Book Review: Aukland Allies by Mike Reeves-McMillan

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_rev104Genre: Urban Fantasy with Steampunk Highlights

Description: As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand’s supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it’s a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies–and how to protect themselves.

Another fun read from Mike Reeves-McMillan, author of the Gryphon Clerks series. Disclaimer called for as usual; I beta read for Mike (and vice-versa) and I beta read this book. What I usually expect from Mike is a book with very deep and powerful characterization, but a bit of a disorganized plot that could be tighter.

Aukland Allies is an exception to that rule. It’s fast-paced, with a well-knit story line that blends a thrilling struggle against nefarious foes of awesome power with nerdy personal conflicts and a bit of off-beat romance.

The story is set in Aukland, New Zealand, where Mike lives. That’s an unusual setting for urban fantasy. Most UF stories are set either in the United States or in the UK. But it works well, and the descriptions of the city and its barely-tamed environs are a large part of the book’s considerable charm. One delicious scene has Sally overcoming an armed and magically potent attacker using local wildlife as a weapon, in a way that strangers from the northern hemisphere would never expect.

Aukland Allies is not only a great story in its own right, but it has the potential to start an urban fantasy series that’s unusual and way above average. It’s got a subculture of magical practitioners, with shadowy, authoritarian people in positions of power, fascist nasties like the Blokes in Black, and much youthful rebellion and challenge to fossilized tradition.

Applying my usual objective system, I’m going to give Aukland Allies five stars. This is the first time I’ve done that for one of Mike’s stories, but this one has superior characterization and writing (as his usually do), and also a superior plot.

If you like urban fantasy, geek culture, or occult stories, get this book.

It’s available at Amazon and other outlets for $2.99.

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Externalities: Where the “Invisible Hand” Gets Cramps

progressAdam Smith, in his economic philosophy book The Wealth of Nations, penned a famous passage that reads as follows:

[E]very individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

The first thing that a modern reader may notice about this passage is Smith’s assumption that an individual will prefer “the support of domestic to that of foreign industry,” which is observably not the case today. This may suggest that there is a flaw in the theory, and indeed there is.

Today, free-market advocates use the idea of the “invisible hand” to advocate leaving the market as free of government regulation as possible, asserting that it will inevitably regulate itself to the benefit of society, and that attempts by the government to shape it will inevitably produce a poorer result. This is taking the idea much further than Smith himself would have done. Smith recognized that for his “invisible hand” to operate, a structure of laws and government enforcement of contract obligations, property rights, and so on was required, but the idea that government is the foe of a free market rather than its enabler has become common currency on the economic right.

To what extent is Smith’s idea of an invisible hand directing self-interest to produce benign outcomes accurate? Under what circumstances does this in fact work? Under what circumstances does it fail to work?

Where The Invisible Hand Works

The mechanism behind Smith’s invisible hand idea is competition and the requirement that a business satisfy customers. This is what prevents a business from selling defective merchandise or charging exorbitant prices for it. If it does, a competitor will seize market share by offering a better product and/or charging a lower price. By seeking his own self-interest, a business owner will serve the interests of his customers as well, because the one is dependent on the other.

This does work to an extent. It clearly breaks down under monopoly conditions, where no effective competition exists. One finds that problem in the pharmaceutical industry, where customers are captive and patent law gives companies a monopoly over many of their products.

Aside from real competition, another necessity for the operation of the invisible hand is that the person making the decision to act owns both the benefits and the costs of that action. In the simple case of a company choosing to put in the time and effort to offer a good product for a good price, that’s so. The company will reap the benefit in increased sales and market share. (The consumer also benefits, but the company’s competitors do not.) The company also pays the cost by investing capital to improve its product, or by lowering per-transaction revenue by holding prices down.

As a technical term, we may say that the benefits and costs of the business decision are both internal to the business. The person making the decision pays those costs and reaps those benefits, and so the decision is informed by both.

But what happens when that’s not so?

External Costs

What happens when a decision by a business has consequences and costs that the business does not pay? For example, when a manufacturer dumps the wastes from the manufacturing process into the air, into a local river, or otherwise on public ground, the cost in the form of health consequences and other damaging effects of pollution is borne by the public.

A part of that cost is, in fact, borne by the business, in the sense that the business owner is part of the community and has to live in it, and its employees (or even its owner) may be impacted  by the negative public health effects of the pollution. But these costs don’t impact the business in particular. Most importantly, they don’t impact the business any more (or less) than they do its competitors. That being the case, the business has no incentive to reduce its pollution, since while that would slightly benefit the business itself, it would benefit the competition just as much, and hence provide no net gain.

There are many things that businesses do in pursuit of self-interest that are very much not to the public good. This includes trying to hold down wages, lobbying for government subsidies, collusion and price-fixing, allowing unsafe working environments, on and on. These things carry a cost far in excess of the benefits, lumping all of them together. But because the benefits are almost all realized by the business, but the costs are mostly paid by others, the business does them anyway — and that’s a perfectly rational, sound decision.

So there’s the first situation in which the invisible hand gets cramps. It doesn’t work when costs are externalized. Under those conditions, a business’ pursuit of self-interest will not accrue to the public good.

External Benefits

But costs aren’t the only thing that can be externalized. Sometimes benefits are external to the actor, too. In that situation, it’s not that a business will do something harmful, but that it will not do something needful. When the costs are internal but the benefits are mostly external, it makes no sense in terms of self-interest to take an action.

Let’s go back to the example of wages. A business pays wages to its employees because it has to. You can’t get people to work for nothing. Just won’t happen, sorry. Not usually, anyway. So the business pays the money (an internal cost) and gets the work done (an internal benefit).

But what about raising wages across the board? What about voluntarily deciding to pay its employees more? Obviously there’s a cost to that, but is there also a benefit?

Sure. Higher wages mean more consumer spending which generates more sales and boosts the economy. Everyone wins. But that’s exactly the problem. Everyone wins — a shared benefit — but the business foots the bill all by itself — a private cost. While the business will indeed benefit from raising its wages, so will its competitors, who will not be sharing in the cost (unless they also raise wages). Something that benefits you and your competitors equally, but that only you pay for, is not a net gain.

Externalized benefits cramp the invisible hand every bit as much as externalized costs. The same rule applies to things that we don’t expect a business to do, like defending the nation, enforcing the law, educating poor children, building highways, and so on. All of these things would benefit a business that took on the task. Invasion by a hostile power, public disorder, an ignorant workforce, and lack of infrastructure are all bad for business. But they’re equally bad for my business and my competitors’ businesses. It’s certainly in my self-interest for these things to be taken care of, but not for me alone to foot the bill for taking care of them. There’s no profit in that.

What It All Means

The invisible hand metaphor is in fact sometimes valid. But it’s not valid more often than it is. The invisible hand works without cramping up only in very limited circumstances and for very limited purposes. It works if and only if both costs and benefits are internal to the business or person making the decision. We can trust a business to make decisions in the public good wherever that holds true.

But where it doesn’t — and it doesn’t an awful lot of the time — something else, usually the government, must step in and either require the business to behave itself, or take on a task that business simply has no reason to do.


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Why Supply-Side Economics Is a Bust

politicsOf course, every liberal rejects supply-side economics, but most of us do that because we feel it’s unfair, hard-hearted, and generally nasty. Which it is. But if it worked — which it doesn’t — the fact that it’s unfair, hard-hearted, and generally nasty wouldn’t be reason enough to reject it.

“This is unfair” is a politically losing argument, if it gets framed as a question of fairness versus economic utility. If supply-side economics produced a more robust, faster-growing, richer economy, but one in which the benefits went disproportionately to the rich, most people would support it. Hell, I would support it. Why not? We can always implement welfare measures to help the poor, taking advantage of all the prosperity that throwing money at rich people is supposed to produce. If it really comes down to a choice between great riches for a few and povert for everyone, who wouldn’t choose to let the rich get richer?

Well, maybe someone who thinks with his heart instead of his head. And that’s the only reason I can think of why so many liberals let the argument be framed in exactly that way. Because if they were thinking with their heads (and if they understood economics, which unfortunately most people of all political persuasions don’t), they would see that the biggest and strongest criticism applicable to supply-side economics isn’t that it’s unfair, but that it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work. It doesn’t produce prosperity. It dampens it down. It produces sluggish economic performance and an unstable economy likely to break down under financial stresses that a healthier economy would shrug off.

The supply-side promise is that most people will get a smaller piece of a bigger pie. But the reality is that under supply-side policies, most people get a smaller slice of a smaller pie. It’s not a question of prosperity versus fairness. It’s one of prosperity and fairness — or neither.

What Is Supply-Side Economics?

The term “supply-side” is meant to draw a distinction with Keynesian economics, which emphasizes the problem of consumer demand. A Keynesian approach is to keep wages high and income broadly distributed, so as to maintain strong demand for goods and services, which strengthens sales economy-wide and prompts increased investment in enterprises that create more jobs. More jobs means more demand which means more investment and more jobs — and so on.

The downside of this is that it argues that wealth should not be allowed to concentrate too much. We can afford to have some people be richer than others, but not by so much that demand becomes depressed. It argues for such policies as a progressive tax system, high spending on public works and services, and measures to encourage unions, restrict immigration, and discourage outsourcing. This creates an incentive in some quarters to find a competing theory that allows people to become rich without restriction.

Supply-side economics is that theory. It argues that the limiting factor on investment isn’t consumer demand but capital formation and rate of return. If the rich are allowed to keep more of what their investments earn for them, they’ll have more money to invest and a bigger incentive to invest it. Hence the rationale for doing exactly the opposite of what Keynesian economics calls for in almost every situation. Instead of keeping wages high, keep them low to maximize corporate profits. Instead of a graduated tax system, have a flat one, or even one that taxes the rich hardly at all, while resting the bulk of revenue generation for the government on the middle class. This, we were told, would result in more investment and, over time, a better standard of living for everyone. There’s a surface plausibility to all this, which is why so many people bought into it whose immediate interests weren’t being served.

By now we should be aware that the promise hasn’t been met. We’ve seen real wages drop for most people, and the economy has been both slower-growing and far less stable than it was before supply-side policies were implemented in the 1980s. So we can see that it’s not working, but without understanding why it’s not working — why, in fact, it was predicted not to work long ago — there’s a tendency to screen out the data and go on believing what we think should be true, rather than what we can see is true.

It’s Not Whether They Can, But Whether They Will

The reason why supply-side economics doesn’t work is because the question is not, and has never been, whether rich people can invest in wealth-creating, job-creating ventures. It’s whether or not they will.

What I mean by a wealth-creating venture is one that produces goods or services (or both) for sale on the market. An investor with a sum of money to invest may do so by building a company, or by buying stock in a company, or otherwise funding the expansion of business to create wealth. Alternatively, he can invest in financial instruments that make money by lending money to others, or by gambling (essentially) on doing so.

Wealth creation has the potential to provide a higher return in the long run, but financial instruments are likely to pay off faster. More importantly, wealth creation pays off only if and when the goods and services produced are sold to customers. If that doesn’t happen, the investment won’t pay off well, and may end up being lost altogether.

Faced with slack consumer demand, investors are less likely to invest in wealth creation and more likely to invest in financial instruments and gambling, which produce few to no jobs and have little or no “trickle down” effect.

In a situation like that, putting more money in the hands of investors doesn’t help; it just gives them more money to gamble with. Allowing investors to keep a higher percentage of their returns doesn’t help, either, when the desired type of investment isn’t likely to produce any returns at all. Worse, it encourages investments with a quick payoff, while higher taxes encourage investments with a longer payoff term, spreading the profits out over multiple years and thus taxing them at a lower rate.

With higher demand for the goods and services that investment in wealth creation produces, more such investment will occur. This, not increasing available capital, is how to boost economic growth.

Where Does Demand Come From?

At first glance, it might not seem important how widely money is spread around. As long as someone has it, someone will spend it, right?

Not necessarily. While the very rich do spend more on consumption than poorer people do, the difference is nowhere near proportional to the difference in income. There are only so many fancy suits of clothes, second and third and fourth homes, luxury cars, and so on that any one consumer needs or even wants. Desire to consume is not infinite, and it is quite possible for one’s means to exceed one’s desires.

The more money a person makes, the lower a portion of that money is spent on consumption and the more of it is saved and invested. A million dollars will be used to buy a lot more goods and services if it is shared among twenty people who have $50,000 each than if it is held by a single millionaire.

Consumer demand is a combination of desire to buy and ability to buy. Too much concentration of wealth results in a few people whose ability exceeds their desire, and a lot of people whose desires exceed their ability. By spreading the wealth around from those who have too much to those who have too little, demand will be increased, and this will boost investment in wealth creation — just as Keynesian theory predicts.

It’s Not a Trade-Off

What this means is that supply-side economics is not just unfair, but also economically unsound. It isn’t just unfair, it also depresses economic growth and produces economic instability. It’s an idea that serves only one purpose: the desire of plutocrats to rip off the rest of us.

It’s a bill of goods that we should never have bought. If we reverse course and undo the entire line of thought that began with the Reagan years in the United States, we will have an economy that performs better and is fairer for most people.

So don’t believe anyone who suggests you have to choose between the two. You can have both.

Or you can have neither.


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Thoughts About Race and Racism

9809020_sRace issues surface in America periodically, and they are doing so once more at this time, as they did in the 1860s and again in the 1960s. It happens when something changes, so that a situation that could once be ignored no longer can be, and when something that could not be changed suddenly can. The industrial revolution reduced the economic value of slavery and allowed the moral arguments for its abolition — which had always been cogent — to prevail. The prosperity of the 1960s made the glaring fact that non-whites didn’t share in it impossible to gloss over.

Today, we are seeing a similar result from the widespread availability of cameras and instant communication through the Internet. Racially-based police violence, once something that could be ignored, is being caught on video and made evident to anyone not determined to shut his eyes to it. Awareness of racial discrepancies in law enforcement leads logically and naturally to awareness of similar discrepancy in the courts, and to the fact that it still occurs in employment.

But I’m not going to talk much about the Black Lives Matter [Too] movement (addition of the last word is for clarity as to what the slogan actually means), or about the problem of racial discrimination in our society that still exists more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The correct position on these matters — “correct” here meaning “in accord with observable fact” — is quite obvious and does not need restating by me. Yes, racially-based police brutality is a problem, over and above the general problem of police misbehavior. Yes, deep-seated racial attitudes affect employment and economic success or failure in life, and the only thing that the Civil Rights Act effectively prevents is overt, blatant, and deliberate racial discrimination; a lot of the discrimination isn’t even conscious on the part of those committing it.

All of that’s a no-brainer except for those who have no brains, or whose brains are short-circuited by self-serving delusions. And others are saying it. No one needs me to parrot them.

What I’m going to do instead is to address another side of the matter: the roots of racism, what it actually is, and what can be done about it. In the process, I’m also going to address a couple of irrational and poorly-conceived ideas running about among progressives on the matter of race. To some, that will make me sound like a right-winger, which is too bad. But these things need to be said, and there’s no better time to say them than now.

The Roots of Racism

The roots of racism lie in the concept of race itself. This is the idea that people can be meaningfully categorized based on superficial physical characteristics. There is, of course, no scientific basis for the idea of race at all; that people of European ancestry have, for example, lighter skin or straighter hair than people of African ancestry is true only as an average. There are so-called “white” people whose skin is darker than some so-called “black” people at the margins of that characteristic for both population groups. There is no basis for defining such categories.

Where the idea of race becomes not just unscientific but actually pernicious is when it leads people to identify with a particular race, and feel a kinship with others similarly categorized, while seeing those outside that group as “others.” From this starting point, all the evils of racism, historical and current, flow. Why did cash-crop planters in America see Africans as a source of forced labor? Because they were “others,” and not “us.” Why do white employers still give preferential treatment to white job applicants? Because they identify themselves as white people, and so have an impulse to prefer other white people as employees.

Ultimately, the solution to racism is to eliminate race itself as a concept and an identifier. Until we manage that, all solutions will be no better than stopgaps.

Now to deal with a couple of poorly-thought-out concepts circulating on the left, before going into possible long-range solutions.

“White Privilege”

To begin the process of offending those who basically agree with me: there is no such thing as “white privilege.” That’s an unfortunate and misleading way to refer to the fact that white people have it easier in this culture than non-whites. That’s a fact, all right, but it doesn’t mean whites are privileged (barring a few of them, all rich ones), it means non-whites are denied their rights. Courteous and professional treatment by police, a fair trial and equal protection under the law, and a merit-based consideration for employment without racial discrimination, these are not privileges. They are rights. Calling this state of affairs “white privilege” logically implies that the problem is that white people are treated too well. No. The problem is that non-whites are treated too poorly. Everyone should be treated the way white people are treated. That’s not privileged. It’s normal, and it’s fair. And it’s perfectly feasible to treat everyone that way.

One could argue that “white privilege” and “non-white denial of rights” mean the same thing insofar as both imply that one artificial category of people is treated better than all other categories, but the connotations are different, and those of “white privilege” aren’t useful. It’s no better for white people to feel guilty about being white, than for them to feel self-satisfied about it. What they need to do is to stop seeing themselves as “white people” at all — and to stop seeing others as either white or not. And for others to stop seeing white people’s whiteness as well,  or their own non-whiteness.

“Only Whites Can Be Racist”

There’s a pernicious idea floating around among progressive circles that racism is a synonym for systematic racially-based oppression, which it’s not; the latter is a result of the former, not a synonym for it. One consequence of tying racism to race-based oppression is a tendency to give a free pass to racist attitudes on the part of non-whites, who are not in a position to impose systematic racial oppression on others (at least not culture-wide).

That such attitudes exist is painfully obvious. (If you need hard polling evidence, try this article from the Pew Research Institute.) Racism among non-whites isn’t just directed against whites, either — one could perhaps dismiss or excuse that on the basis of reaction to white racism (not that that has any more than a superficial validity) — but also against other groups of non-whites. It shares space in the mental pathology sphere with antisemitism and other types of religious bigotry, and with the gender bias that is ubiquitous in all societies, and with homophobia.

Again: the root of racism lies in the categorizing of people into racial groups at all, and in the identification of oneself as a member of one such group and of others as belonging to another. Racism is an us versus them attitude based on race. It is by no means unique to people who see themselves as white, and it is an evil to be fought wherever it appears, and whomever it is directed against.

Racism that feeds into the power structure and results in systematic discrimination obviously does more harm than similar attitudes that do not, but they are the same attitudes nonetheless. Moreover, racial balances are in transition. White people have been a majority in the United States since before the country’s founding, but the size of that majority is declining, and whites will no longer be a majority in a few more decades. A history of being the victims of oppression does not prevent a group from becoming oppressors if the power balance should shift — a glance at the way Israel treats the Palestinians should suffice to dispel that illusion.

Racism In Decline

Racism is actually in decline in this country, despite the headlines and the new attention being given to racial problems. It’s in decline over generations as well as over time. Pew has a good study on Millennial attitudes on race, showing that members of this generation are dramatically more likely to have friends of a different race and to approve of interracial dating and marriage than older people.

Why this should be is an open question, but my theory is that it stems from the cultural and political changes of the 1960s, the last time that racial issues received concentrated focus, as they are again today. This period of turmoil resulted in legal changes and in a steep drop in the cultural acceptance of overt racism. While the difference this made in the attitudes of people alive at the time may have been limited, the impact on generations that grew up after the transition and had no memory of the way things were before has been profound.

Supporting this idea is the fact that Millennial attitudes on race do not represent a sharp shift from those of Generation X. Millennials are marginally less racist than Xers, but the difference between Xers and Boomers is dramatic, while that between Boomers and the Silent generation is, like that between Millennials and Xers, more marginal. Among non-Hispanic whites, the percentage surveyed who supported interracial marriage was 88% for those 18-29 years of age, 75% (13 points of difference) for those 30-49, and 52% (23 points of difference) for those 50-64.

Generation X is the first generation to grow up mostly after 1964, although older Xers do have memories from the time of turmoil itself, which was far from completed in that year.

What this should tell us is that legal and cultural changes, by altering the way we do business and the way we talk about race issues, produce dramatic changes in the mindset of generations that grow up under the new paradigm compared to those who grew up under the old. (We can expect a similar decline in homophobia in new generations that will grow up around married gay couples and see homosexuality as no big deal.)

Racism, in short, is declining. It’s by no means gone, but it’s going, and will continue to decline as older people are replaced by younger generations. The current focus on racial issues is likely to accelerate that process.

Long-Term Solution

There’s no way to get rid of racism instantly. Over the long term, the only way to do that is to get rid of race. While this is not going to happen quickly in society as a whole, each of us can make it happen for ourselves as individuals.

We need to recognize the lack of any scientific basis for the idea of race. We need, based on that awareness, to stop thinking of ourselves in racial terms. That is the first step towards not thinking of others in racial terms. If you think you’re a white person, or a black person, or an Asian, or a Hispanic — you’re mistaken (insofar as those are racial and not cultural identifiers).

You are not a white person. You are not a black person. You are not a racial Asian. There is no such thing as any of these. There is such a thing as a Hispanic culture, but no such thing as a Hispanic race, and the same applies to Asia — culture is real, race is not. (As for so-called white and black people, how many of either category in the United States identify with any of the cultures of Europe or Africa, aside from actual immigrants? I was even recently told by an African-American that a mutual acquaintance from Nigeria was “not black” — a recognition that the man’s culture was foreign, and he was not part of the African-American subculture with its roots in slavery, and so a tacit recognition that race is not real, while culture is.)

Is it easy to do this? I suspect it’s a lot easier for younger people, who may tend to forget about race most of the time anyway. It’s harder, but by no means impossible, for those of us more advanced in years. It’s a mental discipline and the development of mental habits, like any other habit of thought. It takes practice and it takes time and effort, but it can be done, and to suggest that it can’t is to give up on solving the problem of race. Because that change in mind-set, that elimination of race altogether from the way we think, is the only thing that will work in the long run.

In the really long run, what is most likely to happen as a result of global mixing is that future generations will all be a blend of so-called “racial” characteristics. Our descendants will visibly reflect the biological reality that we are all one species, and race is a fiction.

In the meantime, we can and should learn to recognize this reality in our minds, and see past the superficial differences of race that are in fact no more meaningful than the difference between blond and brunette.


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Book Review: Three Great Lies by Vanessa MacLellan

TGL CoverGenre: Portal Fantasy

Publisher: Hadley Rille Books


While vacationing in Egypt. . .

Jeannette Walker, a cynical scientist jaded by swarms of tour groups and knick-knack shacks, is lured by a teenage tour guide to visit a newly discovered tomb. No other tourists there! Inside the chamber, she tumbles down a shaft and 3000 years back in time.

Now, in a world where deities walk the streets and prophecy heats up the air, Jeannette is desperate for normal and the simple pleasures of sanitation and refrigeration. However, a slave master hawking a cat-headed girl derails her homebound mission, and Jeannette–penniless in this ancient world–steals the girl, bringing down the tireless fury of the slaver.

Saddled with a newly awakened mummy and the cat-headed girl, Jeannette contrives a plan to free them from the slaver’s ire, but will she have to dive into the belly of the beast to succeed?

This debut novel by Vanessa MacLellan is one of the most thoroughly researched works of fiction I’ve ever read. The details in the fantasy version of ancient Egypt into which the protagonist falls are meticulously presented, from the sand infesting the bread to the unfiltered quality of the beer to the conservative, deeply religious character of the culture. That was the second thing I noticed as I read this book. (I’ll get to the first thing in a moment.)

The story is one of self-discovery and personal evolution alongside a struggle against unreasonable authority and the birth of unlikely friendships. The “three great lies” of the title are, on the surface, a fortune cookie message that Jeannette received at a restaurant in our world before she was transported to that one. On a deeper level, each of the main characters (Jeannette, Aboyami the mummy, and Sanura the cat-headed teenage daughter of Bast) has a strong belief about herself or himself that proves to be a lie. Jeannette believes that her goal, the thing she desires most, is to get out of the primitive, superstitious madhouse into which she has fallen and return to modern civilization. Aboyami has lost his heart scarab and believes that he needs to get it back and proceed to the afterlife. Sanura believes that she is lost without her litter mates and needs to return to being just like all the other kittens. None of these beliefs is true, but the protagonists must undergo a confrontation with a slaver and some tomb-robbers and a great deal of personal growth before they can discover the truth. All of which makes for a truly inspiring and satisfying story.

Now for that first thing I noticed, which prevents me from giving this book five stars, which I normally would, for a great story, extraordinary characterization, and above-average writing. The story begins poorly. Ms. MacLellan makes a common first-novel mistake by plunging into the main action before giving the reader a chance to get to know and care about the main character. We learn later the reasons why Jeannette is the way she is, but in the beginning all that comes across is a shallow, frivolous person who doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is incapable of understanding a foreign culture. Within the first few pages, she suffers a fall and is transported into a weird land where she has a hard time surviving, but this reader at least didn’t much care, until later in the tale’s unfolding. A little time spent with Jeannette before she finds herself in this predicament, a presentation of the betrayal by her fiance and her best friend that forms such a wound across her life, a bit on her tragic family background — some understand of who she is — would have fixed that, so that when she did find herself stuck in Kemet, we would feel and care about her problems.

As it is, all of that comes out over the course of the story, and Jeannette grows in strength, compassion, courage, and understanding as she deals with the problems she faces. She forms a strong bond with the other two protagonists and unfolds like a blossom. The plot is gripping, the character development profound, and the ending immensely satisfying. If you, like me, find yourself put off by the slam-bam beginning and the unappealing character of Jeannette in the first part of the book, and are tempted to abandon it — do yourself a favor, and resist that temptation. Get past that first section, and Three Great Lies will greatly reward your patience and persistence. This is a wonderful story, and we can expect marvelous things from Vanessa MacLellan in the future.

Available from Amazon for $5.99 (Kindle) or $16.00 (print).

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Book Review: Going Through the Change by Samantha Bryant

cover2500Genre: Superhero story

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press, VA


Going through “the change” isn’t easy on any woman. Mood swings, hot flashes, hormonal imbalances, and itchy skin are par for the course. But for these four seemingly unrelated women, menopause brought changes none of them had ever anticipated-super-heroic changes. Helen discovers a spark within that reignites her fire. Jessica finds that her mood is lighter, and so is her body. Patricia always had a tough hide, but now even bullets bounce off her. Linda doesn’t have trouble opening the pickle jar anymore…now that she’s a man. When events throw the women together, they find out that they have more in common than they knew-one person has touched all their lives. The hunt for answers is on.

This story has perhaps the most original and unusual premise in recent years. Menopause plus the strange concoctions of an unscrupulous scientist combine to give four women super powers. One obtains the power of flight. Another becomes fireproof and gains the ability to create and control fire. A third undergoes a sex change and gains super strength. A fourth develops reptilian scales that emerge when she is angry or frightened and make her impervious to bullets and most other physical damage.

In most comic-book-type superhero stories, someone who developed super powers would quickly adjust to the new reality and set out to accomplish something — save the world, get revenge, make herself rich — and slide smoothly into one of the standard comic slots: superhero, super-villain, anti-hero. Going Through the Change takes a somewhat more realistic approach, as each of the empowered women spends a lot of the book trying to figure out what is wrong and looking for a cure. This allows for some good character development which, unfortunately, comes at the expense of pacing and plot during the first half of the book. It doesn’t pick up the pace and become a more conventional action-packed superhero story until the second half.

The characters themselves are well developed, but I found most of them not very sympathetic. The clear exception is Linda/Leonel, whose menopausal transformation changes her from a petite housewife into a strapping man with superhuman strength. Her ongoing compassion, dedication to her family, kindness, and good sense make her (him?) the best of the bunch. Jessica the airborne, who in her thirties is also by far the youngest of the women (her menopause is the result of surgical removal of her ovaries to treat ovarian cancer), comes across as insecure and flighty (no pun intended by me, though Ms. Bryant may have intended one) until circumstances force her to learn how to control her power. Patricia of the reptilian armor scales is a hard-assed business executive, the classic boss from Hell, and I found her quite unlikable (perhaps because I’ve worked for too many people like her, male and female both). Helen the fireball-tosser becomes addicted to her destructive power and is the closest of the bunch to fitting a standard super-villain role. Her madness is terrifying and her indifference to human suffering is chilling.

The unscrupulous genius behind all the changes, Cindy Liu, although possessing no super-powers herself beyond remarkable scientific brilliance (but then, neither did Lex Luthor, right?), is the pure archetype of the bad, bad scientist whose devotion to her work eclipses any shred of humanity.

The pace of the book picks up very strongly in the second half, when Linda/Leonel, Jessica, and Patricia figure out the central role of Dr. Liu in their transformations and try to track her down and make her reverse what she has done, or at least explain it. Helen joins up with Dr. Liu who is the source of the pills that give her fiery powers, which Helen loves and wants to keep. The story features lots of superhero fight scenes and plot twists once it gets rolling.

The biggest complaint that people have about Going Through the Change is its ending, which leaves a lot of things unresolved. That would be quite acceptable in the start of a series, with more to come, which may be the case, although it’s not specified as such anywhere. On the assumption that it is the first part of a series, I’m going to give the book four stars, for superior characterization and concept, and let’s hope that the potential is developed further in sequels to the story.

Available from Amazon for $4.99 (Kindle Edition) or $15.99 in print.

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Spiritual Traditions — and Liberation From Same

11450442_sI had a bit of a debate recently with a very pleasant and erudite Druid named John Beckett over on Patheos. The debate concerned his article on difficulties finding the “right tradition for you,” and I chimed in with comments observing that maybe the problem is in the premise that any one existing tradition is “right” for you. Apparently this and the ensuing discussion provoked the good Druid enough that he followed up with another post explaining why, in his view, sticking with an established tradition is the only healthy way to pursue a spiritual path, and raising alarms about the dangers of choosing methods and ideas “at random.” (As an ironic side-note, Mr. Beckett mentioned the late Isaac Bonwitz as one of his mentors. It’s ironic because, although Bonewitz was indeed one of the founders and framers of modern Druidism, he was also one of the most eclectic, creative mages around, and one of those most inclined to thumb his nose at pretensions of orthodoxy.)

Rather than tiresomely pursing the matter in further comments and making a nag of myself, I decided to write a post of my own on the subject.

What is a Spiritual “Tradition”?

In essence, a spiritual tradition is a religion. Its focus is on the spiritual quest more than on the exoteric concerns of religion such as public morality, but otherwise it differs from other traditions in the same way as one religion differs from another. This encompasses three things: philosophical concepts, mythology, and spiritual practices.

Philosophical concepts include theology, but go beyond that to also include metaphysics and epistemology and ethics. Mythology encompasses the deities, imagery, poetry, and symbolism of the tradition. Spiritual practices include meditations, religious and magical ritual, physical exercises, lifestyle disciplines, and learning, all oriented towards achieving enlightenment, as the tradition views that concept.

There’s a certain congruence or commonality about spiritual practices that arises from their pragmatic nature. Either something works or it doesn’t, and few traditions will continue for long using a practice that doesn’t work. Thus one finds, for example, mantra and mandala meditation among Yogis, and Catholics who pray the Rosary, an exercise that’s functionally identical. All spiritual practices work an effect on the mind and the mind-set, blurring the artificial boundaries of selfhood and awakening the practitioner (potentially, anyway) to the larger Identity that hides behind the normal waking concept of I. The range is wide but not unlimited.

Mythology varies more widely. All deities and other mythic images are metaphors for the indescribable, and while not every metaphor is apt or meaningful, the array of possibilities is huge. Some mythologies, such as that of Hinduism, are highly visual and colorful. Others, like that of Islam, avoid any concrete images of the holy and emphasize the ineffable nature of God. Christian mythology resides somewhere between that of Hinduism and Islam on this scale, while most Neopagan mythology leans more towards the Hindu end of rich, poetic and artistic imagining. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path for long and achieved any significant degree of awakening understands that all of these are valid approaches.

Philosophy brings us to areas of genuine disagreement, but even here the disputes lose their significance in the face of the fact that coherent knowledge that can be expressed in words is hard to come by when dealing with the cosmos in its entirety, or the mysteries of consciousness. Those are the subject matter of the spiritual. While we cannot approach these subjects directly and straightforwardly, we can do so sideways, as it were. The discussion and the debate help move that process. The richer the discussion, the better.

A tradition, like an exoteric religion, adheres to a single set of philosophical ideas, a single body of mythology, and an authorized set of spiritual practices, rejecting all ideas, myths, and practices which lie outside this compass.

Strong and Weak Traditional Exclusivity

The idea of traditional exclusivity — that only one tradition holds truth and all others are wrong — can take what might be called a strong form and a weak form.

Strong exclusivity is the idea that only one tradition is right for everyone. One finds this idea expressed by fundamentalist Christians and, in pure form, by no one else, although Muslims come fairly close to it, acknowledging some measure of validity to Christianity and Judaism but claiming that Islam holds a more complete truth and rejecting all religious ideas outside the Abrahamic lineage.

Spiritual traditionalists who have any awareness and have made any progress seldom express strong exclusivity. More common is weak exclusivity: the assertion that following one tradition or another exclusively is the right approach for everyone. Some tradition is right for you, even if it’s not our tradition. It’s as if they’re claiming that everyone should be a fundamentalist, while declining to specify what sort of fundamentalist one should be.

Is there any basis for this claim?

What a Tradition Offers Versus What it Costs

What a tradition offers — or claims to offer — is structure, reassurance, guidance, and externally-imposed discipline. (That’s if we dismiss any claims to exclusive possession of the Truth.) All of this contrasts with the non-aligned, who must build their own structures, learn by exploration and choose which guides to follow (if any) and when not to follow them, dive boldly into the spiritual waters seeking reassurance only from success, and create discipline from within.

Following a tradition is easier. It requires more in the way of obedience, and less in the way of courage. It provides a comforting voice when the doubts inevitably arise (there are always guardians at every gate). It sits best with those who are most comfortable accepting the authority of others. Those who find staying within the limits imposed by a tradition hardest are the wildly creative, the strong of will, the highly self-assured, and the boldly self-assertive.

The problem here is that those are also the very people who are most likely to achieve the most success on the spiritual paths. Take a look at the history of any great prophet or spiritual leader, including the founders of traditions or powerful voices within traditions. Without exception, these are people who had problems with religious authorities on the way. They ran away from home in youth, like the Buddha. They were crucified like Jesus, or had to flee for their lives like Muhammad.

There’s a reason for this. The cosmos is not tame. It is wild. And its voice is seldom heard in safe, secure settings.

Is there danger in striking out on one’s own, in refusing to be contained within the limits of a tradition? Of course there is, but not nearly as much danger as some would have us believe. Magic is powerful and potentially self-destructive stuff, but beginners in the art are seldom able to raise enough power to be truly self-destructive.

Beginners make mistakes, it’s true. Does that mean they need to be carefully guided away from error, and kept on the safe path? No, because making mistakes is the only way a person learns. The journey is the destination and the question is the answer, and no one grows without making that journey and asking the questions, seeking answers rather than being spoon-fed them.

So long as people tamely follow a tradition, spirituality will remain a safely compartmentalized part of their lives, never endangering their world-views — or expanding them beyond the comfort zone. Safe spirituality is impotent spirituality.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with learning from a spiritual tradition, and knowledge is always good. And for a time, it’s perfectly understandable that a person might need the structure and comfort that comes from belonging. But unless you feel that need (something I never have, but can vaguely comprehend), there’s nothing to be gained by defining oneself — which is to say, limiting oneself, as that is what “definition” means. Sooner or later, the child must leave the home.

Or else remain forever a child.


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