Recommended Reading: Cult Living, Podcast Binging, and Trump’s Teens

The sharpest, funniest, and most thoughtful writing of the week.

Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, we have thoughtful ruminations on contemporary sci-fi, podcasts, the GOP’s red-hatted youths, and ’70s communal living.   

Joyce Carol Oates on Ted Chiang.

Few things are as joyful to read as a great writer on a great writer, and that’s what the New Yorker offers up in Oates’s thoughtful review of Chiang’s new collection of science fiction stories – a sci-fi that, she notes, frees itself from the consuming, ubiquitous shackles of dystopia:

When Henry James remarked, in his preface to “The Portrait of a Lady,” that “the house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million,” he could not have anticipated the genre of fiction to which we have given the inexact term “science fiction.” Still less could he have anticipated the sort of literary-humanist science fiction associated with Ted Chiang, whose début collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others” (2002), garnered multiple awards in the science-fiction community, and contained the beautifully elegiac novella “Story of Your Life,” which reëxamined the phenomena of time and memory in terms of language. (The novella was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film “Arrival.”) Other stories in the collection reinterpreted the Biblical Tower of Babel, imagined an industrial era powered by Kabbalistic golems, and revisited the oldest of theological arguments regarding the nature of God. Like such eclectic predecessors as Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, and Kazuo Ishiguro, Chiang has explored conventional tropes of science fiction in highly unconventional ways.

In his new collection, “Exhalation” (Knopf), his second, Chiang again presents elaborate thought experiments in narrative modes that initially seem familiar. Contemporary issues relating to bioethics, virtual reality, free will and determinism, time travel, and the uses of robotic forms of A.I. are addressed in plain, forthright prose. If Chiang’s stories can strike us as riddles, concerned with asking rather than with answering difficult questions, there is little ambiguity about his language. When an entire story is metaphorical, focussed on a single surreal image, it’s helpful that individual sentences possess the windowpane transparency that George Orwell advocated as a prose ideal.

The Longform Editors on our podcast obsession.

The podcast medium has become so ever-present, notes this pointed editorial at Longform, that it’s like an Internet you don’t have to listen to, and “every corner of the internet has its corresponding podcast.” So why have they taken over so many of our lives? What do they offer us?

Listening to podcasts is a soothing kind of saturation, like ASMR, if you replaced the crinkly sounds and sensuous whispering with reedy-voiced dudes and cool girls with vocal fry. It’s hard to get riled up by a podcast, when the hosts are inarticulate and the episodes run over an hour. Done right, what the medium encourages is binge listening: each episode, a smooth little capsule, perfectly self-contained, can be popped one after another. The overall effect is pacification, a balm for burnout. As we fall asleep to podcasts and extend our time online into the first REM cycle, their murmuring voices drift into our dreams. There are words in our heads—thoughts, opinions—but for once, they’re not our own.

With your precious metal parasite humming happily in your hand, the only thing stopping you from listening to a podcast is you. Just plug in, pick the show, and play it: there’s no flipping through stations, no snatches of song or prayer, no scraps of news, and no chance you’ll settle on something without knowing what it is. There’s nothing intrusive, accidental, surprising—no static, no interference—and it’ll cut out all the other unwanted noise of life, too. An unbroken stream of sound, a stealth multitasking machine, the podcast has no natural predators. The only interruptions are the ads, but we don’t mind them. They’re for the same five free-delivery, life-in-a-box, order-from-your-phone services we stare at on the subway anyway.

Above all, podcasts make us feel less lonely. We tell ourselves offer codes in order to live. They simulate intimacy just enough to make us feel like we’re in a room with other people, or at least near the room... definitely in the same city as the room. But these people with podcasts are so much sharper than us, so at home in their corners of the world, with easy command of their respective bodies of pop-culture knowledge. The appropriate response is fandom. Coughing up $5 on Patreon feels like paying the cover at a dive for our local band, and we’re pleased to be part of something. Some podcasts even do live appearances, for which we might buy tickets. Listening to our heroes’ once intimate voices on a booming sound system, though, surrounded by a thousand fanboys, feels like a betrayal. We thought we had something special, with their voices so close to our ears. Podcasts were the first medium designed to be listened to primarily on headphones, by a single person. Hell is other listeners.

Guinevere Turner on growing up in a cult.

In Mary Harron’s new film Charlie Says, screenwriter Turner (Go Fish, American Psycho) digs into the story of the Manson girls, and takes a ground-level approach to their daily lives as part of his Family, and how that existence led them to kill in his name. The authenticity of this portraiture isn’t just the result of deep research; Turner herself grew up in a similar commune in the 1970s, and writes more directly about the experience for the New Yorker:

To people who grew up in more ordinary circumstances, my childhood sounds exotic, scandalous, and fascinating. Cults are fascinating—but one thing the Manson Family and the Lyman Family have in common is the banality of daily life inside these worlds. If you live in a large group of people, there are always dishes to wash and heaps of laundry to hang up to dry. The travel plans for Venus took place against a backdrop of these everyday chores. As I like to say when I tell people about my background, “It wasn’t all acid and orgies.” (Acid was used by adults, as a tool for spiritual growth. To my knowledge, there were no orgies.) What I don’t always say is that I also had a happy childhood, or, anyway, parts of one. The young Family members sang together almost every day as we harvested strawberries or corn—Woody Guthrie songs, or folk songs like “Down in the Valley.” We foraged in the woods for morel mushrooms. Fishing was big, and every time an adult caught a bluefish or a bass I pasted one of the scales in my diary. We had dogs, goats, cows, chickens, a Shetland pony named Stardust, and a cockatiel named Charles. Older kids read younger kids stories before bed—“The Chronicles of Narnia,” “A Wrinkle in Time”—and we fell asleep in piles, three or four to a bed.

Even the mystical stuff had a mundane quality for those of us who didn’t know anything else. The Ouija board, for instance, was a regular part of our lives. Shelves were lined with notebooks containing transcriptions of the conversations adults had had with various spirits. We kids were allowed to talk to only one spirit, Faedra, and sometimes after dinner we’d gather around the board to summon her. The Ouija board was hand carved, the woodgrain beautifully polished, the pointer covered in purple velvet. Only the older kids were allowed to ask questions, and our eyes would be glued to the pointer as it slid over the smooth surface, gaining momentum, the low swish of felt on wood the only sound as we held our breath for answers. One night, one of the questions was “What does Guinevere need to learn?” The answer came back that I was a lazy little girl. After that, I cleaned every ashtray in the compound for weeks, ashamed but also secretly thrilled that Faedra even knew who I was.

It might make sense, then, that when I was told I had to leave the Family, in 1979, I begged to stay, tears streaming down my face. That night, August 25th, I wrote in my diary, “I am totally stunned and heartbroken. I am speechless. . . . I can’t live away from everything I love. I can’t sleep tonight, nothing. . . . But I swear to god I am coming back and I will be the same person. I will fight the world and get back where I belong.” Even now, it’s hard for me to write about the Lyman Family. It’s been four decades since I begged to stay, and I still care what they think.

Alex Pareene on the teenage boy appeal of the modern GOP. 

The President of the United States may be “a perfectly apt representative of his class and generation,” but he also operates with the ethos and responsibility of the kind of upper-class white teenagers that have become the youngest corner of his base. At The Baffler, Pareene analyzes the various figures and groups that have manifested that mentality:

A few days of Fox News will show you just how much energy is devoted to making retirees resent their grandchildren. Some of the richest people a society has ever produced have convinced a generation that, as a whole, did better than any prior generation in American history to let the world burn and the seas rise, and if today’s campus snowflakes drown in either student debt or actual ocean water, it will be their own fault for lacking the work ethic and moral certitude of their elders.

You can see why this has created a “youth problem” for the Republican Party. Their donors have mostly addressed this by funneling millions of dollars to witless grifters like Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, whose strategy is to have each college’s most unpleasant students attempt to troll their peers into joining the right.

But Trumpism took the racial resentment that was always the only successful recruiting strategy of the College Republicans and fused it with the only lesson he ever internalized in his elite education: complete irresponsibility is gloriously liberating. What unites Trump’s older base and his small core of young white devotees is the delight they take in watching him get away with it.

Trumpism’s pitch to young white men is thus a stirringly amoral sort of syllogism: we can’t give you anything material, because we stole it all and are hoarding it, but we can create a world in which you can regularly act on your worst impulses and get away with it. Some city kids are coming to town; here’s a way to racially mock them that won’t get us in trouble.