This is the third installment of the “TAC Bookshelf” series. Published each Monday, The American Conservative’s editorial staff, along with some regular contributors, share with our readers what they’ve been reading of late.
Bradley Birzer, president: Since first reading Red Storm Rising while traveling across Europe via Eurail Pass in the fall of 1987, I’ve read every Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan book but one. This week, I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the latest two in the series, Power and Empire by Marc Cameron and Point of Contact by Mike Maden. Though lacking the grand sweep of global events as seen in the previous Ryan novel, True Faith and Allegiance by Mark Greaney, these two recent Ryan novels were a joy to read. Each delved far more into the characters involved than the actual plots or tech knowhow that Clancy handled so well during his creation and run of the series. In particular though, Maden reintroduces us to the Catholic world of Georgetown and Boston College that so pervaded Clancy’s earlier novels. And Cameron once again gives us not just a fierce John Clark, but a brutal John Clark. Additionally, there’s a great personal story about gun ownership in a Texas Roadside restaurant and a middle-aged Texas woman who helps in the apprehension of some pedophiles. Indeed, though both novels were great reads, the Texas Roadside moment was worth everything in both novels combined. I actually cheered out loud as the story played out.
On a more academic level, I’ve been re-reading Robert Nisbet’s beautiful little 1976 book Sociology as an Art Form. With it, Nisbet explored the 19th-century understanding of sociology as a part of the humanities in juxtaposition to the 20th-century attempt to make it a part of the sciences. Most interestingly, Nisbet considered the key human faculty in all studies to be that of “imagination,” higher than rationality or passion in its uncanny ability to allow us to connect seemingly disparate things, one to another, thus transcending ego and pride.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: I just finished The Demolished Man (1953) by novelist Alfred Bester (1913-1987), often called the godfather of modern science fiction. While one might debate that moniker—science fiction is a strange and multiplexual creature, borne by many midwives—Bester was there, along with other godfather-greats like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and John Campbell, when baby cut her teeth in the late 1930s.
It was with Demolished Man that Bester won the first ever Hugo Award in 1953—and it was his first novel. Bester’s technique here is rooted in his radio-play days (Nero Wolfe, The Shadow), and the pulsing pulp and film noir aesthetic. But his head was clearly in the stars, and in the psychodynamics threading through postwar film and literature. Heady stuff. In Demolished Man, he follows a troubled tycoon with murderous intentions in a Huxley-like futureworld inhabited by “normals’ and “espers,” better known as “peepers.” Predating the pre-cogs imagined in 2002’s Minority Report (based loosely on a novel by Bester peer, Philip K. Dick), the espers are remarkably evolved telepaths at the peak of a highly regulated, hierarchical society. They rely on their own strict moral and ethical codes to advance human consciousness and to avoid the lapses of weaker men, esper or otherwise. When our “normal” tycoon Ben Reich commits the first murder in 79 years it is up to our master peeper cop, Dr. Lincoln Powell, to bring him to justice, not merely on the evidence found in Reich’s head (and in the subconscious of his only witness, a coquettish, traumatized girl), but through old-fashioned gumshoeing and chessboard strategy.
So far, so 1950s—complete with gal fridays, sandpaper slang like ”clever up!” and crumbums who scatter like mice as Reich and Powell stalk and pound the city in a race to outwit each other. But this is merely the surface of Bester’s pre-cyberpunk binge. His genius is in leading the reader to consider uncomfortable, complex, even existential pathways of human behavior by transposing them into otherworldly contexts. Here, he invokes paternalism and eugenics, godlessness and free will, and C.S. Lewis’s tyranny of the good, as it reaches for man’s elusive perfection. The end (no spoilers) is a horrifying surprise, and a cautionary finger wag at the Freudian acolytes of Bester’s day.
Ursula Le Guin, who died January 22 at the age of 88, was a pioneer in sociological science fiction, as was the late Ray Bradbury, whose Martian Chronicles is an achingly beautiful contemplation of human frailty, courage and conformity, love and faith. For these writers, exploring who we are was most effectively done in the great beyond, and decades later, we know it’s true.
Daniel Larison, senior editor: In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn: I have not finished this one yet, but Quinn’s thesis is intriguing and so far compelling. She argues that the people that we and their ancient contemporaries referred to as Phoenicians were not a self-conscious people by that or any other name. Not only was Phoenician the name given to them by Greeks and Romans, but there was no other collective name that they used for themselves. Instead, the inhabitants of city-states such as Tyre and Sidon identified primarily with their family and their city, and the surviving evidence from these places bears that out. What makes Quinn’s book especially interesting is her investigation of the later uses of the idea of a Phoenician people by modern nationalists from Ireland to Lebanon. The people who lived in the ancient cities of “Phoenicia” didn’t think of themselves as Phoenicians, but a remarkable number of people in other times and places have found that invented identity useful in making their own claims of nationhood.
The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, c. 1013-1063 by Michael & Sean Davies: This is a study of a surprisingly neglected figure in medieval Welsh history. Despite being the first and only native ruler to unify all of modern Wales under his control, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn usually doesn’t receive as much attention as other kings and princes from the pre-Conquest period. That is a reflection of the short-lived nature of his accomplishment and the violent and brutal manner in which he realized it. The Last King of Wales is an attempt to take a closer look at the career and achievements of the only person who successfully united the various kingdoms of medieval Wales, and it offers an important reassessment of his place in the political developments of England and Wales before the coming of the Normans.
The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle: This is a sympathetic revisionist account of the life and reign of Charles I. In it, de Lisle draws attention to the king’s admirable personal qualities and principles, but also emphasizes his tragic flaws as a ruler that led to his defeat and execution. The White King tries to give a more complete portrait of Charles, who was more interesting and complex than the “man of blood” or the martyr that most have considered him to be.