No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it.

Most people, if they compare the fall of Rome with the impending fall of the United States, are thinking of the fall of the Empire that led to the so-called Dark Ages. But the comparison isn’t really valid.

What’s happening right now, not just in America but in several other democratic republics around the world, is more like the fall of the Roman Republic before the advent of Caesar Augustus.

The similarities between then and now are eerily disturbing and frightening. We’re at the cusp of what could be a disastrous change for America and democracy on our planet.

That’s why I highly recommend the book, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny by Edward J. Watts, professor of history at UC San Diego.

An excerpt:

1606933485This book explains why Rome, still one of the longest-lived republics in world history, traded the liberty of political autonomy for the security of autocracy. It is written at a moment when modern readers need to be particularly aware of both the nature of republics and the consequences of their failure. We live in a time of political crisis, when the structures of republics as diverse as the United States, Venezuela, France, and Turkey are threatened. Many of these republics are the constitutional descendants of Rome and, as such, they have inherited both the tremendous structural strengths that allowed the Roman Republic to thrive for so long and some of the same structural weaknesses that led eventually to its demise. This is particularly true of the United States, a nation whose basic constitutional structure was deliberately patterned on the idealized view of the Roman Republic presented by the second-century BC author Polybius. This conscious borrowing from Rome’s model makes it vital for all of us to understand how Rome’s republic worked, what it achieved, and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens ultimately turned away from it and toward the autocracy of Augustus.

No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it.

Great Literature

Intelectual o Joven Intelectual, 1937

Intelectual o Joven Intelectual, 1937

GREAT LITERATURE

can exalt us, exhume us from the graves of a horribly cruel and unforgiving world, slough off our putrid cocoons of skin and money and now and pressure and anxiety and hurry up and close your eyes this will all be over soon, and lift up our souls to new conceptions of gods and put colors and feelings and sounds on our lips that have no other name but sublime…

GREAT LITERATURE

can upend us, baseball-bat us upside the head, knock us into a ditch it made us dig, bury us in our own filth, and continue pouring abuse on us until we scream then screech then squeal then squeak in surrendering entreaties, begging, why are you doing this to me, what did I ever do to you, I was so happy and comfy in my chair please oh god stop, and then right at the point we can’t take the humiliation anymore some microscopically small piece of heaven erupts out of the mud like an orgasm and we weep with excruciating joy…

GREAT LITERATURE

can confuse us, wonder us, wander us, beat us into temptation and turn all the lights out while whispering tantalizations into the base of our spinal cords, showing us in the dark where all our sinister longings lie, the evil things we take pleasure in, the laughter that bubbles up as our enemies and maybe even our friends get theirs at our hands, and we know we’re fallen, nevermore to grace the light, but we learn, we learn so that we don’t have to do, and it’s enough to leave it there, and we slink back into the day a little wiser than before with a secret only we need to know…

GREAT LITERATURE

can shame us with tongue lashings of perfections, judging and cajoling us and showing us every bit every dot of what we’ve done wrong and how we could have done right, of all the times we slept when who we loved cried alone in the dark, and it teaches us how nail holes in doors can never be erased and how whatever sins we sinned can never be un-sinned and can never be made right, and all we can hope for is just one sliver of a chance to do something a quantum-bit better than the last time…

GREAT LITERATURE

can abjure us and clothe us with unbidden praise, groveling before us in our light and beneficence, how we’ve made the universe better than it was when it was just a kidney stone in god’s urethra, how fearsomely and wonderfully made we are and how no one and nothing else in the universe could ever hope to be worthy of licking the boot laces we threw in the trash…

GREAT LITERATURE

can comfort us in the lonely times, can anger us at our mother’s funeral, can make us laugh when the doctor shakes his head in sorrow with bad news, can lull us to sleep in the middle of the best party, can wake us up in the deepest darkest absence of life and sound, cats sleeping at our feet and lions sneaking into the bedroom to eat us and unicorns crashing through the window to take us to never land…

GREAT LITERATURE

finds us at our weakest and with one word can pierce us until we weep and cry harder than we’ve ever done before, a single snapshot picture that destroys everything we thought we are and in that moment we join the universe as a single atom, a drop in an ocean shared between stars and we become the whole world at once, showing us the difference between waiting for someone to save us and waiting for rigor mortis to set in…

GREAT LITERATURE

never does only one thing.

Kurt Vonnegut on Veteran’s Day

Kurt Vonnegut on Veteran’s Day vs Armistice Day:

BreakfastOfChampions(Vonnegut)will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

Kurt Vonnegut
Breakfast of Champions (1973)

WATCH: Childhood’s End is coming to television

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke was first published in 1953 and it regularly lands on lists of all-time greatest science fiction novels. It was among the first books I read as a child when I discovered the joy of books and a love for sci-fi.

And now it’s coming to television as a miniseries. The long wait for a trailer is over.

Here it is:

If SyFy does this right, it’ll be great. But more likely, it’ll be fair to good. Hopefully, it won’t be awful. The danger would be in re-writing Clarke to make the aliens evil, rather than as they were in the novel: not quite here with our best intentions at heart, but with a view toward the next step in human evolution.

Childhood's End, first edition, 1953

Childhood’s End, first edition, 1953

Memorial Day reading

Slaughterhouse Five

“Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut is a great book to read over Memorial Day weekend. His first-hand account of surviving the bombing of Dresden as an American prisoner during World War 2, and intertwining it with a twisty time-hopping sci-fi story, is both harrowing and compelling.

It was a life-changing book when I first read it in high school. I never wrote — or read — the same way again.

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt

“Mort(e)” is a novel you should read before Hollywood screws it up.

mortbookKurt Vonnegut said, “Love whoever’s around to be loved.” And to that I’ve added, “and be good to dogs and cats, because they’re pure.”

Well, there might be another reason to be good to dogs and cats, because maybe, just maybe, one day they might suddenly stand on their hind legs, grow hands with opposable thumbs, learn how to talk… and how to take revenge on humans who have mistreated them.

Mort(e) by Robert Repino is a wild, audacious, thrilling and sad novel about talking cats, dogs and ants suddenly gaining dominion over humankind; and about war, and cruelty, and love, and faith. In the end, it turns out that love is stronger than God.

The story of a cat’s undying love for a lost dog, who searches for her across years of apocalyptic warfare and the rebuilding of an animal society that turns out to be all too human, is a brilliant examination of our culture as well as a great sci-fi action thriller. I’m sad I’ve finished and there’s no more to read.

Dear Hollywood: this would be a great one to turn into a movie, but please don’t screw it up. When you slather on the CGI, try not to cut the heart out of it. If you do, I will sic the ants on you.

About galactic empires

GalacticEmpireBlackWarning: sci fi geekery ahead.

For some time now I’ve been writing up notes on a “galactic empire” that would look quite different from what’s been portrayed in most science fiction. In my imagination, a true galactic empire wouldn’t need to “conquer planets,” go to war or fight giant space battles. In fact, it would be better if most intelligent species were unaware of what else is happening in space. The wildly disparate levels of technology would be so variant that any kind of outwardly visible empire doing battle with another wouldn’t be plausible. I assume if an empire is able to encompass the galaxy it would have done so because it was able to move out first, before anyone else had risen to a level of civilization sufficient to challenge it.

An empire — if that’s what you need to call it — would only need to bring a few other spacefaring species into the fold and keep a close eye on the millions of lesser-advanced species, infecting those planets with exclusionary religions, superstitions and fractious nationalism to keep them from climbing out of their cradles.

Any resources, wealth, minerals, whatever, needed by the empire can be extracted from these planets without the natives ever knowing, but the resources could be taken from uninhabited planets anyway. I’ve never been quite able to buy it when a story posits an empire advanced enough to control a whole galaxy but still needs to target this one small planet to get the one thing it needs.

The name of the game would be to keep any planet that might one day be capable of advancing to the point of being a threat mired in distractions. The empire’s sociological scientists would be advanced enough to figure out who might be a threat in a few thousand years and who wouldn’t. And the empire would be thinking in terms of thousands or even tens of thousands of years, in the way modern nations think in decades.

With all that in mind, I found this article about what Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov got wrong in their visions of galactic empires. I’m not sure I agree with everything in the article, but it’s a great conversation starter.