Sunday Book Reviews – 4/28/19

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (John W. Parker & Son, 1859)

There are a few books which should be on the shelves of every person interested in political philosophy, and this is among them. On Liberty introduced a new breed of thought about personal liberties, distinguishing between a past where rights were considered as protective restrictions upon a supreme governmental authority from abusing their otherwise-absolute power and a future where rights are considered more as protections against the views of a majority.

It is a key piece of Liberal philosophy, in the classical sense. It argues for free thought, free speech and the freedom to perform actions that the majority views as improper and even immoral, provided no injury is done to others.

It makes this case alongside a full embrace of free market economics, which are held as an example of individual liberty – a person’s ability to determine individual economic actions for themselves.

Were it not for occasional dips into elitism, the book would stand perfectly as a founding argument for contemporary Libertarian-style parties throughout the world. Even with that flaw, it is an important document in the development of world political thought.

Emperor Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer (Herbert Jenkins, 1959)

The Fu Manchu novels have flaws. They are often challenged as being racist in their portrayal of both Manchu and his subordinates. The heroes are two-dimensional. The writing style is terse and occasionally simplistic. Chapter transitions can be jarring. All of these complaints are justified.

That said, the series has much to recommend it. The villain is portrayed as brilliant yet deeply honorable, and while the plots often drift into the range of the unbelievable (as is the case for most action/adventure series) Rohmer is expert as presenting them in a context that seems reasonable. The novels break with convention by utilizing a set of heroes who do not measure up to Manchu’s wit, but rather succeed through dogged perseverance and unshakable morality. The standards of “superman vs. superman” and “superman vs. everyman villain” which are typical of pulp and action stories (as well as modern mysteries and thrillers) are here inverted.

The later books in the series, such as Emperor Fu Manchu, show Rohmer at his best as a writer. No longer needing to meet the demands of the pulp magazines, he develops the plot and focuses less on the horrible deathtraps of poisonous plants and giant insects which were the staple of the early books, rather attempting to create a geopolitical espionage book within the bounds of the pulp-style thriller.

The main hero is not Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith but rather an American recruited for Smith’s organization. He engages in a spy mission deep into Chinese territory, only to discover that the criminal network of Manchu is in danger from Russian agents. The novel is designed as a balancing act between the absolute good of the American, the criminal Si-Fan group of Manchu, and the subjugating rapaciousness of the communist Soviet government.

It’s a cut above the standard pulp work of the time, and far better than most of the action/adventure series which flooded the market during the 1970s and 1980s.

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About AlienMotives 1062 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.