Franzen’s “Purity”

I review Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic.

Hindsight is 20/20

Ronald Reagan is often credited, especially among historians on the right, with having defeated the Soviet Union by challenging it to an arms race so costly that the Soviet economy collapsed, taking the political authority of Communism down with it. Some historians on the left prefer to credit Reagan’s diplomacy and arms negotiations, and to tip the hat to his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, but in 1986 Gorbachev himself acknowledged in a speech to the Politburo that the nuclear-arms threat from America was tantamount to an economic one: “We will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities. … If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable.”

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware that there was a plan behind Reagan’s buildup. It seemed, rather, to be a mysterious and almost autonomous process, driven by fear and nationalist rivalry, not strategy. I was a child, of course, and maybe I didn’t understand. But I find that as an adult, I still harbor a doubt, perhaps unfair, that Reagan fully intended his strategy. I don’t doubt that he wished the Soviet Union ill, and there’s no question that he thought that stockpiling nuclear weapons would harm the Soviet Union, but I’m not quite persuaded that he understood in advance that military-induced economic stress could trigger a spontaneous collapse of political authority in the Soviet Union, of the sort that Hobbes alluded to when he wrote that “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.”

Quite possibly he did, though. I was startled, a couple of weeks ago, to discover that a very articulate explanation of Reagan’s strategy had been published two decades before Reagan even took office. In the science-fiction novel His Master’s Voice, published in Polish in 1968 (and translated into English in 1983), Stanislaw Lem accurately predicted not only Reagan’s military strategy but the economic rationale behind it.

His Master’s Voice concerns a team of American scientists secretly attempting to decode a message transmitted in a stream of neutrinos from a distant galaxy. Because the team works under threat of a takeover by the American military, who fear that the Soviet Union might also learn of the message and decipher it first, the narrator has occasion to look back, from the novel’s imagined future, on America’s military strategy in the 1970s (which in 1968, of course, had not yet happened):

In the seventies, for a while, the ruling doctrine was the “indirect economic attrition” of all potential enemies; Secretary of Defense Kayser expressed this with the maxim “The thin starve before the fat lose weight.” The competition-duel in nuclear payloads gave way to a missile race, and that in turn led to the building of more and more expensive “antimissile missiles.” The next step in the escalation was the possibility of constructing “laser shields,” a stockade of gamma lasers which would line the perimeter of the country with destroyer rays; the cost of installing such a system was set at four hundred to five hundred billion dollars. After this move in the game, one could next expect the putting into orbit of giant satellites equipped with gamma lasers, whose swarm, passing over the territory of the enemy, could consume it utterly with ultraviolet radiation in a fraction of a second. The cost of that belt of death would exceed, it was estimated, seven trillion dollars. This war of economic attrition—through the production of increasingly expensive weaponry that thereby placed a severe strain on the whole organism of government—although seriously planned, could not be carried out, because the building of super- and hyperlasers turned out to be insurmountably difficult for the current technology.

Remarkably, Lem was not only predicting that America would engage in an arms race in order to sap the Soviet Union’s economic capacity, but also predicting that someone like Reagan would come along and accelerate the arms race by adding laser defenses to missile offenses, much as Reagan did in his 1983 “Star Wars” speech, which launched what Reagan called the Stategic Defense Initiative.

While googling to see whether anyone else had already written this blog post, I discovered that Lem himself explained his clairvoyance—sort of. In a 1986 book, One Human Minute, Lem wrote that years earlier he had gained access to “several volumes on the military history of the twenty-first century,” and though at first he feared betraying his knowledge of their contents, he soon realized that “The safest way to conceal a remarkable idea . . . was to publish it as science fiction,” and therefore slipped one of the secrets into page 125 of the novel he was then working on, His Master’s Voice. (A more mundane explanation is possible, of course: he might have punked English readers by slipping into the 1983 English translation a passage that wasn’t present in the 1968 Polish original.)

Louis Valentino Jr. Park, Red Hook

Louis Valentino Jr. Park, Red Hook, Brooklyn, drawing by Caleb Crain

“Patience and Fortitude”

I’m going to be talking with Nation journalist Scott Sherman about his new book Patience and Fortitude, which tells the story of the past couple of years’ struggle over the New York Public Library.

The discussion will take place at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (between 81st and 82nd streets), New York City at 7pm on Tuesday, June 23. Please join us!

The Disenchantment of literature in the age of the algorithm

Counter Culture, photographed by Ipod Touch

I’ve got an essay in the July 2015 issue of Harper’s, titled “Counter Culture: Fighting for Literature in an Age of Algorithms.” It seemed appropriate to offer as a preview a photo of the essay taken on my Ipod Touch.


Winesap (drawing by Caleb Crain)

Pencil sharpener

Pencil sharpener (drawing by Caleb Crain)

A new short story

“The Usual Labyrinth,” a new short story of mine, is published in the spring/summer 2015 issue of the journal Subtropics.

Update, 3 June: You can buy a digital copy of this issue for $6.99.

Folding chair

Folding chair (drawing by Caleb Crain)

Amsterdam canal house


A drawing of an Amsterdam canal house.