samuel x. brase likes to write

Response: The Value of the Recession

Posted in current affairs, novel planning by Sam X. on 26 May 2010

In regards:

  • The Big Short, Michael Lewis
  • “Faulty Basel,” by Marc Levinson. Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010.
  • “Nouriel Roubini said the bubble would burst and it did. So what next?” by Jonathon Sibun., May 23, 2010.

In the US there is a lack of bipartisanship between Democrats and Republicans, in Germany Merkel has just lost the majority in her legislature, in Japan you have a weak and ineffective government, in Greece you have riots and strikes. The point is that a lot of sacrifices will have to be made in these countries but many of the governments are weak or divided. It is that political strain that markets are worried about. The view is: you can announce anything, we’ll see whether you’re going to implement it.” -Nouriel Roubini

I listened to The Big Short on audiobook the last couple of weeks, which coincided nicely with a couple of articles in the latest Foreign Affairs and the quoted interview with Nouriel Roubini, above.

I cannot speak intelligently about the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008; nor can I speak intelligently about the conditions we now live in. I know unemployment is high, I know a lot of people are broke. I was unemployed for 11 out of 12 months in 2009, but I received unemployment virtually the whole time and thus my experience was mitigated.

Since I cannot speak intelligently, I rely on reading books and articles from intelligent people (and the occasional conversation with my father). One of my desires, for my epic sci-fi series that I’m not yet ready to write, is to demonstrate economic influences within a futuristic society. It is clear to me that money is very important when it comes to shaping the world, however, most major sci-fi stories shirk its importance.

Star Wars tried to break ground in this regard with all the trade embargo talk at the beginning of The Phantom Menace, but it was far from compelling. Dune did it more successfully, as the driving force behind the story, the spice melange, was an extremely valuable commodity and sparked much of the decisions made by offworlders (it had very little impact on the Fremen, of course, but they responded to occupation, which resulted because of the spice). Much of Philip Dick’s books circumvent economics, Foundation addresses it as a inferior factor when compared to military might, and in most dystopian stories, concerns of freedom trump money, as in We, The Matrix, and Dark City.

Of course, my sci-fi knowledge is not exhaustive and I’m sure some stories do it well. I’m told George R.R. Martin incorporates it fairly successfully, and the first book in his series is on my “to read” list. But suffice it to say, economics generally takes a backseat in space epics.

Thus, my book and article reading is, in a sense, research. I am trying to understand how macroeconomic forces can shape the world, and how the world in turn shapes those forces.

Still, when I pull back, it strikes me as a great drama, one with a prelude from 2004 to 2008, the first act in 2008 to the end of 2009, and the second act beginning in 2010. Roubini, in his interview, points to many countries that are in trouble, and it is essentially the entire “First World,” from the eurozone to Japan, the UK, and the US. None of these countries are safe, only some (Germany?) are in less precarious positions.

And rising in the east is China. They have their own problems, economic and otherwise, one being shrinking freshwater supplies, and another being, obviously, it’s massive population which carries with it substantial demands of resources. How will this great economic drama affect their growth? Will they benefit, or will curtailed trade with Western countries damage their own economy?

Michael Lewis has a bleak outlook about our recent economic past, and Nouriel Roubini has a bleak outlook for our economic future. Our past is ridiculous; as Lewis points out in his book, incentives to even begin to do the right thing on Wall Street on nonexistent. That is was the bailout said. You get a bonus when things are booming, you get a bonus when you fail and your company is propped up by taxpayer money.

Our future sounds potentially terrifying. Reform is already being attacked by the Republicans. And Levinson points to a need to de-globalize, in order to lessen the future possibility of a domino crisis. Roubini points to numerous weak governments the world over that may be unable to enforce the changes that our situation demands. The problem, Roubini explains succinctly, is that from 2004-2008, a whole ton of debt was created, which was privately owned by banks and other institutions. When the debt went bad, these institutions couldn’t pay anyone or anything: From the electric bill to paychecks. So governments gave them money for the debts. And now the governments, Greece, Spain, and others, are defaulting on that debt.

Who bails out the government?

The plot is thickening. As a writer and a reader, I’m extremely excited. As a human being on this planet, I’m rather quite scared. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy security. What happens when we can’t buy our security anymore?


Response: The Collapse of Identity

Posted in pop theory, second novel by Sam X. on 10 May 2010

What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic — at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night? -Niall Ferguson

From the Mar/Apr 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, Ferguson looks at some common denominators when it comes to the collapse of an empire. The thesis of the paper, expressed rather informally above, is that complex systems don’t degrade for long periods of time; they remain stable-yet-in-flux, every on the precipice, on “the edge of chaos.” They are resilient, too, beating back many opportunities for collapse.

Yet all it takes is the right antagonism and whoosh, off the cliff it goes, descent into chaos and extinction.

Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, it seems that the main character, Jason Bourne, in the three years leading up to his memory loss, had been operating on the edge of chaos. He had assumed the identity of an invented man and lived a lie every waking minute; all it took was the right push, or in this case a number of slugs to the back, and he crashed off the cliff.

My second novel will study the collapse of social identity. My main character, bereft of his own identity, will move through a world descending into chaos. He will be one step behind those thrusting it into chaos, such that he will forever be in a mad world, uncertainty and insanity the order of the day.

What can save my character? Bourne was saved by meeting D’Anjou, an old comrade who could reveal a good number of his past secrets. I’m considering having my character only lose part of his memory, a la Paycheck, so that I can gloss over the time spent recouperating. Bourne spends six months in the beginning of the novel relearning basic things and establishing a starting point for himself. I don’t know if my character can afford six months, caught in a revolution as he will be.

If he has less memory loss, of course, he needs less saving. In fact, his own personal identity is clearly just half the story; the other half of the story is the nature of the revolution and future of society’s identity.

As for Bourne Identity, I found it a little unfulfilling. There was substantially less action than I had hoped, but the intricacy of the clues was interesting to unfurl. The only message I can take away from the story is how a large, centralized government almost ruined Bourne’s life. Indeed, intelligence operations had overreached their foundational resources, and putting Bourne out on such a limb was a risky proposition. What I did find quite successful was the fluidity of identity that Bourne experienced.

In one chapter, he was sure he had been an assassin. The next, a patzy. The next, a combination of the two. A, B, AB, C, AC, BC, ABC, D, AD, etc. By the end, he referred to himself as a ‘shell,’ and focused entirely on the one solid thought he could remember: Kill Carlos. Bourne lived out beyond the breakers, shifting from one belief to another, never assured of one belief, a new gamechanging fact just two pages away. That was when the story was its most inspired, when it acknowledged how tenuous Bourne’s understanding of himself was. I’ll be lucky if I replicate a fraction of that.

Getting Warmed Up

Posted in Uncategorized by Sam X. on 4 May 2010

The nihilism of technology lies not only in the fact that it is the most perfect expression of the will to power, as Heidegger believes, but also in the fact that it lacks meaning. Why? and To what purpose? are questions that technology does not ask itself. —Octavio Paz

It seems to me that this quote has much to do with my second novel. My novel takes this idea, that technology functions without meaning, and then asks the question: What does this do to a person or a people who rely entirely on technology? How does this break traditional notions of identity, and what replaces our notions of identity? Is identity simply undermined, or do we reorganize our understanding, restructure identity, come up with something new? These are questions I must contemplate and work on, for they are the core of Novel #2.

In other news; this year has revealed the second phase of my budding writing career. Last year, I wrote about a dozen short stories and a novel. The short stories taught me that surrealism comes naturally to me, and the novel taught me that science fiction is my wheelhouse.

This year, I am reading far more than I have in the past, both novels and nonfiction magazines (primarily National Geographic, Natural History, and Foreign Affairs for now). But I also realized that it might be beneficial to merge my surrealist bent with my sci-fi talent. I took a flash fiction that I created earlier this year and redid it entirely; futuristic setting, expanded characters, more description. It went from 250 words to about 2500, as is probably a more interesting story for that.

The reasons for merging my two tastes are numerous.

First, I think it makes sense to unite them in an attempt to establish a more unique style. Developing a readership and anything resembling a writing career both require a sui generis voice. People need to be able to read ten pages and say, “Oh, this sounds like Brase.” Of course, merging surrealism and sci-fi has been done before. My personal touchstone of Philip Dick provides ample evidence to that point. I just hope I can bring new stories to the subgenre, a new ideological stand point, and relevant themes.

Second, I believe it works to the benefit of the stories. One of my perpetual themes in sci-fi stories is how technology is decentering our reality. This plays naturally to surrealism, and if I embrace that, it will allow me to plumb the depths of that decentered reality.

Third, this focuses my career at this juncture. I spent a lot of last year splitting time between standard fiction and more sci-fi oriented fiction; while certainly useful for my portfolio and attempts to get published, I think it will prove more beneficial to focus on one genre, one style. So I’m taking what I liked best about both, blending, and moving forward.

Despite all this, I’ll probably work on some more mainstream fiction come the fall. I’d still love to get an MFA, and my portfolio for application should probably steer away from sci-fi. Despite my fondness for my story Scary Bells, it was probably a miscalculation to include it in most of my applications this past year. I’ll keep the Recession Menu however.

So; I am feeling confident about this new focus, I’m excited to get to work on a pile of new short stories, I’m excited to read more, and most of all, I’m excited to commence work on novel #2. It certainly is busy for me, but I’d have it no other way. As Mark McGuire said in an interview recently:

There’s so many jams to be made and things to be done I feel like I just have to keep working constantly, there’s no time to waste!

That’s about right. The days are just packed.

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