Pluralistic: 08 Dec 2021

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A vast library.

All the books I reviewed in 2021 (permalink)

This is more-or-less my last blogging day of 2021 (I may sneak a post or two in before the New Year, but I might not), so it's time for my annual roundup of my book reviews from the year gone by. I've sorted this year's books by genre (sf/f, other novels, graphic novels, YA, nonfic) and summarized the reviews with links to the full review. Here's last year's installment:

As ever, casting my eye over the year's reading fills me with delight (at how much I enjoyed these books) and shame (at all the excellent books I was sent or recommended that I did not get a chance to read). 2021 was a hard year for all of us and I'm no exception. I ended up whiffing on so many astonishingly great and highly desirable books this year and I feel awful about it, to be honest.

I know what it's like to launch a book in a pandemic (I had four books out in 2020, ugh), and I so want to get those writers' and publishers' books into your hands. I might actually start an aspirational "books I wish I was reading" monthly or quarterly list for 2022.

On the subject of book publishing a pandemic: last year saw the publication of the paperback of my novel Attack Surface, the third Little Brother book:

There's still signed stock at Dark Delicacies, and depending on the postal service, it's possible that if you order one (or the other signed books of mine they have on hand) that you'll get it in time for the Christmas break.

And speaking of 2022, I'll be publishing the first of seven planned books for 2022/3/4 in September: "Culture Heist: The Rise of Chokepoint Capitalism and How Workers Can Defeat It," comes out from Beacon Press in September. It's a book on monopoly and creative labor exploitation that I co-wrote with Rebecca Giblin and it's excellent.

Now, onto the reviews!

  • Science fiction/fantasy novels

The cover of Situation Normal

I. Situation Normal, by Leonard Richardson

Technically, I reviewed this in 2020, but it came out after last year's roundup. Richardson's second novel is a droll, weird, fast-moving space-opera with a gigantic cast, myriad subplots, and fascinating premises – a novel so brilliantly conceived that it runs like precision clockwork.

The cover of Rabbits

II. Rabbits, by Terry Miles

Miles' debut novel is a taut, conspiratorial thriller with overtones of PK Dick by way of Qanon and Dark City, a supernatural tale that illuminates the thrill and terror of ARG-like groups.

The cover of The City We Became

III. The City We Became, by NK Jemisin

A magic realist novel of New York City that is both a fantastic contemporary fantasy novel and a scorching commentary on the infantile nature of the racist dogma of HP Lovecraft and his ilk.

The cover of When the Sparrow Falls

IV. When the Sparrow Falls, by Neil Sharpson

A tense dystopian thriller about the unraveling of a paranoid hermit kingdom established as a final redoubt against humanity's ascent to the cloud. Sharpson's debut is a claustrophobic nightmare of transhuman refusal and authoritarianism.

The cover of King Bullet

V. King Bullet, by Richard Kadrey

The final Sandman Slim novel was more than a decade in the making, and it is a triumphant capstone to a supernatural noir series that transcended the tropes of both noir and the supernatural with a tale of personal transformation, redemption, revenge and sacrifice.

The cover of Hench

VI. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

This debut novel is fantastic, funny, furious and fucking amazing. It is a profound and moving story about justice wrapped up in a gag about superheroes, sneaky and sharp.

The cover of The Every

VII. The Every, by Dave Eggers

The sequel to Eggers' 2013 techno-dystopian satire "The Circle," and it's a deeply discomfiting, darkly hilarious, keen-edged tale of paternalism and its discontents.

  • Novels (not sf/f)

The cover of Scholars of the Night

I. Scholars of the Night, by John M Ford

The first in a long-awaited, storied and fraught reissues of the works of the brilliant and versatile Mike Ford – a cold war thriller without peer.

The cover of This Thing Between Us

II. This Thing Between Us, by Gus Moreno

Gus Moreno's debut novel, "This Thing Between Us," is a genuinely creepy supernatural horror novel, a book that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and prompted me to turn on the nightlight at bedtime.

The cover of LaserWriter II

III. LaserWriter II, by Tamara Shopson

"LaserWriter II" is Tamara Shopsin's fictionalized history of Tekserve, NYC's legendary Apple computer repair store. It's a vivid, loving, heartfelt portrait of an heroic moment in the history of personal computing: a moment when computers transformed lives and captured the hearts of people in every field of endeavor.

  • Graphic Novels

The cover of Streamliner

I. Streamliner, by Fane

STREAMLINER is the story of a secret outlaw jalopy hotrod race that plays out with so much fucking noir it's practically vantablack, in a way that makes it clear why STREAMLINER and its creator Fane are great heroes of the French comics scene.

The cover of Cyclopedia Exotica

II. Cyclopedia Exotica, by Aminder Dhaliwal

An alternate world in which another race of hominids – cylcopes with one eye and one breast – have existed alongside us "two-eyes." Their relations are presented as a series of lighthearted gags, many of which made my literally cry with laughter. It's an incredibly, admirably sneaky way to tell a profound story about race and gender and class.

The cover of Bubble

III. Bubble, by Jordan Morris et al

Bubble is a comedy/sf podcast about a distant outpost on a hostile planet where human colonists live under armored domes that keep out the hostile, overpowered critters that live on the surface. It's a wildly improbable artifact – a graphic novel adaptation of that turns podcasting into a visual medium.

  • Books for young adults

The cover of Permanent Record

I. Permanent Record, the Young Readers Adaptation, by Edward Snowden

Snowden's sprightly prose, his deep technical knowledge, his superb knack for explaining complex matters, his ability to articulate principled action all come together in a book that is, if anything, better than the adult version. Books for teens cast a long shadow. They can alter the course of a person's life. I was permanently affected by the books I read as an adolescent.

The cover of Halloween Moon

II. The Halloween Moon, by Joseph Fink

In "The Halloween Moon," Welcome to Nightvale co-creator Joseph Fink brings his superb, unmatchable gift for balancing the weird and the real to a spooky middle-grades novel that echoes such classics as Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

The cover of Victories Greater Than Death

III. Victories Greater Than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders

Anders' debut YA novel is superb – an exciting, engrossing book that captures everything great about young adult tropes while deftly subverting the problems those tropes present, without ever losing sight of the reason we love YA and space-opera: majesty and sweep, good and evil, bravery and sacrifice, treachery and danger.

  • Nonfiction

The cover of The Data Detective

I. The Data Detective, by Tim Harford

This should really have been entitled HOW TO TRUTH WITH STATISTICS – it goes beyond debunking bad stats and instead shows how stats can be part of how we discover truth. It presents a 10-part method for avoiding statistical pitfalls and doing good statistical analysis.

The cover of Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air

II. Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air, by Sarah Bridle

Bridle's clear, nonthreatening, technical language, brilliant data visualizations, and examples grounded in our daily experience make this a powerful read. It comes to a devastating conclusion: our species' survival depends on eating more plants, with more centrally (and efficiently) prepared meals.

The cover of Competition is Killing Us

III. Competition is Killing Us, by Michelle Meagher

Both an account of how Meagher rebuilt her understanding of markets, law and economics, and a smartly argued, fast-moving history of the neutering of monopoly law, a plot hatched and executed by the Chicago School of neoliberal economists. The Chicago School put competition enforcement in chains. Meagher's book shatters them. It's proof that this world is neither inevitable nor immutable, but rather, something that we can and must transform.

The cover of Monopolized

IV. Monopolized, by David Dayen

Dayen weaves explainers and personal stories together, unpicking snarled knots of bullshit and laying them straight to reveal them for the turds they are; then showing how we're personally drowning in crap. From pharma to aviation, airlines to newspapers, Big Tech to Big Funeral, Dayen connects the scams that picks our pockets, robs us of dignity and life chances, and laugh in our faces.

The cover of Broad Band

V. Broad Band, by Claire L Evans

More than a celebration of the hidden woman heroes of the computing revolution – also an epitaph for all the people whose talent, aptitude, dreams and contributions were squandered by a system based on mass exclusion. It's proof that the differences between fields are socially – not biologically -determined.

The cover of Prisoners' Inventions

VI. Prisoners' Inventions, by Angelo

A for-real version of those neo-neolithic Youtubers who show how to bootstrap advanced tooling from raw materials; a physical version of the beloved first-person accounts of daring feats recounted in the pages of 2600 Magazine. This is true adversarial interoperability – treating the environment as a puzzle and a challenge, to be deconstructed and reconfigured, overcoming user-hostile designs and armed enforcers.

The cover of Jackpot

VII. Jackpot, by Michael Mechanic

A pitiless – but empathic – look at the lives of the (mostly) American super-rich: the transactional relationships, the paranoia and fear, the greed, the lavish goods, the rootless pingponging from one home to another, the feuding, ruined offspring, the constant preoccuptation with accumulation… It's ghastly. Legitimately horrible.

The cover of Mutual Aid

VIII. Mutual Aid, by Peter Kropotkin, David Graeber, and others

Painstaking researched and beautifully argued, MUTUAL AID reveals the scientific fraud of "social Darwinism," and its claims that hierarchy and exploitation are evolutionary inevitabilities baked into our very nature. This is a gorgeous illustrated edition with a new introduction by David Graeber.

The cover of Savage Love A-Z

IX. Savage Love A-Z, by Dan Savage

Come for graphic sexual content, stay for thoughtful and well-thought-through philosophy. Savage's latest is an illustrated, alphabetical tour through the concepts and tropes of his decades-long corpus of sexual wisdom, humor and learning.

The cover page of the Broken Promises report.

Broken Promises (permalink)

40 years ago, the Reagan administration decided that monopolies were good, actually. Rather than preventing the kinds of mega-mergers that increased corporate power (over workers, regulators, customers and competitors), Reagan decreed that monopolies were "efficient" and should be left alone.

40 years later, every one of our industries has consolidated and consolidated and consolidated, dwindling to a handful of companies that dominate sectors from tech to law to pro wrestling to beer. These companies now rule the roost, to the great detriment of the customers who patronize them, and the workers who produce their products and services.

Media was the canary in monopoly's coalmine. The media baron is an archetypal Ur-monopolist, along with the coal baron, the oil baron, the railroad baron. Media companies understand that eliminating competition and owning the whole supply chain lets them shape the narrative, underpay creators, charge audiences more, and bring politicians to heel.

Media consolidation has only accelerated since Reagan's time, but the 2010s were a bonanza for monopoly formation. Both Obama and Trump presided over five "megamergers" that resulted in companies on a scale never seen, in America or the world.

The Writers Guild of America West's "Broken Promises" report analyzes these five megamergers and the promises that the execs who presided over them made about the preservation of competition, choice and fair business practices.

The five mergers are: Comcast and NBCUniversal; AT&T and DirecTV; AT&T and Time Warner; Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House; and Disney and Fox. The case-studies are more like postmortems, as the researchers find – again and again – that the mergers resulted in worse working conditions, worse services, and higher prices.

For example: Comcast-Universal downranked rival news channels and reduced speeds and raised prices on broadband. AT&T-Directv raised prices and offered bundles no one wanted. AT&T-Time Warner raised prices and laid off workers and nuked its competitors channels. Charter-Bright House raised prices and broke its promises to expand broadband. Disney-Fox pulled its films from rep theaters, killed Fox's competing animation department and pulled Disney content from rivals like Netflix, and then embarked on waves of layoffs.

As the Guild points out, post-Reagan antitrust only has one bright line for enforcement: monopolies must not raise prices or lower quality. Yet all of these monopolists raised prices, lowered quality, or both. Reaganite antitrust is a failure even by its own lights: the "efficient" monopoly that benefits the public is nowhere to be seen.

The Guild calls for a return to the pre-Reagan antitrust standard, with limits on vertical and horizontal mergers, lower barriers for antitrust action and merger reviews (including retrospective reviews). They also call for merger review to explicitly consider the impact on workers, a general prohibition on abusive dominance, and a beefed up FTC and DoJ antitrust budget.

A vintage rec-room with hobby equipment. Its floor is animated gold glitter. Posed within it is a male human figure whose head has been replaced with a money-bag.

How elite hobbies let billionaires pay no tax (permalink)

When you hear that a billionaire has bought a horse or a newspaper or a sports team, you might think it's just dilletantish dabbling by a member of the parasite class with nothing better to do with their time – a way to make the idle rich slightly more vigorous.

But as Propublica documents in the latest installment of its IRS Leaks reporting – drawing on never-seen tax filings of the ultra-rich – hobbies are a way to pile up gigantic tax write-offs that can be applied to passive income (money you earn for doing nothing). What's more, though there are limits to the way that hobby-related expenses can be deducted from your tax-bill, the super-rich routinely flout those limits and the underfunded IRS lets them get away with it.

If anyone is going to get dinged for aggressively taking deductions from their leisure activities, it'll be a middle-class person who can't afford the kind of high-powered consultants, lawyers and accountants that can tie the IRS up in expensive knots it can't afford.

The tax code is stacked in favor of elite hobbies. Most of the time, a hobby has to turn a profit in 3 out of 5 years to count as a business and supply deductions. But if your hobby is horse-racing, you only have to turn a profit in 2 out of 7 years.

But the wealthy flout even this modest stricture: tobacco billionaire Brad Kelley and Cambell's Soup billionaire Charlotte Weber both took millions of dollars in horse-losses for 16 or more consecutive years without an IRS investigation.

No surprise, really: the nine criteria the IRS uses to sort side-hustles from hobbies are subjective and easy to argue against. How can the IRS prove that you're not experiencing undue "personal pleasure or recreation" from your hobby? Even the more objective criteria, like "the expertise of the taxpayer or his or her advisers" can be bought for (billionaire) chump-change. In the case of the horsey set, there's a whole industry of consultants, breeders, etc who will provide cover to satisfy that test.

Technically, you have to spend at least ten hours a week on a hobby for it to constitute a business. Theoretically, the largest number of hobbies a billionaire can claim business losses against is four or five – not more than six or seven. But by grouping multiple hobbies together under a single "holding company," the super-rich can duck even this hard limit.

Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong is America's 89th richest person. He has a "cancer moonshot" business, he buys newspapers like the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune, he says he's making a covid vaccine. He has a health care infomatics company, a car battery company, a bioplastics company. He's got a water purification company, a production soundstage, and an electric scooter company.

Many of these businesses lose money. Soon-Shiong claims he's personally spending at least 10 hours a week on each of them, which lets him take personal tax deductions on their losses. All told, that's added up to $887m in deductions he's taken against his major source of income – capital gains from his existing wealth. He's got another $400m off losses saved up he can write off against any future gains, too.

If you or I invest in a portfolio of high-risk businesses, our deductions are capped at $3k/year. You have to be a billionaire like Soon-Shiong to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in deductions for essentially the same activity.

Propublica's reporting – by Paul Kiel, Jesse Eisinger and Jeff Ernsthausen – identifies plenty of other super-rich hobbyists who mostly or entirely escape tax through their hobbies.

  • Tobacco billionaire Brad Kelley: $189m in writeoffs for his horses

  • Soup heiress Charlotte Weber: $173m in writeoffs for her horses

  • Hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman: $138m in writeoffs for his horses

  • Reebok founder Paul Fireman: $9.3m in writeoffs for his horses, $22m in writeoffs for a "ranch" (Fireman made $360m from 2008-17, and paid $0 in federal tax)

  • Beanie Babies founder Ty Warner: $219m in writeoffs for money-losing prestige resorts (Warner made $363m from 2004-16 and paid $0 in federal tax)

  • Uniphase billionaire Kevin Kalkhoven: $264m in writeoffs for money-losing racecars, planes and an auto-parts company (Warner made $264m from 2005-2018 and paid $422k in federal tax)

I'm a science fiction writer. I earn a good living from writing about weird stuff, and I take some weird deductions, because the kind of research I do for each book is often strange, and sometimes I have to talk about that at length with my accountant to make sure I'm on the right side of the law. But never, in my wildest dreams, have I contemplated the kind of aggressive – even fraudulent – claims these ultra-wealthy people routinely use.

After all, the IRS does have the resources to drag people like you and me into tax-audit hell. When everyday hobbyists who overclaim on their taxes get taken to court by the IRS, the taxman usually wins. The parts of the tax-code that deal with hobbies, and the enforcement mechanisms for them, are tailor-made for billionaire tax-evasion – not for a fair deal for everyday people with a side-gig.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Yellow Kid Weil: Autobiography of the greatest con man in American history

#10yrsago Money is the dark matter of American elections: visualizing political donations since Citizens United

#10yrsago ESP proponents claim that ESP skeptics are psychic, and use their powers to suppress ESP

#10yrsago First-hand account of Occupy LA arrest

#5yrsago Everything is a Remix, including Star Wars, and that’s how I became a writer

#5yrsago In Africa, British spies target allied leaders, executives, and telcoms engineers

#5yrsago William Gibson on individual privacy, governmental secrecy and the future of history

#1yrago Uber pays to get rid of its self-driving cars

#1yrago All the books I reviewed in 2020

#1yrago Ford patents plutocratic lane-changes

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 510 words (46678 words total).

  • A short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about DIyY insulin PLANNING

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. SECOND DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Jam To-Day (
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Culture Heist: The Rise of Chokepoint Capitalism and How Workers Can Defeat It, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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