Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book 35: Secrets and lies.

The Rook is everything that Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits and Midnight Riot wished they could be: a fun, intricate book full of great fight scenes, interesting mixes of science and fantasy and literary book, interesting characters, and an all-around great reading experience.  It was so good, in fact, that when my time for borrowing the audiobook was up with 1/3 of the book left to go I couldn't wait to finish it and so I went and checked the hardcover out of the library.

The Rook stars Myfanwy (the W is silent) Thomas, or someone not completely unlike her, as a member of the Checquy, a British superpower/supernatural secret service. It opens with Myfanwy opening her eyes to find herself standing in the rain, dead people wearing latex gloves all around her, and no idea how she got there or who she is.  In her pocket is a letter.  Dear you, it begins, and starts to fill in the gaps of what happened.  The Myfanwy who starts out the book is not the Myfanwy that wrote the letters to the person who would take over her body after something terrible happened to the former-Myfanwy, and the new one has to not only adapt to not knowing who or where she is, but also the fact that a bunch of superpowered people are trying to kill her, and also that she is, in fact, about 3 rungs from the top of a group that helps protect Britain from supernatural threat.

It is an excellent book, reminiscent of Kraken by China Mieville or, possibly The Magicians crossed with X-Men.  It pulls the reader along through the story, and never gets dull or dry; it's not that every scene is action packed, but that Myfanwy is such a great character, and the supporting cast around her (vampires, funguses, a group of Belgian medieval scientists called the "Grafters" who once tried to invade Britain using giant horse-spiders, a man (?) named Gestalt who is one brain that inhabits four separate bodies, each of which can think and act independently of the others, and so on) is phenomenal.  There is just the right amount of humor, such as when tests have to be run on all the members of the Checquy to ensure they haven't become a Grafter pawn, and Myfanwy finds that she has to be licked -- by three of the best lickers the Checquy has produced, but there's lots of action and some intrigue as Myfanwy begins to unravel the plot around her.

Saying more would spoil the story, but I will say that the villains in the book are some of the most amazing (and intricately, phenomenally gross, at times, but in a fun way) that I've ever seen in a book, and by the end I was hoping there was a sequel to it.  (There is, and I've put it on my TBR list.)

One thing the book got me thinking beyond how great is this story? (Seriously great) is this: Why would superheroes, vampires, magic, ultrascience, etc., have to be hidden? LOTS of stories have this conceit. In Kraken very few people know about such mysticisms as the fact that the ocean lives in a house in England and teleportation is real. In Harry Potter and The Magicians the general population has to be kept unaware of the existence of magic. In this book, the Checquy and its US counterpart (called the Croatoan in an allusion that goes unexplained in the book but if you get the reference it's pretty neat)(although as it turns out that mystery probably wasn't all that mysterious) have to remain secret, and that's never really explained.

I think in part each set of storytellers must have their own reason for keeping the superpowered worlds a secret from others. In Narnia books the secrecy and limited access served as a surrogate for Heaven (or Christianity) as well as a way of demonstrating that childhood is more magical than adulthood, for example.  J.K. Rowlings' explanation for why magic was kept a secret from Muggles was this:

‘But what does a Ministry of Magic do?’

‘Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.’


‘Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.’

That doesn't really ring true, though. We have "magic" of a kind today: cell phones, MRIs, microsurgery, vaccines, spy satellites: they all work on principles that most people don't understand and which we couldn't recreate, or at least not easily.  That doesn't keep people from wanting cures for everything and easier everything -- but saying we can't tell people about this revolutionary new heart surgery because then they'll be wantin' revolutionary solutions to their problems doesn't make much sense.

In The Rook the magic/superpowered aspects -- the world is sort of a mystical superpowered place -- is kept from most of the regular folk.  Some of the powers are weird or gross, such as the man who can make acid fumes come from his skin; others are more acceptable (an American operative can cover herself with flexible metal).  So that doesn't explain why all such things have to be kept a secret; it's not just that some things are gross or weird.

In some cases, keeping the secrets seems to be almost a commentary on society's divisions. In The Magicians one interpretation of magic is that it, like so many other resources, exists only (or mostly) for the 1%; people who go to Brakebills attend a school that's pretty much like an Ivy League college, and most seem to come from rich backgrounds. When they wash out of school they're placed in finance-companies, and magicians have fabulous wealth.  The magicians even gain access to other worlds, entirely, something regular people and hedge-witches can only dream of.  (In Narnia, too, it was generally upper-class people who could get to Narnia where, like The Magicians, they were kings and queens.)  It's not hard to read keeping-magic-secret as a way to further separate the common folk from the elite.

That explanation doesn't hold in The Rook, though.  It may be that it was just an idea to make it more exciting in the book, the idea that all this had to be kept secret, except that such a theory doesn't fit into the book at all: there are protesters outside the Rookery where Myfanwy works, but they're the usual wing-nuts who protect government agencies hiding supernatural things and nobody pays attention to them; other times (such as when a flesh-cube takes over a police station) the Checquy has very little trouble keeping people from knowing what's going on, despite the fact that this takes place in a world where, we're told, there are surveillance cameras all over and people have cellphones. So if you're going to make your superheroes secret to amp up the story, why not have the secrecy matter?

I considered whether it was just that everyone thinks, if I had power like that I'd have to keep it secret, but in a world where lots of people have powers, why would it be a secret? In our world, athletes don't work underground, the supersmart and superrich are not walking around incognito, and powerful politicians have Twitter accounts and Youtube channels: everything that serves as a proxy for superpower in our world is broadcast around the clock.

In the larger scheme, why would a government keep these things a secret, and how could they? One argument against any large conspiracy existing -- JFK's assassination, Pearl Harbor/9/11 being an inside job, the moon landing being fake-- is that it's almost impossible to keep any large scale operation a secret.  If only a few people knew, then you'd have a better chance hiding the truth, but it still takes people wanting to be fooled.  Bernie Madoff ran a fraud for decades because only a few people knew about it, and nobody wanted to question the good fortune.

Another thing is why would the government want to keep something a secret. I understand that if Bush let 9/11 happen so he'd have a justification to start a war in Iraq and do some regime change, the government wouldn't want to get that out. One could also assume that with the fact that there is very little difference between Democrats and Republicans in all the ways that count -- not talking social issues here -- the Democrats wouldn't rat Bush out because they too profit from a continuous state of war lasting 15 years now. (And counting!)

But Watergate, Iran/Contra, Monica Lewinsky, the Bay of Pigs, the Teapot Dome Scandal... controversies big and small get exposed even when everyone in power might benefit from not exposing them. It seems unlikely that vast conspiracies could exist and never be exposed.

If a government knew about superpowered individuals, and wanted to keep them a secret, could they? In The Rook people are born every day with new powers, and parents know about these (in some cases the kids are frightening.) Yet it appears that somehow nobody with any credibility ever talks about these people and the weird things going on.  That seems like it couldn't happen, except think about all the secrets that lots of people know about yet they never become public. Hillary's private email server, for example. How long did it take before that became common knowledge?

In 1962, a double (or maybe triple?) agent almost got the US and Great Britain to launch nuclear strikes. Most people didn't hear about it for 20 years, until the story was declassified in 1992. In the 1960s the US Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared "Operation Northwoods," a plan to do fake terrorist attacks on our own citizens in order to give the US an excuse to go to war. The report was declassified nearly 40 years later. In 1968 President Nixon had his advisors tell South Vietnam to withdraw from peace talks, so that the war would continue and Nixon could be re-elected. The report was declassified in 2008.

The thing about those is: not only did very few people know about them for decades, but even after they were declassified they seemed to not make any news. I'm not sure how a plan to kill our own people to start a war wasn't a big deal, but that's the first I've ever heard of it.

The purloined letter was allowed to sit out in the open, with everyone ignoring it.

The Democratic debates this year were (allegedly) planned to reduce viewership so that Hillary wouldn't have to worry about Bernie or That Other Guy getting more name recognition.

For years both Bush and Obama routinely denied NSA electronic surveillance of US citizens' phone calls. A secret Foreign Intelligence court was created in 1978, and nowadays is called a "secret Supreme Court." This Court ("FISA") issued an order (in secret) in 2013 requiring Verizon to provide daily reports of call detail records to the NSA. These included domestic US citizen calls to other US citizens. (I used Verizon in 2013, and used the cell phone to make calls to clients that were confidential and protected by the attorney-client privilege.) The order was only made public when Edward Snowden leaked it. (The Court in its history has only denied 12 requests for warrants, in 38 years.)  When this court criticized John Ashcroft for lying to it, and began requiring modification of requests to be ... more legal... the Bush administration simply ignored the Court and did its own surveillance, prompting one of the Secret Judges to resign. Judges on that court are appointed by the US Supreme Court Chief Justice, with no oversight or ability to object or interview them.

I don't think there are people with superpowers, or magic out there. If, though, there were, I have no doubt that not only would the government be able to keep them hidden from us, but also that when the news leaked out most people wouldn't pay any attention.

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