Review: After the Apocalypse

After the Apocalypse, Andrew Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021.

Summary: An argument that 2020 represented the final unraveling of the United States’ post-Cold War superpower status and that U.S. policy must change, reflecting its changed status in the world and changing priorities at home.

If ever a year might be considered apocalyptic, 2020 is one for the books. We have witnessed a global pandemic that has taken millions of lives globally and over 700,000 U.S. lives and counting. Extreme weather events resulted in drought, flooding, extended fire seasons, extreme storms, and coastal inundations. Police involved shootings inflamed racial tensions. A bitterly fought election resulted in a denial of certified results and a nearly successful effort to prevent the constitutional certification of those results by those who denied them. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to project power in Iraq and Afghanistan, born of 9/11 failed while China’s power is in the ascendant.

Andrew Bacevich, witnessing these events, and having witnessed the new, post-Cold War order America tried to sustain as the world’s only superpower fail, argues that the U.S. must awaken to its changed place in the world and must change its policies accordingly. He contends that, while paying respect to Reinhold Niebuhr, the U.S. has in fact followed a policy of arrogant hubris instead of the one of “self-awareness, humility, and prudence…of realism combined with moral responsibility” (p. 29). The Cold War alliances of the West, particularly NATO exist mostly in name only. America, apart from token presences, has fought its wars alone.

Bacevich takes the bold step of touching the “third rail” of American policy and argues for no “special relationships”–not with Great Britain and not with Israel. He argues not for cutting ties, but for normalizing them, treating them as we do other countries with whom we do business. He argues that if anything, our relationships with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, ought to take precedence. He also argues that our changing climate poses threats to our security, and possibly our health, as diseases may find new vectors for global spread. COVID may just be our wake up call.

He also argues, as others have in different contexts, for the importance of addressing our racial history. He implicates racism in the ways we have fought our wars, depending heavily on black soldiers, and in our ventures in Iraq, on the good soldier, Colin Powell, to make the case for war. It was sobering to read this as news came of Powell’s passing, and how this one episode tarnished an otherwise distinguished career culminating in our first Black serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.

Bacevich argues for a policy of sustainable self-sufficiency in global affairs. He believes this means to withdraw from NATO, allowing the European Community to determine its own future. He likewise advocates withdrawal from the Greater Middle East and that terrorism should revert to be treated as a criminal matter. The once exception he makes is in East Asia. He argues that the rise in China’s power, reflected in military power argues for a continued presence. In fact, it may argue for the concentration of our diffused forces, while doing all to pursue peaceful co-existence. He also argues for an enhanced focus on a new North American Security Zone (NASZ) focusing on addressing the challenges and security of our own continent.

Years ago, Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that the fall of the great powers came from the projection of their power in the world that bankrupted them and inevitably involved overreach. Bacevich seems to make a similar argument here, contending that the U.S. already has seen the collapse of its efforts to project itself as a global superpower and must refocus on what it is still capable of in addressing the challenges, international, domestic, and natural, on its own doorstep. In 2020, we at least glimpsed the apocalypse. It could get worse! His call for sustainable self-sufficiency in our own policies and in our relations with the world reflects Niebuhr’s humility and realism. It acknowledges that U.S. cannot do what other nations must do for themselves. It is not isolationist, because it recognizes shared interests with other countries in matters like trade, climate, and world health and that we may need a more tightly focused exercise of our military forces.

Where I have questions is in his proposal to withdraw from the Greater Middle East. Given its strategic location at the nexus of Europe, Asia, and Africa and its energy resources, is it reasonable to assume we may withdraw our presence and the nations of this area will be able to be sustainably self-sufficient? Instead, will there be a vacuum filled by others? While we must not repeat the folly of nation building, may our presence help preserve national sovereignty as does our presence in East Asia? Even if the U.S. and its North American neighbors maintain energy self-sufficiency (a priority I think), this region is vital in the global energy equation, and a disruption could destabilize global relations.

It seems that the policies chosen with regard to our near neighbors, our own racially diverse nation, and our natural environment could either meet or fail the test of moral responsibility. Given our history and current dispositions in all three areas, it seems to me that what Bacevich is proposing is a corporate revival of moral responsibility amid a history of declension. It will require courageous and resolute leadership that refuses the traditional nostrums about American greatness. I hope Bacevich is a praying man. What he prescribes is a tall order that it seems we have little inclination to pursue. I agree that needs to change. I’ll be praying with him.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Balcony of Fog

Balcony of Fog, Rick Shapero. Half Moon Bay, CA: TooFar Media, 2020.

Summary: In a post-nuclear world, a laborer and a fugitive from a vengeful lover inhabiting a thunderhead meet up, transform to cloud-beings and eventually engage in a climactic battle.

Arden is a toiler in a post-nuclear war of toilers and overlords. He builds and repairs sluices channeling the water from ever present storms. He dreams of more, sailing away on the Mariod, named after a woman who sacrificed herself for him. After a beating from an overlord, he slips away to his boat and encounters a woman who seems to descend out of the sky. Estra is escaping an angry thunderhead driven by her former lover Ingis.

Of course they instantly fall into love and into the sack. Then when their escape plan is frustrated, Estra leads Arden into a transformation allowing him to ascend to the clouds. Arden finds himself transformed into a cloudlike figure capable of riding the clouds. For a while, it seems an idyllic life of incredible beauty. They immerse each other in Vats, cleansing them of bad memories and traumas, Spindles that draw out their wishes, and a pond of which they write their most private thoughts, which are transformed into cranes. Then there is love, where they merge their “motes,” their whole being into each other.

Of course it can’t last. Ingishead driven by a jealous and powerful lover relentlessly pursues them. At one point, Ingishead abducts Estra, with Arden relentlessly pursuing and ultimately rescuing her back. But Arden knows that any victory is temporary until Ingishead is defeated. Even as Arden builds Ardenhead, consuming lesser clouds and learning to wield lightning, there is also an inner conflict. What is Ingis to Estra? Why did she become his lover in the first place? How much of her heart did he still hold?

On one level, the story is about the lead-up to a climactic battle. It is also a study of the corrupting effects of power, which we see at work on Ingis. But will power and jealousy win over love with Arden? Will he become another Ingis.

Meanwhile, the structures of power on earth continue. A vengeful strike at one point seems emotionally cathartic but systemically unsatisfying. The Vats, The Spindles, and the cranes are interesting devices for the emotional healing and self-healing these abused characters need, yet self-revelation carries its own dangers.

There is some interesting world-building and ideas about self-knowledge mixed with what seem to me adolescent fantasy and pettishness. I think a gifted writer could have created a story of greater subtlety. As it stands, it is just OK. I can’t help but wonder if the immersive component of this project, pairing an app with this book, led to writing that does not stand on its own but is driven by the companion technology. Whatever is the case, I’d pass on this one.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Adulthood Rites

Adulthood Rites (Exogenesis #2), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library, 1988. (Out of print. Link is to a different edition)

Summary: Lilith’s son Akin, a human “construct,” is kidnapped by resisters and raised in one of their settlements, and realizes his own unique and risky calling.

Akin was a male child born of Lilith, the main character of the first volume in this series. He is the first male “construct,” He is the fruit of a human-alien union–a human father and an Oankali mother and father, and a Ooloi, neither male nor female. Outwardly he looks human, except for his tongue, through which he senses the world, and can also kill. He is also unlike any human in language and intelligence. In months, he can speak like an adult. One day a refugee from a resister settlement, Tino shows up and is accepted into the community of Lo. Over time, Akin and Tino develop a special bond, the beginning of an unanticipated connection with the resisters, humans unwilling to bond with the Oankali, and therefore sterile.

One day, Akin and Tino are out when kidnappers seize Akin, leaving Tino for dead. After a harrowing journey, he ends up in Phoenix, a resister settlement hungry to acquire children if they cannot conceive their own. He becomes the child of Gabe and Taft, developing bonds with them even as he grieves the severed bonds with his own siblings in Lo, bonds he can never fully regain. Over time, he recognizes the contradiction of the drive to live, and the drive to kill in humans, and that they are a dying race on a dying planet, with or without the Oankali. He also grasps that there is another possibility, one only possible if he becomes an Akjai, a kind of go-between.

It is risky. Though rescued at last by Lilith and his family, he must give up Lo, embrace training with the Oankali, and then risk return to a Phoenix, even as he transitions to adulthood. And there is no guarantee they will accept the way to a new life he will propose, or even survive the attempt.

This is such an imaginative series. Butler continues to explore the implication of the “trade” the Oankali engage in with humans, and what human-alien progeny might be like. It also parses out the implications of the miscalculation that many humans would refuse the trade the Oankali offered. It strikes me that this is analogous to the blindness of earthly colonizers who cannot grasp why native peoples would refuse the “blessings” of civilization, even when this meant inevitable extinction. But Butler also sees another side to this, that humans faced with the struggle to survive will resort to suspicion and violence and killing, even at the continual diminishment of their numbers.

Can this dying race in a post-nuclear world be saved? Will Akin’s desperate effort work, even with a remnant? And what of us–a people at each others’ throats when faced with a global pandemic, a rapidly warming climate, rising lawlessness and violence in many quarters, and the shadow of thermo-nuclear destruction under which I’ve lived since childhood? Why do we both love life and seem committed to self-destruction? What hope is there for us?