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The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves (2010)
by Andrew Potter
296 pages
McClelland & Stewart

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It’s probably a bad sign when you’re halfway through reading a book, especially a non-fiction book, and you realize that you don’t have any idea of what the book is really about, in which direction the author is going, or what the body of the text has to do with the subject referred to in the title and opening segment.

Andrew Potter co-authored a book a few years ago called The Rebel Sell, which, for all its drawbacks, made a good point about how the ‘anti-mainstream’ counter-culture, in its veiled and overt demands to buy certain products, appear a certain way, and live a certain lifestyle, was actually the driving force behind consumer culture, and perpetuating many of the things it snobbishly pretended to rebel against.

This particular book is much less clear in its position, and the problem begins with failing to really define what it is about. Though Potter says he’s taking aim at all concepts of authenticity, he quickly glosses over the quest to cure some of the alienation modern people tend to feel with regards to friends and family, their work, or their society. His only comment on these ills consists mainly of ‘they’re paying you, so get over it’.

You’re really not going to stun anybody basing a book on the not-exactly-shocking statements that ‘authentic jeans’ are still designed by someone, that an ‘authentic ethnic restaurant’ might be more marketing than actuality, and that touring the cultural artifacts of a former dictatorship isn’t the same as living under one.  But in this book Potter does mostly take aim at what a very small portion of society is looking for in their quest for authenticity – the urban, white, wealthy, over-educated, wasp-y post-moderns with whom the author apparently spends most of his time. If you have any kind of broader experience of what society consists of, you’ll have trouble when he generalizes about what ‘everybody’ is doing these days.

It’s a really scattered, unfocused, poorly argued book, and the fact that the acknowledgments at the end credit several editors for doing a lot of work to make it sound better, and that Potter admits it took far too long to complete, it all just reinforces the impression of undercooked thoughts. Chapters which detail the recent US presidential race, or that consist of highlights of the author’s Eastern European vacation, seem to be just be re-purposed content the author had on hand, rather than tying into the core argument in any strong way.

Put simply, many of the conclusions Potter jumps to are unsupported by the material he presents. Survivalist extremism leads directly into apocalyptic fiction, as if everyone who goes to see an adventure movie wishes for those things to happen to them.  Potter tries to make a seldom-heard argument about the suburbs being a triumph of liberal markets instead of a blight, but no statistics are presented about things that might illuminate the discussion,  like cost of infrastructure, crime rates, or people’s satisfaction.  And I’m pretty sure nobody at the mall is thinking about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so if you’re going to spend a lot of time on him as central to modern society’s ideas, it’s going to need to be tied in a little better. As an example of the poor reasoning, “In short, the desire for authenticity is the cause of virtually all the major problems with our politics today.” (pg.175) Really? The problem with all of politics? I mean, the more you read and repeat that, the more pulled-out-of-your-ass it sounds.

In the end, Potter’s main viewpoint takes on the incredible hubris and delusion of saying current liberal democracy, with its free-market capitalism, is basically the end of history, and once the rest of the world is absorbed into it, no other political structures will ever threaten it, nor will there be any other kind of life to strive for. He also asserts, without even entertaining any arguments to the contrary, that life is meaningless and nothing can be learned from the world, and someone who thinks differently is a terrorist-in-waiting.

Obviously, I found this a very disappointing read, not only because its conclusions, weak as they are, are completely ludicrous, but because it’s so poorly organized and presented.  I still didn’t find any answer to what I think most people are talking about when they look for authenticity. The alienation from family and friends, work, or society at large, has a real human cost, in terms of psychological distress, substance abuse, violence, and decreased productivity and efficiency. It’s simply not true to say “In the end, authenticity is a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it” (pg.267) unless you’re using a definition of authenticity that is far outside what the general use of the word is. A more authentic relationship to oneself, close relations, and the world at large, precludes no one else from the same. Just because there’s no easy answer to questions about authenticity does not mean it doesn’t exist at all. To say that people should continue living in modes in which they are experiencing psychological, spiritual, or even physical distress because there are no perfect solutions and these people have more material comforts than ever, is not only unsupported by this book’s flimsy arguments but borders on the sociopathic.

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Darwinia (1998)
by Robert Charles Wilson
320 pages
Orb Books

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It’s the start of the twentieth century, the age of large ocean-crossing ships and the telegraph, when an event occurs that shakes everyone’s understanding of reality, and radically transforms the course of history from the path it followed in our world.  Overnight a light is seen in the sky, communication is cut off from Europe, and then when people finally investigate in-person, they find that all of Europe has been replaced with an untouched wilderness with bizarre alien plant and animal life, and the land following only the general lines of what had existed before.

So far we have an excellent adventure story, as the main protagonist is a child when this happens, and in his twenties is part of an expedition that tries to explore and document the interior of the new Europe for the first time. Exiles and adventurers have tried to reclaim parts of the wilderness, either for their vanished nations or their own self-interest, and so the expedition has to deal with social and political hurdles as well as the bizarre new lifeforms.  The informal name for this transformed Europe becomes ‘Darwinia’, a mocking reference, since events have obviously invalidated the slow-and-steady evolution theories of Darwin.

This had the potential to be an engaging novel full of adventure and mysteries, but unfortunately, about a third of the way through, there are several pages of flat exposition in which the author clues you in on what is really going on, and the twist in the plot is both unnecessary and extremely damaging to the drama of the story.  From this point forward, nothing that happens really matters, and things start to get more bizarre, but it doesn’t mean anything to the reader because we’re in a world without rules.  If Wilson was trying to make some kind of sense with what is going on with plot twist, he fell well short.

Without giving too much away, the story falls into a similar trap as many stories set in dreams or computer simulations–because anything can happen, to the reader it doesn’t matter what happens. If an author creates a world like Middle Earth, and lets the reader know of the rules and limitations, then it can be a stage for effective drama, even if it’s a very different kind than takes place in our world.  However, in a story like Tad Williams’s Otherland, which was mostly set in a computer gone mad, it’s as possible for all the characters to be killed off in a page, as for them to pull something out of a pocket and be victorious, or for the narrative to go on for another thousand pages.

This novel won an Aurora award in 1999.

The full cover art by Jim Burns, the best part of the book.

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The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (1990)
written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith, illustrated by Dean Motter
DC Comics
208 pages

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After watching the dire AMC-TV remake (or re-imagining, or brutalizing, or whatever) of the classic late-60s British television series The Prisoner, I learned about this comic, which was originally published in four volumes, and picks up the story of the original series twenty years later.  The two Canadian writers apparently had the input and approval of creator and lead actor Patrick McGoohan, though I’m not sure if their contribution is considered canon.

Number Six, twenty years later

The story is mostly involved with the lives of various contemporary spies and intelligence workers in London, England, and only about a third of it takes place in The Village, now abandoned and almost devoid of inhabitants.  This becomes one of the weaknesses of the story, as the scenes in the everyday world are quite mundane and differ little from a thousand other mediocre spy stories.  The hero of the original series, Number Six, does make an appearance, as does one of his Number Two antagonists, but the main characters are younger agents newly created by the authors.

The ultimate meaning of the original series, regarded by many critics as one of the high points of artistic achievement in television, is hotly debated.  The audience appeal of the episodes ranged from the fairly standard cat-and-mouse game of a secret agent trying to outwit his antagonist, to the final episode that took a severe turn into surrealism, breaking down the narrative structure of the series, and an ending that was somehow both heavy-handed and impenetrably ambiguous all at once.  But, for me, the overarching theme of the work was the struggle of the individual against totalitarian structures, and the maintenence of internal integrity in the face of whatever one may be subjected to. Man against mass society.

Simpsons episode The Computer Wore Menace Shoes, in which we learn Number Six was made to disappear after inventing the bottomless peanut bag.

Unfortunately, none of this is really brought up in this comic book, which deals with more mundane events and concerns, as well as providing an ending that seems rushed. The strongest connection to the spirit of the series is the quoting of some of the phrases that were used in The Village, but it never feels like the authors have a full grasp of the material.  As for the artwork, it’s decent, though sometimes a bit too dark and murky.

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