Inferno: The premise of this book (modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno starring a science fiction writer who spends the first half convinced he’s been put in a theme park made by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens) is cute. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its excellent premise.
Many of the sins in this book are related to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s political opinions. For instance, an anti-nuclear-power protestor was placed with the violently profligate (i.e. polluters) for not letting fossil fuels be replaced with better electricity, and a teacher was placed with the fortune tellers for diagnosing a child with dyslexia and thus cursing him to not being able to learn to read. I understand that when I read a modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno, I am signing up to be preached at by the authors. However, the vast majority of human sins– as shocking as it may seem to certain people on Twitter– have absolutely no relationship to the culture war whatsoever. When keen observation of human foibles are replaced with editorials about the evil of People Who Don’t Agree With Niven and Pournelle About Things, I feel rather cheated.
I understand that they had to deal with the canonical existence of a sodomite circle of Hell somehow, but I don’t feel like making it the Circle of Depraved Bisexuals was exactly what I would go for.
Also there was a very unfair Take That to Kurt Vonnegut.
Time Will Run Back: Now this is an absolutely delightful book. Set after the USSR has taken over the world, the novel is about the son of the USSR’s leader, who decides that there simply must be a better way to go about things and ends up slowly discovering Austrian economics. I now want an entire genre of books where the conflict takes place in the form of Socratic dialogues about economics and the big suspense is whether they will manage to figure out how stock markets work in time. Caveats, of course, that Austrian economics is not technically speaking ‘true’, but in my completely unbiased opinion that is entirely made up for by the following exchange:
“Well, you know what Bolshekov is calling [our reinvention of Austrian economics] in his propaganda!”
“What is he calling it?”
“He says it’s nothing but a brazen revival of capitalism!”
Peter hit the ceiling. “The dirty son of a Trotsky!”
My one critique is that the author, with a little bit more worldbuilding, could have come up with much more clever use of language. With a few exceptions (“the dirty son of a Trotsky!” is wonderful), markets are referred to as markets, prices are referred to as prices, and so on and so forth, and this is justified with footnotes saying that it was translated from the Marxanto. I want to see what a bunch of communists who have just discovered money wind up calling a broker.
Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: A fascinating and nuanced exploration of the appropriate liberal-as-in-Locke-not-as-in-left-wing attitude towards religion. The state, Blackford argues, ought to officially take no position on otherworldly issues; its sphere is solely the secular world; it is therefore permitted neither to persecute nor to elevate particular religions. Nevertheless, the state should sometimes accommodate the deeply held beliefs of its citizens. Blackford applies these principles to a lot of different issues, from children’s rights to free speech to marriage law.
Blackford persuaded me that state religions are probably not as pernicious as I’d previously thought, as long as their influence is limited to the ceremonial (for instance, the involvement of the church in the crowning of the queen) and they have no actual governing power or public funding.
European law about religion is super-weird. Like, on one hand, there’s laicite, in which the state is engaged in wildly inappropriate persecution of a particular religion in the name of ‘secularism’; on the other hand, there’s blasphemy laws, in which the state is engaged in wildly inappropriate protection of religions justified under the grounds that criticizing people’s religion is a violation of religious freedom. All I can figure is that Americans need to do some cultural imperialism to spread to y’all across the pond the correct religious freedom norms.