we were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible.” Giving up power is something few people do willingly. The death of an old regime is almost always messy. This was yet another example of that general historical rule.

The Age of Illusions

The Age of Illusions
Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich’s brief history of post-Cold War America is at least consistent and coherent. In brief, the end of the Cold War gave rise to great expectations of a spectacular peace dividend, which Bacevich imagines as a vision of Oz’s Emerald City. The United States would adopt a political “consensus” consisting of four elements: global neoliberalism, military empire, individual freedom, and presidential supremacy. The hubris this consensus was founded on would lead, with the swiftness of fate, to extreme inequality, endless war, anomie, and Donald Trump.

The overarching theme of the book is that of hubris. Greed, the use of military power, the exercise of personal choice, and Donald Trump (the id unleashed) would each, ultimately, reject all restraint. Such hubris was not created by Trump, or the media, but was instead the expression of public longings. “When all is said and done,” Bacevich concludes, “presidents don’t shape the country; the country shapes the presidency.” Responsibility for what happens next rests with the people. Readers may take what comfort from that they will.

The Age of Increasing Inequality

By Lars Osberg

In 1981 Lars Osberg wrote a book on economic inequality in Canada. At the time it wasn’t a subject that attracted a lot of interest because levels of inequality had been stable since the end of the Second World War.

Since then, however, a lot has changed. Inequality has become a hot topic because (1) it has been increasing; (2) there’s a general consensus that this is not a good thing; and (3) there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.

Osberg’s new book provides an excellent overview of the subject. Acknowledging that “inequalities matter differently, at different parts of the distribution of income” he divides his analysis into three main parts, looking at how inequality is measured and how its effects are felt in the lower, middle, and upper classes. He then considers some of the impact inequality has more generally as well as what is driving it and where it is being driven.

His prognosis is not cheery. The post-Second World War golden age of capitalism is now viewed as “a happy accident of history” and not a norm. Meanwhile, Osberg’s suggestions for at least ameliorating the ill effects of the coming Age of Robots are only tentatively advanced. They are made, he admits “with the recognition that some big trends affecting economic inequality are likely to continue, regardless.” That is, regardless of any political will, should any be discovered, to stem the job-killing tide of technology and globalization.

In other words, don’t expect the current trajectory to change very much. This is something that will make at least some people happy. “Many things have changed in Canada over the last thirty-five years, but it is still true that [here Osberg is, I believe, quoting his earlier work] ‘the Canadian industrial structure is, to a very large degree, dominated by foreign ownership and a relatively small number of great family fortunes.'” Even many of the names are the same: Thomson, Weston, Irving, Desmarais. There is a ratchet effect to economic inequality that makes it very hard to go backward once a fortune has been made. The effect of a ratchet, however, may be to squeeze things too tight. One wonders if or when we’ll come to that point.

Review first published online February 6, 2020.


Bill McKibben

I really dislike Bill McKibben’s use of the game analogy to speak of human civilization. It’s both unnecessary and problematic. “I call it a game because it has no obvious end,” he writes. Then, later: “This ‘human game’ I’ve been describing differs from most games we play in that there’s no obvious end.” So it’s a game because it has no obvious end, but because it has no obvious end it’s unlike other games? He also says that “even if it has no ultimate aim that doesn’t mean it lacks rules, or at least an aesthetic.” Then, only a few pages later, “I said before that the human game we’ve been playing has no rules and no end.” I wish he’d never brought the matter up.

If we just put the metaphor (if that’s what it is) to one side, Falter is another decent if somewhat unfocused overview of a situation that I think is pretty well understood by now (at least by people who read). McKibben wants to offer up some reasons for hope, but I found these to be the least convincing parts. The bad in our present situation is very bad, and probably worse than we think, while the optimistic slant is mostly wishful thinking.

The Storm Before the Storm

The Storm Before the Storm
Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan’s account of “the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic” actually covers a bit more ground than that subtitle suggests, taking us from 146 BCE and the final destruction of Carthage up to Julius Caesar’s arrival on the scene. That’s where the story usually starts, but as Caesar himself put it, by then the Republic was only a name.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it didn’t fall in a day either. A long view helps underline the gradual inevitability at work. Various reforms of the Republic were attempted, but things kept heading in the same direction. Elites don’t give up political or economic power willingly, so revolutions and coups became serial until power was consolidated in one man.

This is very much a book in the Tom Holland vein of popular history, and indeed you could read Holland’s Rubicon as a sequel, as it pretty much picks up where Duncan leaves off here. As popular history there’s no original research presented, or new insight, but the ground is well covered in a brisk, easy-to-read manner and it’s a story that is as relevant as ever.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

By Neal Stephenson

Exposition, or the background explanation necessary to make a fictional plot understandable, is often seen as the bane of narrative: usually introduced in a clumsy fashion and bringing the action to a halt until the reader is brought up to speed.

This is not the case in a Neal Stephenson novel. Exposition is Stephenson’s métier. There is nothing he likes better than to have his characters break into mini-TED talks and go into full explainer mode.

But these discursions are never a drag on the story. Stephenson’s lecturing has the same energy and imagination as his descriptions of nail-biting action. He is as informative as he is entertaining when dealing with just about any subject.

Such as, for example, the next step in our digital evolution.

Fall; or Dodge in Hell is a book with a lot of explaining to do. As things begin, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire videogame developer we first met in Stephenson’s 2011 novel Reamde, dies during a routine medical procedure. But, being a titan of tech and having more money than God with the hubris to match, death no longer has to be the end.

Cheating death by having one’s consciousness digitized is currently a hot topic in silicon circles, and it provides the launching pad here for an epic account of just how such a process might work and what a digital afterlife might look and feel like to the saved and uploaded.

It’s an ambitious agenda for any author to pursue, but Stephenson has never been one to shy away from epic undertakings. And with Fall coming in at nearly 900 pages, he’s again given himself room to approach his subject from many directions: scientific, social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical.

With all of this, we’re 300 pages in before Dodge’s brain gets a reboot and awakens in the digital dimension known as Bitworld (the virtual counterpart to Meatspace). Bitworld is a blend of SF and Fantasy, mythology and science, that may be the next generation of cyberspace, an outmoded construct Stephenson sees as being badly in need of a conceptual update anyway.

As Milton put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” And if we replace the mind with a connectome in cyberspace? Bitworld, like any imagined afterlife, is the product of a certain culture or historical moment, casting its creators into a heaven or hell of their own making. A scary thought for the rest of us.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, May 31 2019.