November 28, 2021

“The Great” and anti-modernism

I am not an expert on Catherine the Great. I played her in Civ a couple of times, half-watched a thing on the history channel about her in the 2000s, and listened to a book about her during a really long car trip once.

This means I am glancingly familiar with her, maybe enough to rattle off the arc of her life off the top of my head.

Let’s see how accurate I get here!

  • Catherine (born Sophia) was a German girl who, for complex and ridiculous problems of lineage, was forced to marry Peter III, the emperor of Russia – who was actually Prussian, and had been made Emperor of Russia for complex and ridiculous problems of lineage.
  • Peter III was a weird, sickly dude who loved Prussia and hated Russia, thought it backwards, and constantly crapped all over it, making everyone hate him.
  • Catherine did a good job of embracing Russia, and with her ongoing affair with Count Orlov – a dashing military official – managed to win over the support of the military and the nobles.
  • The Orlov brothers helped engineer Peter III’s coup, “accidentally” killed him, and installed Catherine on the throne.
  • Catherine gained the enthusiastic support of Russia through skillful statesmanship, helped bring the Enlightenment to her new nation, fought the Ottomans a whole bunch, took a lot of lovers, and died in a really good position – namely, before the French Revolution and Napoleon blew up Europe.

Is this accurate? I think somewhat! But  you know who absolutely doesn’t care about any of this? That would be Joe McNamara, the dude who decided to make a dramedy satire show about Catherine the Great.

McNamara and Hulu would like to position The Great as “anti-historical” – a term they invented and does not appear to have much inherent meaning. But the problem with history is that it keeps being there, in all these books and brains, and when you choose to diverge from it in your retellings, it invites the question – why? Why change history?

This question is popping up a lot these days, since historical revisionism is all the rage. From Hamilton to Dickinson, people seem to like to take known history and give it a fun lil spin, usually to make it more palatable for the progressive internet set.

The Great, however, is not interested in this. And it makes this very clear in just a few choices.



Peter III of Russia was, by all accounts, not a cool person. He was a spoiled brat who was super into military uniforms and toy soldiers. He hated Russia, was unwisely vocal about this, and Russia hated him in turn.

However, in The Great, Nicholas Hoult’s Peter III is played as a cartoonish, handsome, himbo sociopath who is not hated by the court, but tolerated and supported at every turn. He’s just a great big pretty party boy who loves drinking, hunting, humiliating others, and – most important of all – fucking.

And The Great would like you to be very aware that Peter III is super good at fucking. This guy, in short, fucks. From the very first episode of the first season, Peter III is established as a cheerful, murderous sex god who happily jumps into bed with the wives of everyone in his court – often right in front of their husbands.

The show really dwells on this subject a lot: dicks, and their quality, and thus who gets to use theirs on which woman. In the first episode of the second season, a general who worries about the emperor’s position is accused of being a coward, and is held down by the court to make sure he’s got a dick and balls. In both the first and second episode of the second season, there are separate scenes where a woman accuses her husband of being impotent, and another nearby man quickly suggests that he’d be happy to fuck her instead – a suggestion she receives positively, while the husband stutters, flustered. The dialogue is almost the same in both these instances, in fact, despite the characters and situation being completely different.

The show exults in these sex romps and cheerful cuckoldry, and appears to take the interloper’s side in most of these instances. Peter III, for example, is depicted as a man who’s just absolutely great at eating pussy, and happily does so to the wife of one of his friends, who is made miserable by this. Never mind that emperors are probably not sexually giving people, by nature – why would they be? – by dint of his sexual prowess, Peter III is allowed to do as he pleases, while the court of Russia either averts their eyes or cheers.

Does this seem like an unusual amount of talk about dicks for a show about one of the most well-known female rulers? I kind of think so! The idea of reform practically fades into the background by comparison. The fact that Peter is a terrible ruler of Russia isn’t quite as predominant a feature for him, because Russia is depicted as pretty terrible. The nation and its people are backward, vicious, stupid – and unrepentantly so.

Even irredeemably so. And that’s where Catherine comes in.


Catherine, in The Great, is not a skillful politician who navigates a bizarre situation to win the love of Russia. Rather, she is depicted as a fish out of water: an uptight, fussy shrew who keeps trying to bring her boring old Enlightenment into the bawdy, messy romp of the Russian court.

Educating women? Freedom of religion? A functioning bureaucracy? The court of Peter III, almost without exception, rolls their eyes at each of these and scoffs.

Really, most of the comedy of the show is derived from Catherine’s repeated efforts to help Russia, and Russia rebuking her. You begin to wonder – are these people even worth saving? Are they perhaps so stupid and worthless that Catherine shouldn’t even bother trying to help them?

Unlike in history, Catherine is utterly on her own in her efforts to bring progress to Russia – except in one instance: Orlo, who appears to be McNamara’s version of Grigory Orlov. He is the only person who appears to actually desire reform. But in this fiction he is not a dashing, masculine, accomplished military man, but is instead a nebbish bureaucrat who is repeatedly humiliated for his intellectualism.

Orlo is Catherine’s sole ally in bringing Enlightened progressivism to Russia, and pretty much every time he’s on screen it’s suggested that he’s a spineless virgin who’s terrified of women. This is especially practiced by Marial, Catherine’s maid – a repugnant person whom we’re supposed to find amusing despite having apparently no redeeming qualities whatsoever – as she slaps him, spits on him, pokes him in the eye, and tells him he’ll never successfully bring a woman to orgasm in his life.

The question isn’t, why did McNamara choose to make the dashing military lover an emasculated dork? Rather, it is – why is the sole supporter of Catherine’s progressivism such a loser?

The answer, the show suggests, is that progressivism is a loser idea. The Great firmly exists in Peter’s reality, not Catherine’s – and thus, imperial conservatism is masculine and cool, and progressivism is boring and feminine.

And I think that just about cuts to the quick of it. “We can’t let a guy who likes the Enlightenment be cool!” the show appears to say. “He’s got to be a dumb nerd with a bad dick!” This stands, of course, in marked contrast to Peter, fuckboy supreme.

There’s some rough racial stuff about this, too, since the rest of the most predominant cast is white except for the effeminate nerd, who is played by Sacha Dhawan, who is obviously not white. The casting of Asian or Southeast Asian men as less-than-masculine nerds has generated more and more outcry in the last few years, but it seems The Great has managed to duck it on this one.

Really, every element of The Great’s debauched imperialism is coded as brash and masculine – even Archie, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, improbably gains nigh superhuman strength and fighting skills when challenged by Orlo. The same goes for Peter, who, despite indisputably being a foppish dandy living in a bubble, appears to be a naturally gifted warrior: a crack shot, an effortlessly murderous dueler, and even a prodigy at kung fu. (We know this because we get to see the Asian dude he beat the shit out of.)

Catherine, of course, can’t really challenge this. If anything, she’s a bit like a stuffy girl who marches into a frat house party, and loudly insists the dudes stop drinking that beer and the girls stop giving those awesome blowjobs: she is asking for humiliation, which is duly delivered in a hail of boos and thrown beer cans.

This is all played for laughs, yes – albeit nasty laughs – but you can see the show straining to maintain this status quo. There are numerous moments when someone who would like to kill Peter could take a shot at him, yet does not; or when someone who has every reason to overthrow the empire chooses at the last moment not to do so; or when Peter is attacked by numerous soldiers, and yet he lethally dispatches them with an almost bored air.

The gears are grinding to keep the show in place: we are asked to laugh over the sound of their rattling, and keep the party going.

So – why?

Why make this story of Catherine the Great this way?

Hulu and McNamara would probably not like us to ask this question – hence their effort to position it as “anti-historical” – but they aren’t really owed that privilege. (No “revisionist” history is owed that.)

The best comparison I have for this is that The Great is a bit like Parks and Recreation, in that it is about an idealistic, somewhat tone-deaf, stuffy woman who tries to invoke civic change in a political environment naturally opposed to it.

However, whereas Parks and Rec is often on Leslie’s side, supporting her when she’s right and guiding her to understand when she’s wrong, The Great is not sympathetic to Catherine. She is set up to fail. Russia does not want change, and – most importantly – is not deserving of it.

And it’s this undercurrent that bothers me the most about The Great. The real story of Catherine the Great is one of reform, and of widespread support for reform. (Whether that reform would last is another question.) But The Great suggests not only that reform is impossible, but that trying it is stupid.

Progressivism is hopeless. Don’t try to make things better. Nobody is asking for you to try, and nobody wants this. Instead, get drunk, get laid, and try and survive.

It’s political nihilism, in other words – not anti-historicism but rather anti-modernism, thumbing its nose at every principle that has brought our comfy standard of living into being.

Nihilism has its place, certainly, but it feels unusually cruel to bring it into the story of Catherine the Great, and to make it explicitly a male conceit in one of the most well-known examples of female rulership. But that does feel appropriate for the era, in a way. Brash, masculine, anti-intellectualism is very much en vogue – but only The Great chose to weaponize it, and use it to attack one of the classic examples of the Enlightenment.

What an interesting choice.

July 22, 2019

What it’s like to own an electric car

It’s probably not a huge surprise to some of you that I’m a big cleantech booster. One such facet of cleantech that I suspect will soon be a big deal is electric cars.

I could talk for a long time about the impact of electric cars – their value, their effects, and how much of a solution they are for all the various problems we’re facing – but I won’t go into that now. What I’d mostly like to talk about now is what it’s like to make the jump.

And it does feel like a jump. An electric car isn’t cheap, and it’s a whole new method of transportation, requiring a different sort of thinking. Lots of people I know responded with mild incredulity when they heard what I was considering.

So, I thought I’d go into a brief explanation of the experience thus far, which is about 8 months of vehicle ownership as of today.


This hardly needs to be said, but electric cars are expensive. They are going to be expensive until about 2022-2025, which is when they’ll probably be about cheap enough to be competitive with traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. We were in an unusually good economic place as a family, so we went with the Chevy bolt, partly because it offered an extremely high range (270 miles) and because we wanted to support a traditional American car manufacturer’s efforts to be part of the 21st Century.

However, it’s worth saying – most of that money is going toward the 270 mile range of the Bolt, but… 270 miles is kind of overkill.

Most people do not need a 270 range car. If you cut the battery in half, you’d make a huge cut in the price, and it would still fit most of the needs of most driving Americans. But I’ll go into that in our conclusions.

On the other hand, as a dude who just paid $500 to have his Subaru Outback serviced, check out the service schedule for the first 150,000 of the Chevy Bolt:



In other words, it’s nothing.

This is because electric cars have about 120 moving parts, as opposed to ICE cars, which have 1,200.

It takes a lot of work to explode fuel efficiently – and that’s what ICE do for you. There’s a lot of grease, friction, and breakdown. There’s also a tremendous amount of energy waste. Only a fraction of the burned gas actually goes toward turning the wheels. EVs are, from a purely engineering standpoint, an order of magnitude more efficient than ICE vehicles. But this is well-documented.


When we first bought the Bolt, we did not have home charging. So we were dependent on finding a place to charge, and let me just say this: you do not appreciate an infrastructure until you do not have one.

Because even in Austin, home of the granola hippies and tech folk, the public charging infrastructure is pretty minimal. There’s free charging available at Whole Foods, but guess what, that’s in hot competition. The Whole Foods downtown even dedicated one of their two charging spots to Amazon Prime Partner parking (but the staff told me if I charged there they wouldn’t tow me).

So – that’s a level of insecurity right there. The onus is on the driver to find a place to fuel up. This made me very aware how we take it for granted – and how weird it is – that we’ve installed giant tanks full of processed petroleum in the ground all over the nation, and we ship giant trucks full of more of it to these countless, countless places to fill up those big giant tanks, all to make sure that if we want gasoline, it is always available, almost more than water. It is weird that fuel is so ubiquitous, once I thought about it.

Suddenly having a mode of transportation that didn’t rely on this made me anxious. However, I was starting a new job in October, and they had charging – not free charging, but charging nonetheless – at my parking garage.

Charging at a Chargepoint location isn’t as cheap as one might think. When you look at electricity prices per kWh, it’s a matter of cents, but when you add about 100-150 miles to your car, it’s about $18 bucks. I usually charged up twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, to make sure we were full for the weekend. This meant I was paying about $40 a week, though the car would charge up super fast, and be ready before 11 AM for me to drive away.

But the price wasn’t the issue. The issue was that my parking garage had four charging stations, with two charging spaces apiece, meaning eight total spaces… and usually 6/8 of those spaces were broken or down at any moment.

So. 3/4 of all the available charging was never, uh, available.

I wasn’t quite sure if the property owners were required by the City of Austin to install chargers – I can’t find anything saying so – or if they’d just done it as an attempt at being green. But it was pretty clear they didn’t give a shit. And yes, it is incumbent on the property owners, not Chargepoint – not the company that will, I believe, get most of the profits – to maintain the chargers.

One just never stopped updating. It has never stopped updating in the 8 months I’ve worked at this location. Another would accept my Chargepoint card scan, but its locking mechanism kept failing to actually unlock, so I couldn’t get the charger out. This meant I was competing for two charging spots at all times – still extremely dependent on the meager infrastructure that was available.

And that’s the problem. Most charging suppliers just don’t give a shit. Most everyone doesn’t give a shit. Even the Whole Foods near my house left one of their chargers down for nearly a month.

But I made it work. And when I wasn’t charging, I gladly took the super-close electric car parking at the non-functional stations. Because if you’re not going to put in the effort to let me charge, I’m going to take whatever I can get from you.


There are three charging levels, but really only two we need to talk about: Level One, and Level Two.

Level One is a wall socket. Basic 120 volt connection. Same thing you’d use for a vacuum or a hair dryer. You almost always get a cable for this when you buy your car, and it looks exactly like what you might think it would: a car charger bit, connected to a very, very long cable, which ends in a three-pronged plug. This is not a terribly fast charge: it adds about 3-4 miles per hour.

Level Two is a 240 volt socket, which are the weirdo-looking ones you see for your washer or dryer or some kinds of ovens. This is a much faster connection, adding 20-25 miles per hour, but most garages don’t have them, so you need to get an electrician to install them (that’s $2,000 right there) and then you need to buy the charger itself (usually about $600, though there are often rebates for this sort of thing).

Most people just assume that you need a Level Two charger when you use an EV.

But to be honest, I’m not sure you do.

My work is about 20 miles away from home. That’s 40 miles of driving each day, at least – but let’s say 50, based on AC usage.

However, if I get home at, say, 6 PM, and plug my car in right away to my Level One charger, then by 6 AM the next morning, I’ve added 48 miles – about enough to make it up. And on the weekends, I can charge for a lot longer, which can more than compensate.

And this is the real revelation buried in a lot of my experience with electric cars: the driving experience is in no way right-sized. 

When you buy an ICE vehicle, you are not buying a transportation solution to fit your regular transportation needs. You are buying a transportation solution to fit your most abnormal, maximal transportation needs.

This varies from person to person, of course. But I would say that our family makes a 200+ mile trip, oh, about 6-8 times a year, 400 miles round trip. So that’s, at most, 3,200 miles of long-distance driving a year.

But my short range, daily driving is much, much, much more frequent. I’m driving my 40 miles to work every day – probably a long commute for most, really – and on the weekend, I’m driving much less, probably 15-20 miles total. So that’s 9,600 miles of weekday driving, and 960 miles of weekend driving (assuming 20 miles of driving total per weekend), for a total of 10,560 miles of short range driving a year.

In other words, my short range mileage needs are about over three times as large as my long range needs.

And on a frequency basis, it’s even more absurd. I probably take about 624 short range trips a year, back and forth from destinations. Long range trips – about 16.

I take thirty-nine times as many short trips as I do long each year.

This is a little bit like saying, “I drive from Houston to Austin a fair bit – but occasionally I fly to London for work. So, it makes total sense to buy a private jet, just in case, and fly that to Houston and Austin.”

This is dumb.

Cars, really, are dumb. It just takes evaluating other transport options to make you realize that.

And one big revelation is that America does not think of transport in terms of distance. Rather, we think of transport in terms of time. 

When someone asks how far away something is, we say, “It’s about two hours.” We do not say, “It’s about 300 miles.” And this isn’t a great way to plan transport. When you’re building a road, you don’t think, “I need to make this fit a two hour commute.” You’re thinking about route and distance, first and foremost.

A car is tool a that allows you to skip over a certain amount of miles. It is not a tool designed to run for X or Y amount of hours. So we’re thinking about transport with the entirely wrong mindset.

And this is what range anxiety really is. It’s not a concern about running out of battery. It’s a sudden awareness of all the infrastructure you take for granted, AND an awareness that you have been shoved into a transportation monoculture that decides what mode you’re going to choose. An electric car is a paradigm shift in that transport mindset.

It’s like being in a long, very controlling relationship, and suddenly wondering what it’s like to be with someone else – there’s excitement, perhaps, but also fear when you imagine a change. When you’ve never been able to make your own choices before, the idea of having to actually think through your day can be overwhelming.

But it doesn’t really need to be overwhelming at all, at least when it comes to electric vehicles. 90% of the time, you’re not going to need a 20-25 mile an hour charger. Odds are, a 4 mile an hour charger will suit most of your day to day transport needs.

I didn’t really become aware of this until we took the Bolt to see family in Marble Falls, which is about 50 miles away. When we took it out there, it was already 20 miles down, since I drove it to our house from work, so really it had lost about 70 miles before we’d gotten to the house. But I plugged it in in their garage, and we hung out at the house, and within 18 hours it was all charged up again.

Don’t get me wrong, 18 hours is a long time. But if your car isn’t doing anything on the weekend – and ours sure as hell wasn’t – why not make it work? Why not do something?

However – another “however,” yes – our house was old, and badly needed electrical updates. This meant we didn’t quite trust it with the Bolt, even with Level One charging. (To be honest, I was game to try, but since a new fridge had shorted out half the house once, I was talked out of it – probably wisely.) So, when we updated the house two months ago, we also got a Level Two charger.

So, for the past two months, we’ve gone with the traditional electric car charging configuration – a home charger – and each day, the car is ready to go two hours after I get home.

Understand, please, the extent to which that is overkill. I am grateful to have a fast charger – but I am also keenly aware that I paid a lot of money for a capability I’m really only going to need 5-10% of the time.


Would I recommend buying an electric car? This is a bit like asking if someone should buy a computer. The answer is, “Probably – but what do you need it for?”

And that’s the question that’s missing in a lot of our ICE culture. We are arranging it so that people feel obliged to buy a tricked-out graphic design laptop when really they just want to play Solitaire. You are devoting money, maintenance, time, and most importantly land into possessing a solution that will meet your maximal needs. It’s insane. This doesn’t even take into account the health and climate impacts, either – which are significant.

If I were to talk to a young person who was considering buying an electric car, and had their own home or garage or somesuch, in 70-80% of the cases, I would recommend that they go with a 100-120 range vehicle, and use a Level One charger.

I would recommend that they do this because odds are, they aren’t driving more than 350 miles a week, which is about what you’d get out of a Level One charger if you’re charging 12 hours on weekdays, and 15 hours on weekends. (Which is, in my opinion, some pretty limited charge times.)

To go over that mileage budget, you’d need to drive about 50 miles a day, which is fairly abnormal. (I am aware that my own 40-50 mile commute is quite abnormal.) So I’d tell them to go with that, which would be considerably less expensive than buying a Bolt or a Tesla or somesuch, and also you wouldn’t have to install a Level Two charger, and also, you’d never have to do maintenance on your car until you’d hit 150,000.

And if you needed a car for a long distance trip, I’d say just take those funds you’re saving, and rent an ICE vehicle for that one instance. I wouldn’t even bother googling charging stations along the way, or public charging stations at your destination – God knows there ain’t many in Houston, and there sure as hell aren’t any in Marble Falls.

For perspective, we own a Subaru Outback as well. With an 18.5 gallon gas tank, and the current price of gas at $2.77, and estimating that we fill it up about 3 times a month, I’d say we’re spending about $1,800 a year on gas. Let’s add another $500 on maintenance – and these are both conservative estimates. That’s $2,300 a year I’d be ducking if I swapped that with a short range electric vehicle.

Just checking out the prices at Enterprise, a 3 day economy car rental costs about $115 here in Austin. All other things equal, that’s 20 weekend trips I could make with this arrangement. Personally, that seems like a lot of trips to me.

In other words – this minimal arrangement, based purely on miles and money, would work for plenty of people.




We could densify our cities, build bike lanes, invest in public transport and infrastructure, invest in small-scale, micromobile electric transportation, and cut about 90% of this debate to nothing.

We could do that.

We could also do that.

April 9, 2018

Detectorists: in praise of small things

The defining moment of Detectorists, for me, is like most of the show’s scenes in that it is quiet, incidental, and not much seems to actually happen.

The two men, Lance and Andy, are walking over Essex farmland with their metal detectors. Lance gets a signal, digs a hole, drops to his knees to investigate, and retrieves something.

“What you got?” asks Andy.

“Carpet stair rod holder,” says Lance, holding it up.

“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of them,” says Andy.

“Must have been a flight of stairs here, once,” says Lance.

Then Lance lowers the little metal piece, and the two men look at the wide, empty field of farmland, and quietly ponder this. Then the show continues.

This is how it goes on Detectorists, a peaceful, gentle, contemplative show that is about small people doing small things. And the characters of Detectorists are very clearly small people: the show follows the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, a handful of oddball obsessives who scour the English countryside digging up and cataloging buttons, ring-pulls, and metal toy cars – trash, in short.

There is a floating notion that, like all detectorists, the DMDC is always looking for the one big find: a hoard of ancient gold, which could very well exist, since England has seen its fair share of ancient kings. This curious juxtaposition is strangely bittersweet, and compelling: these small, mild people are the inheritors of the land that was once walked by kings and queens, and now they putter through the countryside picking through soil as they try to unearth ancient lost trinkets. Andy and Lance will never have a Saxon burial, entombed in the hills with mounds of gold coins and treasure, nor will they ever flee Vikings or battle Norse men. Lance drives a forklift for a living, and Andy works temp jobs doing landscaping. They are far more concerned with catching University Challenge and fretting over their own quaint, slightly mismanaged lives.

This juxtaposition, though, is slowly undermined as the show goes on. Because the story quietly makes the case that England has seen rather a lot of history: there are Saxon tombs, and Medieval monks, and Roman burials, and all of these theoretically legendary peoples become somewhat lost in all this time, much like the remnants of their very existence are lost in the soil of Essex.

On a large enough timeline, everyone is very small. The life of a great king or queen is about the same size as an overenthusiastic hobbyist in southwestern England. It is, after all, just one life.

Paired with this argument is the recurring visuals of the series, for Detectorists is practically a love letter to Essex (or perhaps Suffolk, where it was mostly filmed). Each episode opens with a montage of quiet, natural wonders: the camera lingers lovingly on crystalline dew clinging to the dimples of ferns, or a grasshopper traversing a stalk of wheat, or butterflies flitting through dales and glens, their wings turned to stained glass by dawning light. This is the first sign that, though Detectorists is an English sitcom, it is a very unusual one.

And these scenes underline the show’s evolving contention: these moments are all ephemera, all fleeting, and all largely unnoticed. Existence happens everywhere, all the time, whether you know it or not. Just as the lives of the DMDC are small but still very real in comparison to the great kings and queens of England, the lives of butterflies and moths and ferns are smaller still, but just as valid, just as real.

Much like how a stairway and a home can flourish and foster lives and history, but then fade until it’s no more than a trinket in the ground – just because you didn’t see it happen, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Nor does it mean that it did not matter.

The show makes this point adroitly in one scene where Lance consults with Sheila about what to do about his daughter who’s just come back into his life. Sheila is the spacey wife of Terry, the leader of the DMDC, and she’s mostly comic relief for much of the series – until she suddenly becomes earnest in this scene, and says, “But what you’ve got going for you now is that she’s met you, Lance. And you’re lovely. So she’s bound to come back when she’s ready.”

Lance thanks her for her advice, and says, “Never realized how often I’d thought about her over the last twenty years.” Then Sheila grows solemn and says with a hint of quiet desperation, “I know. Imagining every day what they might be doing now. What they would look like.” She looks away with tears in her eyes.

It is a beautiful, suddenly heartbreaking moment. Lance does not pick up on her sudden emotion, and the show does not explore this glimpse any further. We wonder – was it a child she gave away? A child that died? We aren’t sure. But we know that Sheila and Terry appear to be a childless couple, occupying their lives with dance classes and other activities. It isn’t until this moment that we wonder if they are trying to fill a vacancy, or distract themselves from something that was lost.

Endless moments unscroll and unfold beyond the boundaries of our little worlds, and we remain wholly ignorant of them. If the show urges the audience to do anything, it is perhaps to just sit, and watch, and wonder, and not take small things for granted. Lance makes a speech in the final episode of the show about how a detectorist is the closest thing we have to time travel, but I think this misses the larger point: a detectorist is someone who takes the time to look, and contemplates all the things they find, even if initially they don’t seem to matter much.

The final episode of Detectorists is full of sweet moments, but perhaps the sweetest for me returns to Shiela and Terry. Terry is a former policeman, and is full of enthusiastic, patrician officiousness, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he sets the world to rights with a confidence of an aging man maintaining his small courtyard garden. Terry is first played for laughs a bit in the series, having built up an extensive collection of cataloged buttons, but though the show first suggests this is somewhat ridiculous, it eventually comes to take him quite seriously.

Terry gets a signal, digs a hole, drops to his knees to investigate, and retrieves something. It is, naturally, a button. He holds it up, and calls to Sheila, who sits on the limb of an ancient tree across the field, drinking lemonade. “Button!” he calls. “Welsh Guard!” She raises her glass to him and smiles.

Terry then lowers the button, and looks around the field at all the people with him detecting on this beautiful summer day. And then, in a sudden burst of emotion, he is moved to happy tears. Perhaps you wonder if Terry is thinking of that hinted child, or perhaps not. But you are right there with him, by that point: on such a day, with such lovely people, how could you feel anything but joy?

One must take pleasure in small things, Detectorists suggests, for life is nothing but small things. But that does not mean it does not matter.

April 2, 2018

The Divine Cities – Hugo Nomination

While changing out of wet clothes at the lake this past weekend, I glanced at my phone, saw a good bit of notifications, and realized, “Ah, the news has gone out.”

I am pleased to say that The Divine Cities is nominated for a Hugo Award in the Best Series Category.

Thank you to everyone who nominated the series. And thank you even more to those who simply read the books. I have written books that people have read, and I have written books that people have not read. I wholeheartedly recommend the former.

Finishing a series is a strange, bittersweet experience. I wrote a little bit about that here, especially regarding how much my own life changed between starting Stairs and publishing Miracles. I’m reminded of the Paradox of the Ship of Theseus – if so much has changed over time, is it still the same thing?

I’ll definitely be in San Jose come August. And I’ll be eager to attend the famous Hugo Losers party, if possible, and don’t care at all if I’ll be doing so as a winner or a loser.

March 12, 2018

The flipside of “Murder Your Darlings”

Almost anyone who is even tangentially involved with writing has likely heard the phrase, “Murder your darlings.” This advice is oft-repeated for a reason: because it is true. You should be hyper-critical of your most beloved works precisely because you love them. Much like the parent who honestly believes their child can become a sports star, your love is a bias that can blind you to very real failings.

However, it’s not very often that we think of redirecting this figurative murder toward the darlings that we haven’t written: the books, shows, and movies that we adore, and can’t bring ourselves to criticize. We’re much more cavalier about criticizing our own works than we are the ones that we adore, and we will defend the adored works with far more ferocity than we would the ones we made ourselves.

This is a curious phenomenon – and, for a writer, a dangerous one.

The critical mindset

Despite all the negativity floating around, we live in a supremely uncritical world these days. By “critical” I don’t mean “saying bad things about something” – I mean stepping back, taking as close to an objective position as you can, and asking, “Is this working? Does this work?”

This is a difficult thing to do, let alone do well. The human brain is loaded with all kinds of heuristics – mental shortcuts – that tilt your entire thought process toward bias when it comes to almost any subject.

These biases are even more pronounced when you’re dealing with abstractions like stories. To hear someone steadfastly refuse to consider criticizing or analyzing their favorite works is a little like hearing:

Engineer: I really like this bridge.

Civilian: Can it bear a lot of weight?

Engineer: Well, I don’t know. But I really like this bridge.

Civilian: Wait – shouldn’t you test that? Or do some math or something?

Engineer: I don’t think you understand how cool-looking this bridge is. Look at it! Look at how cool the bridge looks!

Civilian: Maybe just drive one heavy load across it, and see how the joints respond, and from that you can extrapola-


The difference is that bridges are physical objects, and thus can be tested and measured, and stories generally cannot. But rather than saying, “Oh, well, you can’t measure or test them at all, let’s just give up,” the critical response is to realize stories will be even harder to measure and analyze.

I don’t think my English degree gave me a lot of (or even any) marketable skills, but one thing they drilled into me was that, when reading critically, you did not read for plot (“Ooh, what’s going to happen next?”) or for character (“This guy is a badass, sick”) but rather you tried to discern the invisible mechanisms that power a story, and then analyze them to see if they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Some people say that this is impossible. These people are wrong and, if I were an editor, I would be extremely reluctant to consider their material. Others will say this takes the fun out of stories. This is like telling a car-lover that learning about engines takes the fun out of cars. (“Don’t you just want to see them go vroom and jump over shit??”)

The hardest part is identifying what the story is aiming to do. Not all stories are out to be entertaining in the same way, or move in the same way, or to feature the same people. For example, it’s become something of a trend to dunk on Ready Player One – but though you might not like what this story does, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do that thing well.

We don’t think like this when we consider treasured stories. We don’t think about what they’re trying to do – our reaction is instinctive, instantaneous: the thing that they do is inspire our passionate love, of course. We all think that we are unbiased, objective people – this is a bias in and of itself. But you will notice when you hit this bias when it comes to a much-adored work.

Mine was The Lord of the Rings. I was taking a medieval literature class, and they strayed into the subject of the books, and several of the students lodged complaints – namely that the books feature almost no female characters, and also that the idea of a “perfect race” of peoples (in this instance, the elves) is something of a cheap trick in storytelling.

I was gravely offended. Much more offended than I would have been if someone told me a story I wrote was terrible.

Then I went back and re-read the books, and I started counting how many pages went by without a female character on the page. I started formulating a response about how Eowyn is very active, so that torpedoes that problem! But then I realized that one female character out of, say, thirty characters is basically a 3% participation rate – 50% of the population participating 3% of the time.

You would not want this participation rate in an economy. It would be very bad. So – why would you want it in a story?

I didn’t realize it, but I was murdering my darling. This darling was not one that I had written. It was worse – it was one that I’d grown up with.

Why always with the problems

Already probably some readers are quailing at the idea. “Why do we have to find problems with everything?” they might ask. “Why can’t we just leave stuff alone?” The simple answer is, well, there are problems with everything. You want to get better? Then you have to be honest about that.

Especially when it comes to the stories you love the most – because when it comes to writing, you are what you eat. The stories that make up the literary tentpoles in the circus of your brain should be closely examined for faults – because if you aren’t aware of them, you’ll duplicate them over and over again, without ever being aware that you’re doing it.

How are you going to get better as a writer if you can’t criticize the stuff you love? How are you going to take an unbiased eye to your stories – the shit that the world will read, that may make up your name, your career, your paycheck – if you can’t do the same to a book you liked in high school?

This is the same logic that you see in the Me Too movement, which is just as critical of its allies as it is the most grave offenders, if not more so: you cannot build a sustainable movement if the people who are supposed to power it forward are undermining it.

In this regard, while it’s hard to criticize our darlings, it’s often even harder to criticize the stories that are saying the things we want to be said. These are stories that propound an ideology we fervently believe, a worldview we support. It’s far more difficult to analyze these because it can feel like we’re criticizing the ideology rather than the story.

But a good writer is usually a pretty good critic. And a critic is different from a fan or a devotee.

There is an instinctive revulsion to the idea of tinkering with the nuts and bolts of a beloved, admired story. But it is something you will need to learn to do if you want to get better as a writer. If you simply can’t begin to take the knife to your most-admired darlings, then I suspect you will have a hard time improving as a writer. (You DEFINITELY find it difficult, if not impossible, to improve as an editor.)

This doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad writer – maybe you have a lot of talent, and you can start off good right out of the gate. In which case, wow, good for you!

But most people are bad writers. Since all writers are (usually) people, this would mean that most writers are also bad writers.

Which is something a critic knows.

March 8, 2018


Marvel’s Black Panther is a huge accomplishment in many, many ways. It’s the first depiction of Afrofuturism I’ve seen produced on such a massive scale, and it’s the first African superhero I’ve certainly ever seen, not to mention one of the first superhero movies to feature an almost entirely black cast – with a significant number of female players, at that.

Even more audacious, Black Panther – a Marvel product that is owned by Disney – actually engages with the systematic historical pain, suffering, and oppression that black people have been burdened with over the past four hundred years. I can safely say that I could have never expected a Disney superhero movie – usually entertaining, forgettable fluff – to deal with slavery and all of its consequences head-on.

And yet…

And yet, the movie remains a mild disappointment for me, purely for story reasons. The movie actually wounds its righteous, rhetorical momentum by failing to hit a couple of key marks. But the more I think about the movie, the less certain I am that it could have possibly ever hit those key marks. I’m not sure.

The problem is the most intriguing character in the movie, and arguably the figure who embodies the moral heart of the story: the villain, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

Spoilers continue.

The problems with the story

Here is what I could gather of Killmonger’s plan in the movie Black Panther:

First he assists the South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in stealing a hunk of vibranium from a museum. Then he steps out of the plan (and the movie) for a while altogether.

The movie follows Klaue as he intends to sell the vibranium to the CIA, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The Wakandans accidentally blow the sale, leading to an intense scene in which they capture Klaue.

Killmonger pops back up to rescue Klaue, stealing him away and engaging with T’Challa (his cousin and, presumably, big thematic foil) for the first time – he shoots a grenade at him, knocking him to the ground. T’Challa glimpses the ring around Killmonger’s neck. No words are exchanged during this interaction.

The movie then follows Killmonger as he takes Klaue to an airfield, where he asks to go to Wakanda. Klaue refuses, and Killmonger betrays him, killing Klaue’s henchman, Killmonger’s own (unnamed, largely underdeveloped) sidekick/girlfriend, and then Klaue himself.

Uhhh – okay?

It is difficult to capture how sudden and abrupt this is. One minute, Klaue has been rescued by Killmonger – the next, Killmonger has killed Klaue, along with everyone Killmonger has associated with thus far in the movie. Not only are Killmonger’s goals and intentions still largely inscrutable to the audience, but his actions render nearly all of Klaue’s plot and all of Killmonger’s interactions with Klaue a moot point.

Because it turns out, all Killmonger needed to advance his plan was to take Klaue’s body – he suddenly materializes on the outskirts of Wakanda with the man’s corpse, and he quickly trades it for access with the royal council.

So – why did he steal the vibranium? Why did he rescue Klaue? Why did he get himself into a situation where he had to kill his girlfriend? What does he want? These answers are not made clear to the audience.

While this is occurring, we learn more about Killmonger, but this is purely tell, not show – the CIA operative helping the Wakandans essentially fills in all of Killmonger’s backstory within a couple of sentences while they look at a projected image of him.

Killmonger, having brought Klaue’s corpse to Wakanda (how he got there at all, let alone past all the technological barriers that presumably hide Wakanda from outsiders, is not known) is given a chance to speak to the Wakandan royal council. They consent.

He reveals himself as T’Challa’s cousin, and proposes ritual combat to determine who should be the King of the Wakandans. They consent.

He thoroughly beats T’Challa’s ass, and declares himself the King of the Wakandans. They (largely) consent.

One begins to sense a certain arbitrariness to all of this. Killmonger has some great lines, some powerful comments about racial oppression and accusations against the passiveness of Wakanda, but this is mostly the first time we’ve heard this from him. He really hasn’t talked a lot in this movie, up until this point. His character has not so much been developed as materialized, like he’s been teleported into the plot.

Worse, we do not see him struggle. He does not have to plot, plan, scheme, make deals, or compromise to challenge T’Challa and take over Wakanda. He just has to show up, declare himself, and kick T’Challa’s ass. The impression you get is that his entire coup takes place in a handful of hours, and it is executed almost single-handedly.

This is a serious failing. Killmonger says lines about how he’s prepared his whole life for this moment – but we haven’t seen any of that. And what we have seen of him thus far – the museum heist, killing Klaue and his own girlfriend – they don’t indicate this at all. The line, spoken with intense gravitas, borders on the absurd in the moment, like in Walk Hard, when Pa Cox offhandedly mentions he’s been spending years training his body and mind to kill his own son in a machete fight.

To challenge the king of a secret, fantastically advanced nation is no small task. We should see someone preparing for that. We should get the impression that it is quite hard to do. We get neither.

Now that he is (immediately, suddenly) King of Wakanda, Killmonger announces that they’re going to start sending advanced vibranium weapons to peoples of African descent around the world in order to help them rise up against their oppressors. The Wakandans immediately consent.

All of this feels deeply out of place. Killmonger mentions he has “war dogs” all over the world, but aside from the opening scenes, they haven’t been pivotal to the story. All we’ve seen of Killmonger is the museum heist, Klaue’s rescue, the shootout at the airfield, and then his coup. We have not seen him preparing for a vast global takeover. We had no idea this was even on the table until he said it.

Even more so, Killmonger has not only taken over an entire nation in, like, the amount of time it takes to smoke a brisket – he’s also gotten them to reverse hundreds of years of foreign policy, and launch an empire. This doesn’t work at all with our conception of Wakanda at this point – secret, difficult to access, advanced, and most of all, superior.

Because Wakandans are supposedly better than all the other nations, and, supposedly, they have been for a while. Their passiveness and indifference to black oppression is their critical failing, yes, but you don’t get the idea that these guys are schlubs or anything. And yet, after defeating T’Challa, they essentially become plot mechanisms for Killmonger’s will. We just met you, but you say you’re our king now? Sure, great! We just met you, but you want us to take over the world? Sure, great!

So when T’Challa returns, and defeats Killmonger, the victory feels robbed of significance. Because we now have the impression that it is pretty easy to become King of Wakanda, taking back that crown feels diminished.

In a lot of ways, this is a common Marvel feature – its villains are poorly-developed and largely forgettable. Hela from Thor: Ragnarok even follows a very similar arc: she literally pops into existence (whereas Killmonger just materializes on the border), takes over the nation, and goes about changing everything in seconds. The story isn’t terribly interested in how she does this, nor is it preoccupied with why: she’s the villain, and that’s just how these things go. Standard, unobjectionable comic book movie fare.

The difference is that Hela’s takeover of Asgard is not the point of Ragnarok. She is fun, and there’s some interesting nuances there about colonization and a brutal history of conquest that no one wants to talk about, but the point of the movie is to stick Thor in a weird, sci-fi dystopia where he has to fight the Hulk, develop quirky allies, and win his way back home. Hence why Hela’s takeover of Asgard takes place within the first, like, quarter or fifth of the movie – we’re not even out of the first act before she’s sitting on the throne. It’s business the movie is looking to get out of the way.

This is not the case for Black Panther. Killmonger is the point of the movie: he is the living embodiment of how Wakanda turned its back on the African peoples of the world, and enriched itself while they were enslaved, tortured, brutalized, and dispersed. His takeover of the throne is the crux of the whole film. So, the standard Marvel approach to villains falls miserably short here.

A conversation you don’t want to have

The problem here is that Killmonger, like most villains, is largely defined by what the hero does in the story – and T’Challah really has almost nothing to do.

Like, when he first takes the throne, his two big choices are, “Chase down an arms dealer,” and, “Maintain the foreign policy status quo of doing nothing.” This is… not a heavy checklist for a superpowered king. With nothing to do, there’s really very little for the hero and the villain to butt heads over, so the bad guy has to basically import the entire conflict by himself. When Killmonger drags the dead body into Wakanda, he’s essentially carrying the plot in a bag, as well.

Consider that the movie is missing a critical, classic scene that’s common to superhero movies: the sitdown. The setup goes thusly: the hero and the villain have engaged each other at least more than once. The hero is largely aware of the villain’s plans and circumstances, but not entirely (the villain, of course, has some tricks up his sleeve). The hero and the villain get into a situation where they can’t or won’t attack each other. It is at this point that they begin to talk, discuss each other’s arguments, and poke holes in what the other believes, before they are forced to part ways.

Sometimes these scenes last only a handful of seconds – an exchange of just a few lines. Other times they’re much larger, like the scene with Batman and the Joker in the holding cell. But this scene helps the audience grasp the stakes: it sheds light on how these two entities are working toward two different worldviews with two different sets of values – yet we begin to see the flaws in both, understanding that neither is entirely right. (There can be some shading here – the hero can be, like, 90% right, and only 10% wrong – but he can’t be 100% right, because that would be very boring. The point of the movie is usually that the hero has to adjust his worldview in order to win.)

But you can see why the movie never has the sitdown scene with Killmonger and T’Challa – because they’d have nothing to talk about! Killmonger’s position is, “Let’s do something,” and T’Challa’s position seems to be, “Gee, I dunno.”

This strikes up another Marvel comparison, this one with perhaps that world’s most famous, righteous villain, the bad guy you’d probably fight for if it really came right down to it: Magneto.

Much like Killmonger, Magneto is righteously fighting to protect the oppressed, and he’s willing to go to any ends to make sure that happens. The difference here is that Charles Xavier is fighting to protect the oppressed, too – he’s just pursuing the more peaceful means of persuasion, rather than going with war and division.

Compare this to Killmonger and T’Challa. Killmonger is Magneto, advocating for striking back and protecting the oppressed. But unlike Charles Xavier, T’Challa’s original position is just to keep doing… nothing.

Yeah. That sucks.

The movie could have stepped around this by having T’Challa start basically at the end of the movie – by incrementally increasing interaction with the outside world. This would give him something to actually do from the beginning, and would cause internal consternation in Wakanda, which you’ve got to have if you’re telling a royal intrigue story. It would also offer actual plans for Killmonger to interfere with and sabotage, and it’d be a point of conflict that could help elucidate the two men’s positions. Killmonger could say, “You think this is enough? After centuries of ignoring everyone else’s hardship? No, no, no – in fact, it’s time that Wakanda suffers just like the rest of Africa has.” Or something to that effect. This would create a more gradual, cohesive conflict, rather than having the villain show up and say, “Hi I’m king now, let’s take over the world,” and having the entire nation agree to do so in the space of, what, like an afternoon or something?

The images of Black Panther are full of messages – depictions of dignified, empowered Africans, men and women alike, living in a future that they’ve determined for themselves – but the story is anemicin comparison.

It is a great thing, to see Black Panther in this world. But Black Panther itself could have been much more.

March 7, 2018


I have been sitting on this one for quite a while, and am happy to finally be able to announce it – my next novel is FOUNDRYSIDE, first of THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY, which will be coming out August 23rd of this year!

Foundryside RD4 clean flat

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new fantasy series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic—the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience—have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.

This book was an incredible amount of fun to write. I first had the nuggets of the idea way back in 2015, when I was flying to New York Comic Con and reading Venice: A New History on the flight. The idea of the city-state nation dominated by family factions has always interested me, and I thought it’d be fun to write a book about one such city that discovered a type of magic – and then did what any normal person would do, which is make a ton of money off of it.

But this makes me ask – what kind of magic is this supposed to be?

I had that idea a little while later, traveling for work. I was listening to Hello From the Magic Tavern, a favorite comedy impov podcast of mine that lovingly parodies fantasy tropes, and I was struck by how the wizards in the show define their magic: each wizard’s magic seems to originate from a tension between two opposites – light vs. shadow, truth vs. lies, and… time vs. space. (This last one makes no sense, but neither does that particular wizard.)

This was an interesting idea. It seemed like magic was a bit like fire – a phenomenon created by conflict, or an argument. I remember sitting in my hotel room, thinking about magic as an argument, about how you could convince an object’s reality to be something that it isn’t, but only if you were really persuasive about it, giving it very convincing instructions… kind of like a code.

In other words, you could create a code to reprogram reality – if you wrote it the right way, that is.

FOUNDRYSIDE is about an augmented thief trying to survive in a city dominated by four merchant houses who have become incredibly good at this kind of magic, building it up to an industrial scale and using it to create four very separate trade empires.

I found myself describing their house signs in the story (or, as the people in the book call them, loggotipos), and I asked my favorite artist Chanh Quach to create these house loggotipos, along with the motto of each house.


FOUNDRYSIDE, the first novel of THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY, will be coming out in hardback August 23rd in the US. It is available now for preorder.

UPDATE: Happy to reveal the UK cover for FOUNDRYSIDE, out in August from Jo Fletcher Books!

November 1, 2017

Soap Plots

There are certain kind of stories where the goal is to create drama, but not so much that you’d have to change characters, locations, or even relationship dynamics. I’ve come to start thinking of these as “soap plots,” in that the goal is to complicate the characters’ lives while avoiding any overall story change. (The origin of the term, of course, comes from soap operas.)

This is different from a story that is about dramatic relationships – who slept with who, who had whose baby in secret, and so on. While these might be stories that are featured in “soaps,” if the plot causes the story to change on any macro scale – new location, new conflicts, new themes, new characters, etc. – then it is not, by definition, a soap plot.

Poldark on PBS is the most recent one of these. PBS Masterpiece shows seem prone to these plots: while being ostensibly about the changing times, Downton Abbey steadfastly refused to change much, and resorted to ludicrous legal complications (rape, dead rapists who died under strange circumstances, ex-wives who died under strange circumstances, and so on) to keep the character relationships exactly where they are. The overall experience was a lot of stuff going on, and yet nothing was happening. The choices do not matter, which means there are no stakes.

Poldark is similar in that it keeps throwing obstacles in the way of the characters to maintain a lot of the same dynamics. Though the story is based on a book series, and thus has to keep to some character mixups, there are times that the characters make intentionally stupid choices just to maintain status quo.

One show that found (or was forced to find) a way around this is Halt and Catch Fire, which essentially built a whole new show every season, skipping forward in time to find that a lot of the character dynamics had totally changed and telling a whole new story. Mad Men and The Wire figured out the same methodology. It’s a device that acts as a service for the writer probably even more than the reader: by totally eliminating the option to do the same old same old, you’re forced to innovate.

May 3, 2017

Five years.

In case you were not aware, CITY OF MIRACLES came out this Tuesday.

It’s a very long time coming. My records show I wrote the first page of CITY OF STAIRS on April 30 of 2012.

When I did that, my son looked like this:

Now, almost five years to the day later, he looks like this:

It is very odd to have a project that tracks time in such a fashion. Children function like clocks, when it comes to time on a larger scale: by changing so rapidly, they let you know that, even though it feels like I wrote STAIRS just last month, it was actually a very long time ago indeed.

Things change. That’s what I write about a bit over here on Unbound Worlds, on my feelings about finishing a series.

Writing this book was a tremendously odd experience. I’ve had an idea of what would happen for over three years now. Three years is a very long time to shut the windows, lock the doors, put out the lights, and say goodbye. Almost half the lifespan of this series, writing-wise, was spent devoted to its ending.

But I did not completely understand how it would end until I was about a quarter of the way in to Miracles. I was in a hotel room, alone and missing my family, and I found a song I liked, and I listened to it over and over and over again. Specifically, I liked how the song was about a singer promising a girl that he would stay, and be with her; and though the words sound like he means it, there’s a sudden, slight dip into a minor key in the refrain, right at the words, “for a while.”

And then you know he’s lying to her. He doesn’t want to leave, but he’s going to. It’s a subtle yet deeply fatalistic moment.

And it was as I listened to this song that I realized I knew how the book was supposed to end. In fact, I’d always known, but hadn’t wanted to admit it. It was a surprisingly unpleasant and surreal experience. It was a bit like waking up one morning and filling out a lot of insurance paper work, and writing a lot of letters to be mailed, and taking care of your business, and then putting on your nice clothes and getting in the car, and it’s only once you’re on the road that you suddenly realize that you are, in fact, about to commit suicide, and have actually been planning this for a very long time, but have hidden your own intentions for yourself just to be polite about it.

That is an odd way of putting it. But it captures some of the truth of that feeling.

Those who have already finished the song will probably find some of the song’s words familiar.

January 19, 2017

Obama Cunctator

I have heard this comparison before, but it’s worth repeating here.

In a lot of ways, Obama is America’s Fabius Maximus.

Back in the old days, before Julius Caesar and whatnot, the Roman military was super, super macho. You just advanced on the enemy and pounded the shit out of them until they surrendered. And this worked pretty great for a pretty long time, because there were a lot of Romans, they were well trained, and they just kept coming.

But then Hannibal Barca came along and crossed the Alps. And Hannibal was not stupid. Hannibal never committed to a pitched battle he didn’t think he could win. He evaded and evaded the Romans until he had them where he wanted them – and then he kicked the everliving shit out of them.

Because the Romans always thought they could win. Always. They were the Romans. Winning was what they did. They were the big winners, every time. And because they always thought that, they kept losing to Hannibal.

Hannibal almost took Rome itself. The Romans, desperate, appointed Fabius Maximus as their dictator. And Fabius did things very differently.

Fabius fought like Hannibal. He evaded pitched battles, and he fought conservatively, trying to contain Hannibal’s forces and drag them into a long, slow war of attrition, exhausting them over time, because Hannibal had no easy access to more reinforcements. He’d crossed the Alps. He was stuck here. You just had to avoid another devastating battle.

This is where “Fabian Warfare” comes from – you don’t fight the enemy. You exhaust them, picking them off one by one and disrupting their operations until they don’t want to fight anymore. It takes the calm, long view of leadership, rather than the immediate, short-term view of battles.

This worked quite well. For a while.

Because the Romans FUCKING HATED IT.

This wasn’t macho! This wasn’t brave! This wasn’t Roman! This was cowardly. They started calling Fabius “Cunctator” – meaning “lingerer” – out of sheer disdain for his leadership. (It didn’t help that Fabius also had internal political enemies undermining every single thing they did.)

Tired of this, the Romans brashly dismissed Fabius. They installed new leadership, who would fight the old way, the Roman way, and Make Rome Great Again.

The Romans then met Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae – and their whole army got absolutely, completely annihilated. Cannae is, to this day, generally considered to be the single greatest defeat in Roman history, and one of the worst military losses of all time. Hannibal and Cannae would go on to haunt the minds of Romans for generations.

After that, Fabius’s conservatism and his caution didn’t look so bad. The term “Cunctator” stopped being an insult and became a phrase of respect.

So here we are. A cautious, conservative leader who takes the reins in a period of great turmoil; a leader who focuses on the long term and refuses to commit to immediate fights; a leader who doesn’t react quickly enough to internal political enemies undermining his efforts; a leader whose style and character is disdained and discarded in exchange for a new style of tough, masculine leadership, the old way of doing things.

Obama Cunctator. And many a Cannae await us.

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