December 2008

Sheckley, Robert. The People Trap and Mindswap. New York: Ace Books, [1952–1966, 1968] 1981. ISBN 978-0-441-65874-9.
This “Ace Double” (albeit not in the classic dos-à-dos format, but simply concatenated) contains a collection of mostly unrelated short stories by Robert Sheckley, and the short novel Mindswap, which is an extraordinarily zany story even by the standards of the year in which it was written, 1966, which was a pretty zany year—perhaps Sheckley foresaw just how weird the next few years would get.

I bought this book because it contained a story I've remembered ever since I first read it four decades ago (and, even then, a decade after it was first published in Galaxy in 1953), “The Laxian Key”. In a century and a half of science fiction, this is the only exemplar of which I'm aware of a story based upon economics which is also riotously funny. I won't give away the plot, but just imagine the ultimate implications of “it's free!”.

These stories are gems from the era in which science fiction was truly the “literature of ideas”—it's the ideas that matter; don't look for character development or introspection: the characters are props for the idea that underlies each story. If you like this kind of thing, which I do enormously, here is a master at work at the apogee of the genre, when you could pick up any one of the science fiction magazines and find several stories that made you look at the world through glasses which presented reality in a very different light.

This book is long out of print, but used copies are readily available, often for less than the 1981 reprint cover price.


Rawles, James Wesley. Patriots. Philadelphia: Clearwater Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4257-3407-7.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein

In this compelling novel, which is essentially a fictionalised survival manual, the author tracks a small group of people who have banded together to ride out total societal collapse in the United States, prepared themselves, and are eventually forced by circumstances to do all of these things and more. I do not have high expectations for self-published works by first-time authors, but I started to read this book whilst scanning documents for one of my other projects and found it so compelling that the excellent book I was currently reading (a review of which will appear here shortly) was set aside as I scarfed up this book in a few days.

Our modern, technological civilisation has very much a “just in time” structure: interrupt electrical power and water supplies and sewage treatment fail in short order. Disrupt the fuel supply (in any number of ways), and provision of food to urban centres fails in less than a week, with food riots and looting the most likely outcome. As we head into what appears to be an economic spot of bother, it's worth considering just how bad it may get, and how well you and yours are prepared to ride out the turbulence. This book, which one hopes profoundly exaggerates the severity of what is to come, is an excellent way to inventory your own preparations and skills for a possible worst case scenario. For a sense of the author's perspective, and for a wealth of background information only alluded to in passing in the book, visit the author's site.

Sploosh, splash, inky squirt! Ahhhh…, it's Apostrophe Squid trying to get my attention. What is it about self-published authors who manifest encyclopedic knowledge across domains as diverse as nutrition, military tactics, medicine, economics, agriculture, weapons and ballistics, communications security, automobile and aviation mechanics, and many more difficult to master fields, yet who stumble over the humble apostrophe like their combat bootlaces were tied together? Our present author can tell you how to modify a common amateur radio transceiver to communicate on the unmonitored fringes of the Citizens' Band and how to make your own improvised Claymore mines, but can't seem to form the possessive of a standard plural English noun, and hence writes “Citizen's Band” and the equivalent in all instances. (Just how useful would a “Citizen's Band” radio be, with only one citizen transmitting and receiving on it?)

Despite the punctuational abuse and the rather awkward commingling of a fictional survival scenario with a catalogue of preparedness advice and sources of things you'll need when the supply chain breaks, I found this a compulsive page-turner. It will certainly make you recalibrate your ability to ride out that bad day when you go to check the news and find there's no Internet, and think again about just how much food you should store in the basement and (more importantly), how skilled you are in preparing what you cached many years ago, not to mention what you'll do when that supply is exhausted.


Drury, Allen. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre. New York: Avon, 1973. ISBN 978-0-380-00126-2.
This novel is one of the two alternative conclusions the author wrote for the series which began with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent. As the series progressed, Drury became increasingly over the top (some would say around the bend) in skewering the media, academia, and the Washington liberal establishment of the 1960s and 1970 with wickedly ironic satire apt to make the skulls of contemporary bien pensants explode.

The story is set in a time in which the U.S. is involved in two protracted and broadly unpopular foreign wars, one seemingly winding down, the other an ongoing quagmire, both launched by a deeply despised president derided by the media and opposition as a warmonger. Due to a set of unexpected twists and turns in an electoral campaign like no other, a peace candidate emerges as the nominee of his party—a candidate with no foreign policy experience but supreme self-confidence, committed to engaging America's adversaries directly in one-on-one diplomacy, certain the outstanding conflicts can be thus resolved and, with multilateral good will, world peace finally achieved. This eloquent, charismatic, almost messianic candidate mobilises the support of a new generation, previously disengaged from politics, who not only throw their youthful vigour behind his campaign but enter the political arena themselves and support candidates aligned with the presidential standard bearer. Around the world, the candidate is praised as heralding a new era in America. The media enlist themselves on his side in an unprecedented manner, passing, not just on editorial pages but in supposedly objective news coverage, from artful bias to open partisanship. Worrisome connections between the candidate and radicals unwilling to renounce past violent acts, anti-American demagogues, and groups which resort to thuggish tactics against opponents and critics do not figure in the media's adulatory coverage of their chosen one. The media find themselves easily intimidated by even veiled threats of violence, and quietly self-censor criticism of those who oppose liberty for fear of “offending.” The candidate, inspiring the nation with hope for peace and change for the better, wins a decisive victory, sweeping in strong majorities in both the House and Senate, including many liberal freshmen aligned with the president-elect and owing their seats to the coattails of his victory. Bear in mind that this novel was published in 1973!

This is the story of what happens after the candidate of peace, change, and hope takes office, gives a stunningly eloquent, visionary, and bold inaugural address, and basks in worldwide adulation while everything goes swimmingly—for about twelve hours. Afterward, well, things don't, and a cataclysmic set of events are set into motion which threaten to change the U.S. in ways other than were hoped by those who elected the new man.

Now, this book was published three and a half decades ago, and much has changed in the intervening time, which doubtless explains why all of the books in the series are now long out of print. But considering the précis above, and how prophetic many of its elements were of the present situation in the U.S., maybe there's some wisdom here relevant to the changes underway there. Certainly one hopes that used booksellers aren't getting a lot of orders for this volume from buyers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. I had not read this book since its initial publication (when, despite almost universal disdain from the liberal media, it sold almost 200,000 copies in hardcover), and found in re-reading it that the story, while obviously outdated in some regards (the enemy of yore, the Soviet Bear, is no more, but who knows where Russia's headed?), especially as regards the now-legacy media, stands up better than I remembered it from the first reading. The embrace of media content regulation by a “liberal” administration is especially chilling at a time when talk of re-imposing the “Fairness Doctrine” and enforcing “network neutrality” is afoot in Washington.

All editions of this book are out of print, but used copies of the mass-market paperback are presently available for little more than the shipping cost. Get yours before the bad guys clean out the shelves!


Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man. New York: Harper Perennial, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-093642-6.
The conventional narrative of the Great Depression and New Deal is well-defined, and generations have been taught the story of how financial hysteria and lack of regulation led to the stock market crash of October 1929, which tipped the world economy into depression. The do-nothing policies of Herbert Hoover and his Republican majority in Congress allowed the situation to deteriorate until thousands of banks had failed, unemployment rose to around a quarter of the work force, collapsing commodity prices bankrupted millions of farmers, and world trade and credit markets froze, exporting the Depression from the U.S. to developed countries around the world. Upon taking office in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt embarked on an aggressive program of government intervention in the economy, going off the gold standard, devaluing the dollar, increasing government spending and tax rates on corporations and the wealthy by breathtaking amounts, imposing comprehensive regulation on every aspect of the economy, promoting trade unions, and launching public works and job creation programs on a massive scale. Although neither financial markets nor unemployment recovered to pre-crash levels, and full recovery did not occur until war production created demand for all industry could produce, at least FDR's New Deal kept things from getting much worse, kept millions from privation and starvation, and just possibly, by interfering with the free market in ways never before imagined in America, preserved it, and democracy, from the kind of revolutionary upheaval seen in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Germany. The New Deal pitted plutocrats, big business, and Wall Street speculators against the “forgotten man”—the people who farmed their land, toiled in the factories, and strove to pay their bills and support their families and, for once, allied with the Federal Government, the little guys won.

This is a story of which almost any student having completed an introductory course in American history can recount the key points. It is a tidy story, an inspiring one, and both a justification for an activist government and demonstration that such intervention can work, even in the most dire of economic situations. But is it accurate? In this masterful book, based largely on primary and often contemporary sources, the author makes a forceful argument that is is not—she does not dispute the historical events, most of which did indeed occur as described above, but rather the causal narrative which has been erected, largely after the fact, to explain them. Looking at what actually happened and when, the tidily wrapped up package begins to unravel and discordant pieces fall out.

For example, consider the crash of 1929. Prior to the crash, unemployment was around three percent (the Federal Government did not compile unemployment figures at the time, and available sources differ in methodology and hence in the precise figures). Following the crash, unemployment began to rise steeply and had reached around 9% by the end of 1929. But then the economy began to recover and unemployment fell. President Hoover was anything but passive: the Great Engineer launched a flurry of initiatives, almost all disastrously misguided. He signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (over the objection of an open letter signed by 1,028 economists and published in the New York Times). He raised taxes and, diagnosing the ills of the economy as due to inflation, encouraged the Federal Reserve to contract the money supply. To counter falling wages, he jawboned industry leaders to maintain wage levels which predictably resulted in layoffs instead of reduced wages. It was only after these measures took hold that the economy, which before seemed to be headed into a 1921-like recession, nosed over and began to collapse toward the depths of the Depression.

There was a great deal of continuity between the Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations. Roosevelt did not rescind Hoover's disastrous policies, but rather piled on intrusive regulation of agriculture and industry, vastly increased Federal spending (he almost doubled the Federal budget in his first term), increased taxes to levels before unimaginable in peacetime, and directly attacked private enterprise in sectors such as electrical power generation and distribution, which he felt should be government enterprises. Investment, the author contends, is the engine of economic recovery, and Roosevelt's policies resulted in a “capital strike” (a phrase used at the time), as investors weighed their options and decided to sit on their money. Look at this way: suppose you're a plutocrat and have millions at your disposal. You can invest them in a business, knowing that if the business fails you're out your investment, but that if it generates a profit the government will tax away more than 75% of your gains. Or, you can put your money in risk- and tax-free government bonds and be guaranteed a return. Which would you choose?

The story of the Great Depression is told largely by following a group of individuals through the era. Many of the bizarre aspects of the time appear here: Father Divine; businesses and towns printing their own scrip currency; the Schechter Brothers kosher poultry butchers taking on FDR's NRA and utterly defeating it in the Supreme Court; the prosecution of Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary to three Presidents, for availing himself of tax deductions the government admitted were legal; and utopian “planned communities” such as Casa Grande in Arizona, where displaced farmers found themselves little more than tenants in a government operation resembling Stalin's collective farms.

From the tone of some of the reaction to the original publication of this book, you might think it a hard-line polemic longing to return to the golden days of the Coolidge administration. It is nothing of the sort. This is a fact-based re-examination of the Great Depression and the New Deal which, better than any other book I've read, re-creates the sense of those living through it, when nobody really understood what was happening and people acting with the best of intentions (and the author imputes nothing else to either Hoover or Roosevelt) could not see what the consequences of their actions would be. In fact, Roosevelt changed course so many times that it is difficult to discern a unifying philosophy from his actions—sadly, this very pragmatism created an uncertainty in the economy which quite likely lengthened and deepened the Depression. This paperback edition contains an afterword in which the author responds to the principal criticisms of the original work.

It is hard to imagine a more timely book. Since this book was published, the U.S. have experienced a debt crisis, real estate bubble collapse, sharp stock market correction, rapidly rising unemployment and economic contraction, with an activist Republican administration taking all kinds of unprecedented actions to try to avert calamity. A Democratic administration, radiating confidence in itself and the power of government to make things better, is poised to take office, having promised programs in its electoral campaign which are in many ways reminiscent of those enacted in FDR's “hundred days”. Apart from the relevance of the story to contemporary events, this book is a pure delight to read.