Reviews for The Trees, Morals: The Invention of Good and Evil, and When We Became Cities.
Percival Everett - The Trees (dt. Die Bäume) ★★★★★
White supremacists are murdered in Mississippi and dead black bodies appear and vanish at the crime scenes, and the victims are connected to a lynching murder 65 years ago. When the bodies start to pile up, the Bureau of Investigation gets involved and walks deep into a story about racism and lynchmobs, race-wars, revenge and ghosts.
All of this is told in a biting, cynical, darkly humorous prose that lives by repetition, symbolically also expressed in repetitive names like McDonalds McDonalds or Junior Junior. Body after body turns up with near severed heads, broken bones and ripped out testicles, accompanied by smashed old corpses of black people which vanish, again and again, while the cops talk to racist after racists, who hold dumb meeting after meeting saying stupid thing after stupid thing, without anyone really having any clue about what's going on (which, ofcourse, leaves the reader in a position of dramatic irony because we absolutely do know what's up), all while a scholar notes down thousands of names from an archive of the history of lynching murders in the house of a "witch", one by one, with a pencil.
From Emmett Till, the first ghostly corpse to appear in this novel and who "offended" Carolyn Bryant, one of the first murder victmis in the book, and all the names on that list, printed in excerpts in the novel, are authentic, actual, historical victims of lynchings in the US, written down in the novel "to make them real", both narratively and metanarratively. This fictionalization of real events is like a slap in the face of the reader (in a good way), a way of saying: Yes, this is a very dark comedic cynical bitter thriller-comedy-horror-pulp-thing about a ghost revenge story, but those ghosts are actually real and they haunt the US until this day. It's this bitter truth behind the plot that makes you choke on your laughter, while you realize that the rising ghosts ripping off balls of dumb racists are the real victims of lynchings in US history.
The ghostly elements of the book go well together with the various tropes from crime pulp in the style of Jim Thompson and cynical buddy cop comedy, when in the final act the book simply delves into chaos, does not solve it's narrative in a satisfying climax but ends with an open question, while the dead keep following the call underlying all of it: "Rise up". Reflecting the open questions about racism in the US, the book provides no closure, a metaphor for an american society that has yet to come to terms with it's ultraviolent, racist past, and which in large parts refuses to do the work necessary.
This novel is a fantastic dark ghostly crime-pulp allegory on the Black Lives Matter movement and the prevailing racism in the US, and it's a punch in the guts you don't forget easily.
Hanno Sauer - Moral: Die Erfindung von Gut und Böse (en. Morals: The Invention of Good and Evil) ★★★★☆
Hanno Sauer tries to break down the history of human moral psychology on 350 pages which is not an easy feat. Largely, he succeeds, even when he uses some trickery to get there.
For instance, he brushes away half of the field of evolutionary psychology for being chauvinist, which is a bit funny in the first chapter devoted to our first non-chimp steps out of the forests 5 million years ago and where you have not much else to point to except anthropology and evolutionary psychology when it comes to morals. So he spends half the chapter with game theory, which is interesting but only very abstractly connected primates.
But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise satisfying and surprisingly nonideological book which devoted it's last quarter nearly exclusively to culture war topics and stuff like wokism and effective altruism. His distanced but still clearly positioned writing here is refreshing, pointing out that the motives of these movements are morally just and necessary, but that there are inherent philosophical paradoxes that are not easily overcome, especially when you look at them through the lense of the psychological evolution of morals as a societal tool for cooperation.
There's some inconsistencies in his arguments, for instance when he mentions early David Graeber and David Wengrows point made in their book The Dawn of Everything, that pre-neolithic societies likely were not that egalitarien, but likely showed a diverse range of everything from despotic strong hierarchies to stone age hippie communes, so that you can hardly argue that "agriculture brough inequality" into human culture. Doesn't matter. Later he simply falls back to the old common tale that pre-neolithic societies were egalitarian and just and agriculture brought exploitation and inequality. He also later argues that "moral equality" is a mysterious thing because "human suffering doesn't matter", which is decidedly not true, especially when he later writes pages about the new universalism of moral values in human societies, which clearly shows that, yes, human suffering does matter a good deal. These simplifications, however, are excusable and explainable by the books' rather short length, given it's enourmous topic.
The book starts to really shine when he incorporates Joseph Henrichs theory on WEIRD-people (wester, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) into his model of the history of morals, which is a psychological counterintuitive development. Human, due to their reliance on cultural evolution and memetic transmition of ideas and concepts, developed a paradoxical relationship to strangers in WEIRD locations, where people became more trustful towards institutionalized entities and developed an "impersonal" prosociality that goes beyond usual family structures. In other words, WEIRD people trust strangers more than their neighbors and next of kin, against their evolutionary moral instinct. This is one of the main reasons for the universalism of modern moral values, where we ascribe basic human rights to everyone, not just our tribe. This clarifies a lot, and i ask myself if, when tribalist societies are low on impersonal prosociality and the internet sorting people into tribalistic structures, this might, at least in part, explain the upheavals on social media and the free fall of trust in institutions. (Regarding the last point, i think austerity programs and neoliberalism might play a nontrivial part in that story, too.)
In the last chapter, with a cold analytical eye Sauer disarms the culture wars and claims that wokeness will be devoured by economic and political elites (it already is) and that it will loose it's radical edge, becoming just another set of norms that are here to stay, simply because many of them make sense, adding some necessary toolsets to our moral vocabulary. This is a good take. He also correctly points out that the discourse about wokeness oftentimes is held on an abysmal niveau, and nobody wins anything by debating the most extreme and absurdly stupid arguments. Unfortunately for everyone socmed and attention economics select for exactly these extreme and stupid arguments, creating an intellectual downward spiral in the discourse and at the end, critics only disarm extremists and woke activists only disarm stupid rightwing clowns. I like that he consciously bothsides the debate on wokism in that regard, ignoring extremists and simply saying: Leftwingers should aknowledge some incoherencies in their ideas, and rightwingers shouldn't act as if they never learned new words. (AFAIK at least the smarter wokesters know that their movement stands on a somewhat paradoxical philosophy, that overemphasizes identity markers which formally are overcome in modern societal contracts, making the movement both progressive and regressive at the same time. Those smarter people know that this overemphasizing can only be a temporary measure. It's good to see such a take from a scholar in moral psychology.)
He then goes on to discuss fake news and epistemic pollution, pointing out that it's "a damaged environemt of knowledge transmission that enables fake news and 'epistemic pollution'", not some personal deficits of an individual. In that informational environment that sorts people into ideological tribes, it's more important for a MAGA-clown to share fake news on "Steal the Vote"-nonsense to show tribalist markers of belonging, than sticking to fact checked hard news, which results in a "Radicalization (which) stems from one upping each other in exreme political positions traded for social prestige".
He's pretty much up to date with academic literature with takes like these, and he actually made me laugh out loud at one point, when he writes that "polarisation doesn't run very deep" and "we are not of opposite oppinions, we just hate each other". This is a remarkably human sentence in a book about the cultural evolutionary history of morals, even when it's implications are depressing. But he warned us in the introduction that "this is a pessimistic story of progress", and this is exactly what we get: A history that shows that the cultural evolutionary development and transfer of moral values landed us in a highly complex situation that will not be easily solved, and that is full of traps and paradoxical philosophies. I consider it a strength of this book to not shy away from this revelation.
N.K. Jemisin - When We Became Cities (dt. Die Wächterinnen von New York) ★★★★☆
A bunch of people become avatars for New York and it's districts and fight evil alt-right tentacle monsters from interdimensional multiverse.
So, let's get this out of the way: The book sometimes annoys with overly wokism. Having said that: It doesn't matter, because the prose just blows you away. It's such a fun, entertaining, great read, filled up with great phrasings and meaningful neologisms, sprinkled with elements of hard scifi lingo not as science but as literary texture, that i sped through these 500+ pages as if it was nothing.
The book does have some pacing problems, sometimes character interactions and dialog takes up way too much space, going on about stuff page after page, but even then the characters stay so likeable and relatable, even the evil ones, that you just read through those pages with joy and the occasional smile on your face.
I can even forgive the fact that, after an extraordinary fulminant beginning, a firehose of stream of consciousness writing that just throws you into that avataristic worldview of people channeling infrastructure and millions of people, she does sort of fall back into some tired character constellations in modern young adult fantasy novels, the Breakfast Club-trope of Fantasy where "urban young strangers have to band together to fight evil forces", which is so tired and has been told so so many times now. But she does so with wit and humor and fantastic prose, so that's just a formal lazyness that doesn't taint the enjoyment in any way.
What i can't forgive are the rare instances where she does the usual lazy Fantasy random vodoo stuff, where the authors often just use a magic trick to bridge logic inconsistencies when the plot needs to move to a certain point. So, Sao Paolo is injured and unconscious but the plot needs him to wake up? Just blow some cigarette smoke in his face and he magically absorbs it and wakes up. That's just willy nilly, and because it's fantasy, it is supposed to make sense. But all i see is laziness, hidden beneath a magic trick. But these annoying shortcuts stay rare.
I really liked that urbanism being described as a sort of interdimensional predator, or that evil forces are trapping avatars by means of neoliberal housing politics, gentrification and real estate speculation, in effect by destroying "lived monuments of cultural collective memory". These are highly innovative, fresh concepts for a young adult fantasy novel like that, and i enjoyed especially these metaphors a lot. Also, a decidedly woke book using Lovecrafts writings and essentially turning his overt racism on its ugly head is a pretty clever and awesome move by the author.
If it weren't for the sometimes lazy fantasy shortcuts and the common young adult dynamics, this may have been a masterpiece. But the fast paced action written in fantastic prose makes this a very, very good and highly enjoyable standout in a genre that is overflooded with mediocrity otherwise. I'm definitely in for part 2.