Staff Picks: Ghost-Forsaken Plains, Apocalyptic Libertarians


This Week’s Reading


An illustration by Darrel Rees

I know it’s jumping the gun, since the book doesn’t come out till April, but I’ve been enjoying Devin Johnston’s new poetry collection Far-Fetched. His imagery is often unexpected—“Her kiss? Sweet, / and hard enough / to crack your teeth”—or else so familiar and right that its perfection is surprising, as when he observes the fixed interval between a father’s age and his son’s, comparing that even space to “two ruts [that] incise this ghost-forsaken plain / and keep their track width, never to part or meet.” His playfulness is refreshing and smart—“One finds escape through Stephen King, / as through a window left ajar”—and I’m more than occasionally in awe of his linguistic pairings, especially the lines “Clouds purl / in a conch whorl.” —Nicole Rudick

The new issue of Harper’s has a terrifying dispatch from Sam Frank, who has dared to insinuate himself into a community of “apocalyptic libertarians” in Silicon Valley. These are people who conduct polyphasic-sleep experiments, who dream of a program that can simulate “eons of moral progress” to extrapolate “a complete human goal structure.” They’re all fixated on the idea that an artificial superintelligence will, in the next century, attempt to eradicate humanity. And they revere a kind of functionalism that treats our brains as mere processors. One of them, the pluperfectly named Blake Masters, lives by the motto, “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” They are, in short, so cold and clinical that Ayn Rand looks like Oprah in comparison, and Frank captures them in moments of paranoia, hubris, and misogyny. Their rationalism isn’t contagious, but the underlying dread certainly is. By the time I finished reading, I felt that humankind was totally fucked. —Dan Piepenbring

“True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.” So begins S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, published in Hebrew in 1949, in the aftermath of the 1948 War and the Palestinian nakba. It is the story of a company of Jewish soldiers tasked with clearing a Palestinian village, called Khirbet Khizeh, in the closing months of the conflict. It is a war novel that refuses all the pieties of that genre and develops into an anguished—and unresolved—meditation on Jewish history and the meaning of exile. Almost every episode screams out its relevance for today. —Robyn Creswell

That same Harper’s piece introduced me to Darrel Rees, whose willfully tacky, nineties-style graphics collages add a whole dimension of smart anxiety to the essay. You can see more of his illustration work here—his is an aesthetic that feels fantastically out of sync with the crisp, clean, pure designs you see in so many magazines today. —DP