The Fall of Treus (Chapter Preview)

[Editor: The Busybody welcomes an old Peace Corps friend, Jeff Hinman, to share the first two chapters of his new science fiction novel. The novel is called The Fall of Treus, inspired by the fall of Troy which leads to the establishment of Rome. I’ve read about a third of the book so far, and am happy to promote it on my blog. Fans of the Romulus-Remus legends, Herbert’s Dune series, and even a dash of Asimov’s Foundation may enjoy this. Jeff currently resides in Germany, where he pastors a church. I’m looking very forward to the finished novel.]

 

                              The Fall of Treus

                                                     by Jeff Hinman

Chapter 1

Captain Rom Aneus stood on the deck of the HMS Keeper; his eyes turned toward the sky. Above him the night flashed in stuttering red, white and yellow explosions; occasionally arousing faint applause from the crew. The Captain watched while posing, feet spread and hands clasped behind his back, his eyes shielded from the sun-bright flashes by a pair of dark goggles. Beneath him he could feel the battle platform gently rolling in the heaving seas.

“They’re pouring it on tonight,” the Lieutenant assigned as the Captain’s assistant said with practiced nonchalance.

Aneus glanced at the Lieutenant. “They do every Queen’s Day.”

“Do you think they’ll ever get over it?”

“It’s been three-hundred and twenty-five years,” the Captain said. “So, no I don’t think they will.”

A series of enormous flashes rolled across the sky, turning the night into blinding day, accompanied by very faint thunder. Aneus smiled at The Show.

“Thank the gods for The Barrier,” the Lieutenant said quietly. “Do you think they’ll try something special tonight?”

Captain Aneus could hear a twinge of anxiety in his assistant’s voice. “Of course,” he replied.  “It’s an important anniversary.”

Another series of explosions lit up the sky. The Kreakians always bombed at night. Aneus assumed it was a psychological tactic on the part of the Kreakians. In the first decades of the bombing it succeeded in affecting the people of Treus who missed the stars and soothing quiet of the night. Depression and suicides increased during those first decades of the siege as fear coupled with the need for uninterrupted darkness affected the psyche of the Treusians. However, the people adapted. Though the possibility of annihilation always lurked in the back of every Treusian’s mind, after about fifty years of Kreakian futility the nightly bombing became part of life. After a few years, the bombing started to be referred to as “The Show”. Surgical implants were developed to shield eyes from the brilliant flashes as well as goggles and blackout shades. Most people had implants put in their children’s eyes at birth and some, such as Aneus, also wore protective goggles when directly observing The Show. Because The Barrier extended beyond the atmosphere of the planet, The Show was silent most of the time. Occasionally, a muffled sound of thunder would ripple through the air, but this was only during especially large displays of firepower.

“It must cost them millions for all those bombs and ships up there,” mused the Lieutenant.

Captain Aneus nodded. “I can’t imagine the cost. You’d think it would drain them after a while.”

“They are a big empire,” replied the Lieutenant.

“I wonder how big they are now?” Aneus said. “We have no idea anymore.”

“Big enough,” said the Lieutenant. He grinned and looked at Aneus, his eyes flashing from coal black to their natural brown each time a bomb lit up the sky. “Captain, why do you wear those goggles? There’s not been a case of blindness due to failed implants for decades now.”

Aneus watched the eyes of the Lieutenant instantaneously switch to full black as another series of bombs lit up the sky and then just as quickly switch back to their natural state. During those moments when the eyes would go black, the person he was looking at seemed to suddenly become something other than human. He found the affect unsettling. He wore the goggles to hide the fact he would often close his eyes during these moments when a person seemed to go from human to inhuman. Another staggered series of explosions took place. The Lieutenant’s eyes flickered between black and brown in rhythm with the explosions. Trying to suppress a shutter, Aneus turned his face back to the sky.

“I don’t want to be the first case of flash blindness in decades if something does go wrong,” Aneus said. “And I like the look of them.”

“I find them cumbersome,” the Lieutenant said. “My Grandmother wore them all the time even though she had implants.” He paused. “Not that I am comparing you to my Grandmother…sir.”

Aneus smiled thinly. “No offense taken.”

The light from the bombardment faded and full night finally descended upon the ship. A hush fell over the crew. Numerous fast-moving lights could be seen streaking across the night sky in formation. The Kreakian ships moved silently into a large circular pattern and assumed a geosynchronous orbit.

“Do you think they’re getting ready to head to the other side?” the first office asked.

The Captain shook his head. The formation was not something he had seen before. “We’re on the side with the capital city,” he said. “I think we might get our special treat pretty soon.”

As if on cue, sustained beams of light shot out from the ships and converged at the center of the circle, forming a spoked pattern. The central light grew in intensity then, as if drawn by a giant hand, seemed to pull back, straining the cords of light, and pause. Aneus found himself holding his breath as the thought of this finally being the moment when the Kreakians would successfully penetrate the Barrier went through his mind. Suddenly, the central light sprang forward out from the circle and hurtled toward Treus. It seemed to be falling directly toward Aneus’ ship, but in fact it was simply huge and every Treusian watching felt that the ball of light was falling directly on top of them wherever they were on the dark side of the planet.

With the flash of a hundred suns the night sky lit up. The brilliance seemed to spread over the top of the sky and down to the horizon like molten light being poured over the top of an upturned glass bowl. Aneus heard his assistant bark out a curse and unconsciously hold out his arms to steady himself. A thunderous boom could be felt in Aneus’ chest, louder by far than anything he had ever heard before. The brilliance lingered and grew for several seconds before finally beginning to dim. The sound of thunder faded and then all was quiet. The night sky reappeared and the formation of Kreakian ships could be seen sliding away into space. Captain Aneus was not sure, but it seemed that there were fewer ships than before.

After a few minutes the communications officer said in his earpiece, “Captain, we are receiving the King’s transmission.”

“Put it on speakers,” Aneus ordered.

The voice of King Numitor the Seventeenth resonated throughout HMS Keeper:

“My loyal friends and subjects – proud Treusians all! Once again, our friends, the Kreakians, have provided for us, on this three hundred and twenty-fifth Queen’s Day, a fine display of fireworks! We want to send our thanks to the Kreakian Empire for an especially rousing finish to this year’s celebrations. It was a finish which shall be talked about for at least a year until they come up with something which we are sure will be equally spectacular next year! We do note that it seems the Kreakians ended The Show with fewer ships than they started with tonight and we hope that the cost of the fireworks was not too high!

As Treusians, on this day we celebrate the love of our Queen for our beloved King; a love which has inspired our people for three hundred and twenty-five years! In keeping with tradition, we extend to the Kreakian Empire the hand of peace as we honor the love of our Queen.

Also, we extend our thanks to the men and women who serve, ever vigilant, in the royal military, and we extend our thanks to the gods for giving us the Barrier and the protection which allows to remain, forever and always, free.

May the gods bless you all in the upcoming New Year! Good Night!

A sudden rousing “Good Night!” could be heard throughout the ship as all the crew, including the Captain, responded to the traditional salutation. Then cheering broke out.

“That last one had some thunder with it!” exclaimed the Lieutenant with a wide grin.

Captain Aneus nodded then clapped the first officer on the back, “You have the bridge. Good Night!”

The Lieutenant snapped to attention. “Good Night Captain!”

 

Chapter 2

Rem Aneus sat in his unadorned, white walled office, in downtown Massilia, reading through reports analyzing the weapon used by the Kreakians. Since Queen’s Day attack two weeks prior, Rem had only left his office three times to shower and change his clothes. Because of the limitations of being Treus-bound, information could only be gathered from telescopes, sub-orbital aircraft flying just beneath the Barrier, and listening to chatter and data transmitted intentionally and unintentionally from Kreakian vessels. Flying just under the Barrier was a mission reserved for the best pilots. While Treus possessed advanced drone technology, venturing beyond the Barrier due to miscalculation or malfunction could be a disaster.  Rem was amused as he read the description of the weapon’s discharge by the pilot closest to the detonation. In typical military understatement of an “impressively large” explosion and “mild concern” felt by the pilot, Rem could tell that the aviator felt that he was going to meet the gods that night.

Rem’s phone rang on his desk. Since the removal of satellites over three hundred years ago, some Treusian technology had to revert back to older designs. Telecommunication was one of those technologies.

Rem picked up the phone.

“We have a problem,” a curt voice spoke into Rem’s ear.

“Good night Leon,” Rem replied politely. “What would that be?”

“We can’t talk about it on the phone. We need you at the observation level. Now.”

Rem sighed. “Listen Leon, I know we’re concerned the Kreakian attack led to a planetwide reverberation, but all of the scientists believe that they still have a long way to go before penetration. An impossibly long…”

“That isn’t what this is about,” Leon interrupted. “Get down to the observation level.”

Rem frowned. Leon was an uptight and difficult boss, but he sounded genuinely shaken. He paused for a moment to quickly flip through the report in front of him. Was there something he missed? “I’m on my way.”

Leon hung up without a further word. Rem placed the receiver on its cradle and hunched over the report. What did he miss? As an analyst he was expected to pick up details from various reports, put the details together, and forward any important conclusions upstairs. He had poured over scientific reports, pilot reports, even a report from his twin brother’s ship HMS Keeper, but had found nothing alarming, other than the reverberation. The fact the Kreakian weapon had caused the sound of thunder to roll planetwide had concerned the King and those in government, but that had since been dismissed as unimportant. Dramatic yes, but ultimately without any substance. The Barrier was not weakened in any way, no radiation leaks were detected, and no other atmospheric disturbances were reported. One scientist described the thunder as the beating of a drum. The Barrier experienced a vibration at the weapon’s discharge, which resulted in the sound of thunder, but the vibration was not a sign of peril.

Rem reviewed the size of the explosion and the energy generated. Without The Barrier the explosion would have devastated the continent of Gnossis, where the majority of the population lived, and was the location of the Royal court and capital of Sanoa. Data from various observation sites indicated that the size of the explosion must have caught the Kreakians off guard because at least three ships were destroyed and several others damaged. That the Kreakians were willing to sacrifice the lives of their own service men and women just to launch the weapon, disturbed Rem.

With a groan Rem stood up from his chair and stretched. He could get lost for hours as he poured over reports, his mind racing as he linked together separate incidents or unconnected bits of information to form a larger picture. He was good at what he did, and his expertise was noted by his superiors in the Treusian Intelligence Agency, much to the jealous dismay of his immediate supervisor Leon. Rem made his way to the observation level where all the information from land lines, radio telescopes, optic telescopes, electronic listening devices, and everything in between, were analyzed for threats to security and information about the Kreakians. Treusians may have lost the ability to communicate via satellite, but they were advanced in compensating technology and were capable of transmitting and relaying data efficiently.

Over the years Rem had pieced together information which led to the early detection of uprisings against His Majesties’ government and other smaller attempts at undermining the monarchy of Treus. None of his investigations had led to a conspiracy attempting to give the Kreakians the ability to penetrate The Barrier, but this possibility was foremost on the mind of all intelligence gathers and analysts. The military, while supposedly in place as a last defense against Kreakian invasion, was primarily used to keep His Majesties’ government firmly in place. This was a worthy goal in Rem’s estimation, for any upheaval could lead to losing track of materials produced and shipped around the globe. One shipload of material native to Treus falling into the hands of the Kreakians could be disastrous. If the result of vigilance meant a moderate curtailing of freedom of speech or movement or enterprise – then it was a price worth paying. However, there were some who disagreed with this assessment. Over the years some had challenged the King’s position and proposed ending Royal rule hoping it would placate the Kreakians. The logic to this argument was that the initial conflict between Treus and the Kreakian empire had to do with the Queen’s love and so, some believed, if the Royal line was taken out of power then Kreakian honor would be satisfied and their relentless bombing would end. Some even hoped that Treus could become a space faring civilization again and part of the galactic community.

Rem thought this line of thinking was wishful, dangerous, nonsense. He did all he could to ferret out any conspiracy threatening Royal rule. His brother Rom heartily agreed with Rem’s position and held the line as captain of a battle platform. In addition, like about third of the Treusian population, the Aneus family was related to the Royal family. Rem stood one hundred and third in line to the throne and Rom was one hundred and fourth. Rem did not often use his position for leverage but being close to the “top one hundred” had served him well. Certainly, his brother’s commission to the Keeper at a relatively young age had been influenced by his proximity to the throne. Men like Leon, who were not related to the Royal family, were jealously aware of the position to the throne their colleagues and subordinates possessed.  Both Rem and Rom thought the obsession of one’s position to the throne was ridiculous, but interest in royal placement was an undeniable part of Treusian culture.

Rem rode the elevator down into the bowels of the TIA building. Disembarking at the subterranean level, he boarded a small subway which carried him deeper underground to the observation level. Staring into the dark he idly wondered why there were windows in a subway car that never saw the light of day.

“Hey Rem, you going to Observation?”

Rem turned to see Altain Sarr, a fellow analyst, sitting behind him. His normally laconic eyes were wide with anxiety and a ring of sweat stained his tight collar.

Rem nodded. “Yes, I got the call. You too?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He licked his lips quickly and asked, “What’s this about? Are we in trouble?”

Rem considered for a moment. He and Altain had collaborated on two projects within the last year which lead to military intervention. Was there an investigation of their assessments? Putting forth a scenario which led to faulty action carried heavy consequences. It was the risk every analyst took as they went up the ranks. However, Rem had not picked up on any chatter which concerned him regarding his assessments. He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I haven’t picked up on that.”

“Neither have I,” said Altain. He sat back in his seat and ran his hand over the sheen of sweat that glazed his balding scalp. “What then?”

“I think it has to do with the Queen’s Day attack,” Rem said quietly.

Altain leaned forward and lowered his voice to match Rem’s. “I’ve been going over data for the last two weeks. I haven’t picked up anything not already in the reports. I don’t think that anyone is lying about The Barrier. The Barrier isn’t threatened and won’t be threatened for the foreseeable future. You know how big that explosion was?”

Rem shifted to turn and face Altain, “Of course I do!” he whispered.

Altain held up a hand. “Sure, sure – no offense. Coming up with a weapon that could generate that kind of power had to take something out of the Kreakians. It’s pretty certain they lost three ships in the attempt. That’s well over a thousand of their people! It cost them dearly to launch this latest weapon, and I don’t think they have the capacity to go much bigger than that.”

Rem shrugged. “I don’t know if they can go bigger, but the cost to them is very high.” The subway came to a halt and Rem stood up along with Altain and the others in the car. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Rem and Altain stepped out of the subway car and walked down a narrow corridor with five other analysts. Rem wrinkled his nose at the collective stench of their nervous sweat. Rem took the lead to get away from the sharp smell of stress and pushed open the door leading to the observation level.

The narrow corridor opened into a wide, multi-tiered room, which held computers, maps, and dozens of men and women all hunched over their screens and talking on phones. Rem looked to find the one who had summoned him. He soon picked out Leon who was quietly, but sharply, rebuking a young woman whose large eyes glistened with barely held back tears.

“He’s in a good mood,” Altain muttered.

“As always,” Rem answered as he shouldered his way toward Leon. Rem was aware the small knot of analysts from the subway were following him like chicks huddled behind a mother hen.

Leon looked up; his face twisted with anger. His expression changed from anger to distain as he locked eyes with Rem. “There you are – finally. Follow me.” Spinning on his heel, Leon stalked toward a conference room followed by Rem and the other analysts.

Upon entering, Rem quickly scanned the room and counted thirteen analysts already seated, most of whom he had worked with before. In total there were twenty analysts in the room. He felt a wave of relief flow through him. The top twenty analysts were always called together in order to quickly go through information and look for patterns. Calling the top twenty usually meant there was an emergency, but it did not appear that he was in any trouble personally. Smiling inwardly, he took an open seat next to Altain.

“It’s a calling of the top twenty!” Altain whispered. “I didn’t know I was considered one of the top twenty!”

Rem could understand Altain’s excitement. He remembered the first time he had been called. He was both flattered and intimidated by the weight of the responsibility. “You’ve been doing good work Al,” he whispered.

Altain looked at him, his sleepy eyes suddenly masking his emotion. “We’ve been doing good work.” He then smiled slightly, “This is big!”

“Maybe,” Rem said then paused. “Probably.”

Leon stood in front of the nervous group and cleared his throat. “Good night!” He called out.

“Good night!” came the anxious response followed by an expectant silence.

Leon leaned his thin frame forward and tapped the podium gathering his thoughts. After a pause he looked at the group, his eyes again betraying disdain when he looked at Rem. Rem had often wondered why Leon loathed him. Of course, Rem had analyzed Leon and believed his hatred was rooted in insecurity regarding his own analytical ability coupled by a sense of inferiority because of Rem’s position to the throne. Of all the analysts under Leon, Rem held the closest position to the throne and was widely regarded as one of the best analysts in the TIA. Rem processed this information without pride – it was just a conclusion based on fact. Yet Leon had to be competent enough to hold his position as Director of Observation. Rem found himself adding this component into the analytical equation in his head.

Leon cleared his throat again. “This is a calling of the top twenty.” A few quiet gasps came from those called up for the first time. The Director of Observation was the only one who determined the top twenty and his assessment as to who was or was not included was immutable. “This is what you need to know. This meeting has nothing to do with the Queen’s Day attack. Empty your minds of that data.”

A noticeable physical shift took place as the analysts closed their eyes and began deep breathing exercises. Rem closed his eyes and emptied his mind of all the swirling computations of events, timing, and facts that had occupied him on conscious and unconscious levels for the past two weeks. He relaxed his shoulders and could smell the stress leaving the room as the air scrubber recycled and purified the air.

Leon continued to speak in a monotone. “Five hundred and sixteen years, three months and eleven days ago, at 6:30 am, the Gonwaian nation launched a vehicle into space to explore past our moons.

Icarus 1,” one of the analysts said quietly. Rem nodded to himself. Gonwaian was the first space faring nation of Treus. It was before the time of the united monarchy of Treus.

“Yes, Icarus 1,” Leon droned. “It has been on the following trajectory for the past five hundred years,” he pointed to a projection. All the eyes of the analysts’ snapped open at the same time to briefly study the picture then closed again.

Five hundred and sixteen years, three months, eleven days five hours and twenty-three minutes’ corrected Rem in his head. Glancing at Altain, Rem could tell he was making the same correction in his mind as well. He closed his eyes.

“As our listening technology advanced, we were able to keep in touch with Icarus 1 over two centuries, then we lost touch. At the time the data received was nine months old.”

“So, Icarus is traveling at one thousand one hundred and eight point eight kilometers per hour” a female analyst intoned.

“Unless nine months is not an exact figure,” another added.

“We had contact for two hundred eleven years, six months, twelve days, three hours and forty-six minutes,” said Altain.

The analysts collectively nodded at the information.

“Is nine months an exact figure?” Rem asked doubtfully.

Leon cleared his throat. Rem wondered if he had a cold, was nervous, or had a more serious condition. Was Leon a smoker? Was it cancer? He began to analyze the depth and liquidity of the throat clearing.

“The exactness of the transmission time is not important. What is important is that we received a transmission from Icarus 1 three days ago.”

As if intentionally synchronized, all of the analysis’s snapped their eyes open.

“What was the mode of transmission?” one asked.

“Radio transmission,” answered Leon.

“Were there any indications that it crashed into a planet or hit an asteroid?” another asked.

“No,” answered Leon. “But our information is limited.”

“How long was the transmission?” someone asked seated behind Rem. “Is it still transmitting?”

Leon shook his head. “It was just an acknowledgment signal. It was only a few seconds.”

“Acknowledgment signal?” Rem said. “What was it acknowledging?”

“The codes are old,” Leon answered. “But it was the equivalent to “I am here.”

“What prompted this signal?” Altain asked.

“We don’t know,” Leon said. “It may not have been prompted.”

The female analyst spoke up. “If someone sent a signal from Treus, it must have been years ago. It would take a few years for the signal to reach the probe, which considering the fact we lost contact with Icarus 1 almost three hundred years ago, would be an almost impossible feat of tracking and engineering. Then the response from Icarus 1 would take years to reach us. It is most likely the result of a malfunction.”

Rem furrowed his brow. Why would the top twenty be brought into this? Then he knew. “You are concerned that the Kreakians could have intercepted the transmission from Icarus 1 and use the transmission to find it.”

A heavy silence filled the room as no one seemed to breathe. “Astute as always Mister Aneus,” Leon said quietly.

“Why was transmission from the probe allowed to continue?” Altain asked sharply.

Leon answered, “When Icarus 1 was launched there was no reason to think that it would ever pose any danger. We did not even realize The Barrier existed at that time. There was no way to turn it off. In fact, we did not want it to cease transmission. At the time we were hoping to make contact with some of the other colonies of legend. It was not until we tried to bring mineral samples from Gemini that we realized The Barrier existed.”

The Gemini mineral disaster was well known to all Treusians. As a Gonwaian ship attempted to re-enter the atmosphere with a hold full of minerals from Gemini, the closest planet to Treus, the minerals were torn out of the hold, destroying the ship. Fortunately, the ship was unmanned. The investigation into the accident led to the discovery of The Barrier.

“It is an unsophisticated signal being transmitted,” Altain said, “It could be picked up by the Kreakians…”

“But it would be difficult,” another added. “The signal is weak and from this distance it would take very sophisticated technology to find the signal let alone track its origin.”

“We do not know Kreakian technological capacity when it comes to intercepting radio transmissions,” Altain countered. “Nor the full extent of their empire. They could have listening posts closer to the probe than we do.”

“We do not know much about the Kreakians other than what we have been able to observe or hear over the years,” another chimed in.

Yet another spoke up. “We do not know how fast the Kreakian ships can travel. Could they track, find and retrieve Icarus 1 and then bring it back here? If they could, how long would it take? We need more information.”

“We do not have that information,” Leon said stiffly. Another silence descended on the room. Rem’s mind churned furiously.

“Do we know if the Kreakians can travel faster than light speed?” he asked.

Leon bowed his head and did not answer. Rem repeated his question. Leon looked at him, conflict dancing across his face. “I cannot answer that.”

“Cannot or will not?” another voice inquired with a hint of desperation.

Leon gave a look of impatience but said nothing.

A grumble of protest rolled across the room. “This is impossible. We do not have enough information to give any kind of meaningful analysis,” someone whined.

“It could be nothing,” Altain said. “There are many possibilities. The Kreakians finding Icarus 1 is one possibility but not the most likely. Most likely something caused a transmission which has gone unnoticed by the Kreakians.”

Leon nodded. “Yes, this is true. But you can understand how important it is for us to know what happened.”

One of the analysts repeated, “We do not have enough information.”

Leon sighed. He tapped a stack of thick folders on a table next to the podium. “Here is everything that is relevant. If you want to watch archival footage, everything has been routed to your workstations. If there is something you feel is missing, ask for it and we will get you the information. For the foreseeable future you will be working on this together.” Leon walked out of the conference room.

For half a minute no one in the top twenty moved. Then Rem stood and walked to the podium. He glanced through the folders and assessed how to go through the information. The top twenty were good at making analysis, but they needed direction. It was too much information for each one to read in its entirety, which would be ideal for finding threads and patterns, but it was a luxury not available if they were going to come up with results quickly. He split the twenty into four groups, gave the written information to three of them, and sent a group to their conference room workstations to review documentaries, archival footage, and lectures given on Icarus 1. It was a massive amount of information and Rem settled into his workstation and began to absorb the footage running it at four times the regular speed.

The top twenty worked for days, sharing and discussing information. Some, like Altain, took upon themselves the monumental task of reading all the information while others debated and discussed the probability of different scenarios. Rem listened to the discussions and arguments with one ear while he sifted through the data. There was something missing. It was like an itch at the back of his skull. Occasionally Leon would check on the progress and every time he was beseeched to deliver more information and more facts.

“We have not ventured into space for over three hundred years,” he pleaded. “We do not know much about Kreakian technology.” Leon’s evasiveness and vague answers did not sit well with analysts who believed that with enough information the right course of action could be discovered every time.

During the times Leon entered the room, Rem observed him closely. He concluded that Leon was indeed leaving some piece of information out of the equation. Some of the other analysts picked up on this as well but concluded it was too dangerous to discuss in the monitored conference room. However, knowing looks passed between them and unrest began to grow.

Finally, after a week of almost around the clock working, the top twenty were tired and irritable. They slept and ate at the TIA building and only occasionally showered. Many of the debates had turned to arguments and some of the arguments had come to blows. Mentally and physically exhausted, some of the analysts had fallen into a stupor, staring at the wall unresponsive to any stimulus. Rem knew that the top twenty had exhausted themselves and exhausted the information they had. When Leon came in Rem stood up.

“Leon, we are at an end,” Rem said. The chatter in the room died down. “We are prepared to give you several possibilities and the probabilities for these possibilities, but we cannot say for sure what has happened or give any recommendation of how to proceed.” He handed Leon a data chip.

Leon took it with a cold smile. “This is the best the top twenty could come up with? Possibilities and probabilities? I didn’t need you for that!” With a smirk he shook his head, muttered “useless” under his breath and left the room.

Rem watched him go then turned to the twenty. Knowing looks again passed between them. Something was being hidden but they did not dare to voice their thoughts out loud. If Leon was hiding information, then it would be more prudent for the twenty to not speculate. However, Rem felt it was his duty to speak frankly with his colleagues.

“I want to voice my thoughts on what many of us are thinking but do not dare discuss,” Rem declared. “I must if we are going to give a better analysis. I do not know if this piece of information is all we need to find an answer, but if we include it in our equations it opens up some possibilities and narrows down the probabilities.”

Several of the twenty who had given him knowing looks now glanced around the room uncomfortably and those sitting in a stupor slowly turned to Rem. Suddenly, the door burst open and Leon entered flanked by two armed guards.

“That’s enough!” he shouted. “You’re all finished! Go home!”  He waved the data chip in front of him. “I have your analysis here! It’s all we need.”

The top twenty looked at Leon then to Rem. Leon yelled, “Don’t look at him! I told you to go home!” The two guards stepped forward and began to herd the group out of the conference room. Rem fell into line.

“Not you Rem,” said Leon. “I think you know that.”

Rem nodded. Leon looked at him impatiently and shook his head. “Follow me.”

Leon strode out of the conference room. Rem followed, acutely aware of the armed guard close on his heels.

Leon thrust open a plain white door that blended almost perfectly into the wall of the busy Observation Level. The room was stuffy and silent. Leon moved to sit behind a sleek black desk and waved Rem to a chair which sat a several centimeters lower than the chair across from the desk.

Leon waved to the guard, “You may go.” Then Leon steepled his hands in front of him and gave a thin smile of barely concealed contempt. “So, one hundred and three, what is it you think you know?”

Rem looked at Leon without emotion. To refer to another person’s position to the throne was considered to be in poor taste, even among friends. He tried to push down the anger that welled up but failed. “I know that you are threatened by me. Your analytical ability is limited, and you are jealous of my position to the throne. You are pathetically transparent in your envy.”

Leon flushed red. All attempt and concealing contempt fell away from his face. “And yet I am your superior.”

“I have been analyzing that fact,” Rem replied coolly.

“And?”

“Your insecurity makes you pliable to the will of those whom you pander to in order to advance beyond the place your talent or societal status would normally take you. In short – you do as you are told without question or any hint of individual thought. It is a good quality to have in a subordinate one desires to control.”

Leon reddened further and laid his hands flat on the table. His eyes took on a cold, serpent-like quality. “Careful 103…”

Rem went on, “And yet, in spite of your contempt for those who are higher in ability or status, you cannot remove us from our positions because your controllers have deemed us useful. So, you manage those whom you hate but cannot be rid of.”

“Don’t be so sure Aneus.”

“I will remain in the service of the TIA for as long as your controllers deem necessary and you will have nothing to do with the decision to remove me. However, should the day of removal come, I am sure you will enjoy carrying out your master’s bidding.” Rem paused as he studied Leon’s face and body language. Rem was sure if Leon possessed the ability, courage, or perhaps foolishness, to act on his own he would leap over the desk and throttle him. Rem reflected that perhaps he had been foolish to express his opinion to Leon. His mind quickly fell into analyzing the last five minutes of his anger, his frustration, Leon’s offence, and their conversation. He concluded he should have kept his thoughts and opinions to himself. Maybe there was something to learn from Leon’s lacky ways after all.

“Nevertheless, this is not why you are here,” said Leon in a low, even tone. “What were you preparing to discuss in the conference room?”

Rem’s gaze shifted from a blank spot behind Leon’s shoulder back to the man himself. He set aside his self-analysis and stood.

“Sit,” Leon commanded.

“No,” Rem replied simply. “I find the attempt at intimidation to be demeaning and I need to have my thought’s focused.” Leon shifted in his seat but said nothing. Rem continued, “The obvious conclusion, given the data we were given and the information we were specifically not given, is that you know for a fact that the Kreakians have achieved faster than light technology. It may be true that you do not know how fast they can go, but you know they can go faster than light.”

Leon frowned as he slowly nodded his head. “You are correct. I was under orders not to confirm this, but you are correct.”

Rem paced across the room. “You were under orders not to confirm this information, but now you have given confirmation. Since you do not act with individualistic thought, you must have been ordered to confirm this conclusion only recently.” Rem glanced at Leon who stared at him, his lips tight and flushed of color, hate glittering in his eyes. Rem continued, “You have been given permission to confirm my suspicions order to placate me. Why would that be?”

A look of genuine puzzlement flashed across Leon’s face which was quickly replaced by an impassive mask. Leon said, “We will reconvene the top twenty tomorrow and you can begin analysis based on the confirmation of the Kreakian ability to travel faster than light.” He slapped his hands gently upon the slick obsidian desktop. “You may go now.”

Rem stood staring at Leon. He was sure that Leon did not know the truth that he had guessed, nor did he want to know. Leon was acting within his pattern. He had been allowed to confirm Kreakian faster than light capability, but Leon did not question why he had been given this permission. Rem knew why. Should he say anything? Expressing that which was being deliberately hidden was a dangerous game in the TIA. Was it worth the danger? Quickly Rem weighed out the likelihood that Leon’s office was monitored by his minders. It was a certainty. There was nothing said in the Observation Level that was not recorded and analyzed to reveal treason or dangerous conclusions. Rem took in a shaky breath.

“Leon, for the sake of the planet’s safety I have to inform you of an important fact which needs to be figured into our analysis. It is information that has been carefully kept from us as analysts and, I believe, from you as well, however it is an obvious conclusion.”

Leon stood and raised a cautionary hand. “Be careful One-oh-three. Analyze carefully your next course of action.”

Rem paused and the two men stood staring at each other. The silence of the room hung heavily. “I have weighed it out,” Rem finally said. “First, I am currently one hundred and first to the throne due to two deaths this week of some elderly and distant cousins. Next, I believe that Icarus 1 responded to a transmission from Treus, which means someone on Treus essentially sent a beacon to anyone listening as to the exact location of Icarus 1. Furthermore, and this is the most disturbing aspect of this conclusion, such a transmission could only be authorized by someone of very high authority with access to top secret information and technology.”

Leon reeled and rocked back on his heels as if slapped. “That’s impossible! Why would anyone on Treus place the entire planet at such risk? It’s an act of treason!”

Rem said nothing as Leon struggled to respond. He felt a surprising sympathy for Leon as his world collapsed around him and he desperately sought to exonerate himself by refusing to even consider the possibility of such high treason for the sake of those who might be listening to their conversation.

Leon sputtered his words. “High authority? Are you implying Royal involvement? Are you mad?”

“I do not have enough information to make that determination. There are a few different possibilities.”

Leon pounded his fist on his desk. “Enough! To even speculate such things is treason! To even consider the King’s involvement…” At that moment Rem could feel the pressure in the room change as the door opened up behind him. Leon looked past his shoulder and pointed to Rem. “Thank the gods you’ve arrived! This man is proposing very dangerous things! Take him away and place him under guard until he can be dealt with.”

Rem glanced over his shoulder and saw three armed guards and an older, imposing man standing in the door. “I am afraid you are both coming with us Leon,” the man said in a calm, deep voice.

Leon trembled and looked at Rem, his eyes sharp with bitterness. “You fool!” he hissed.

Rem calmly turned and made his way to the door flanked by two guards. His mind busied itself analyzing the likelihood that he would be made to disappear. He also included into the equation the likelihood that others in the top twenty, Altain in particular, might also be made to disappear for his indiscretion. He concluded that his future did not look bright. He heard Leon suddenly sob as they walked out of the office into an unknown future.

I’m on the Right?

That’s what the Political Coordinates Test tells me. Though barely: I’m 14% to the right, and 47% along the vertical axis. According to the more popular (if more problematic) Political Compass test that’s been around forever, I’m exactly at the center of the horizontal axis. Maybe this one is more accurate, but it will take some getting used to thinking of myself as right-leaning.

Here’s how I answered the 36 questions:

1. Taxpayer money should not be spent on arts or sports. Strongly disagree.

2. Some countries and civilizations are natural enemies. Agree.

3. Overall, the minimum wage does more harm than good. Agree.

4. Import tariffs on foreign products are a good way to protect jobs in my country. Strongly disagree.

5. Western civilization has benefited more from Christianity than from the ideas of Ancient Greece. Disagree.

6. Immigration to my country should be minimized and strictly controlled. Strongly disagree.

7. Prostitution should be legal. Strongly agree.

8. A strong military is a better foreign policy tool than a strong diplomacy. Strongly disagree.

9. Free trade is better for third-world countries than developmental aid. Strongly agree.

10. There is at heart a conflict between the interest of business and the interest of society. Neutral. (Equally true or false, depending on circumstances.)

11. Homosexual couples should have all the same rights as heterosexual ones, including the right to adopt. Strongly agree.

12. It is legitimate for nations to privilege their own religion over others. Disagree.

13. Marijuana should be legal. Strongly agree.

14. A country should never go to war without the support of the international community. Disagree.

15. People who turn down a job should not be eligible for unemployment benefits from the government. Agree.

16. The government should set a cap on the wages of bankers and CEOs. Disagree.

17. Medically assisted suicide should be legal. Strongly agree.

18. Speculation on the stock exchange is less desirable than other kinds of economic activity. Neutral.

19. Surveillance and counter-terrorism programs have gone too far. Agree.

20. It almost never ends well when the government gets involved in business. Agree.

21. Capital punishment should be an option in some cases. Agree.

22. There are too many wasteful government programs. Neutral. (Many good ones, many bad ones.)

23. Rehabilitating criminals is more important than punishing them. Disagree.

24. Monarchy and aristocratic titles should be abolished. Strongly agree.

25. The government should provide healthcare to its citizens free of charge. Agree. (Though it’s a complex issue. I believe it should provide free health insurance for catastrophic health coverage and then have people pay for other healthcare.)

26. Overall, security leaks like those perpetrated by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks do more harm than good. Strongly disagree.

27. Overall, labor unions do more harm than good. Disagree.

28. The market is generally better at allocating resources than the government. Neutral. (Depending on the issue, both the market and the government have their place and strengths in allocating resources.)

29. The government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Disagree.

30. If people want to drive without a seat belt, that should be their decision. Agree.

31. Government spending with the aim of creating jobs is generally a good idea. Disagree. (Fighting inflation and other root-cause solutions are better.)

32. If an immigrant wants to fly the flag of his home country on my country’s soil, that’s okay with me. Agree. (By “okay with me”, I mean that I’m okay with it legally. It’s what the First Amendment guarantees.)

33. Equality is more important than economic growth. Strongly agree.

34. Some peoples and religions are generally more trouble than others. Neutral. (Disagree about peoples, but strongly agree about religions; some religions oppose the values of a free and humane society more than others.)

35. My country should give more foreign and developmental aid to third-world countries. Disagree.

36. We need to increase taxes on industry out of concern for the climate. Agree.

 

The Best Filmmakers Alive (in North America)

I’m confining myself to American/Canadian filmmakers. Otherwise I’d include many other directors, like Danny Boyle, Gaspar Noe, and Park Chan-wook, and there’s no way I can do such  global justice on a top-10 list.

1. David Lynch. The best filmmaker alive (from any country) has been showing us film’s unlimited potential since his Eraserhead debut. It was a conversion experience for me when I saw Blue Velvet in the ’80s and his latest masterpiece, Twin Peaks: The Return (considered an extended film as much as a TV miniseries), is cinema at its stunningly purist. Lynch would top this list even if I were considering filmmakers no longer alive (like Kubrick).

2. William Friedkin. He practically reinvented cinema in the 70s, fell from grace a bit in the 80s, then got his second wind afterwards. He ruined my 11-year old psyche with The Exorcist, but no matter, it’s still my favorite film. His induced-documentary styled films, his intense adaptations of stage plays, all tap into a uniquely raw energy. He also remade 12 Angry Men better than the classic, and that’s saying something. He’s one arrogant son of a bitch, and I feel for some of the actors who suffered under him, but then pain is temporary and film is forever.

3. Terrence Malick. The characters in his films play second fiddle to the main character of Nature itself, and he makes that work without being pretentious. His films preserve a still in almost every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. There aren’t many directors who can get away with picturesque styles and meditative voice-overs, but Malick has full command of these techniques. Tree of Life and A Hidden Life are his masterpieces.

4. Kathryn Bigelow. She’s a Jack of all Trades and master of all, having done police thrillers (Blue Steel, Detroit), industrial sci-fic (Strange Days), war films (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), and on top of that the best vampire film of all time (Near Dark) — a horror western with serious attitude. She’s as good as her ex-boyfriend (James Cameron) is bad… and that’s saying loads. I laughed for days when she rightly won an award for The Hurt Locker while Cameron was snubbed that same year for Avatar.

5. Quentin Tarantino. Most directors have at least one or two stinkers to their name, but Tarantino has never made a bad film. (His worst, Kill Bill, is still pretty good.) His contributions to nonlinear storytelling, cathartic violence, and insanely compulsive dialogue are unrivaled. He never went to film school and didn’t need to. He has a brilliant ear for music and scoring, and for sounds to use for violence. And he can make you laugh at horrible things that no one else can.

6. Martin Scorsese. A bone of contention among his fans who argue endlessly about what the masterpieces are. I say his five best are Taxi Driver, The Silence, Casino, Goodfellas, and Shutter Island, in that order (yes, Casino before Goodfellas, sue me), and I believe Raging Bull to be obscenely overrated. He has made a few duds (Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun the worst offenders), but in many ways his greatness is unparalleled, and his influence on other film makers can’t be exaggerated.

7. Richard Linklater. His characters are as real as Friedkin’s, and he’s a master of the interplay between story, documentary, and experience. His greatest success is writing a trilogy in which the sequel is better than an already excellent first, and third is even better than the second. No other trilogy in cinematic history can boast such a progression of excellence. I’m speaking, of course, of the Before trilogy. Other great stuff from him too.

8. Denis Villeneuve. His early efforts (Polytechnique, Incendies) are as underrated as his recent masterpieces (Blade Runner 2049) which did rather poorly at the box office. His films are patiently plotted, with atmospheric scores and staggering use of color. They hint at a voyeuristic obsessiveness with the camera, used to mighty effect. I may be inflating him a bit high without Dune having its say yet, but I’m confident it will deliver. David Lynch is the film making god, but his Dune sucked balls.

9. David O. Russell. He makes films about topics I have no interest in (boxing, football & ballroom dancing, household cleaning products) but become immersed in the manic worlds of dysfunctional characters who find salvation in themselves from the oddest places. I’ve seen Joy so many times it’s ridiculous; and The Boxer and American Hustle multiple times each. I wouldn’t want to work for this guy — judging from some reports he ages his actors ten years from the stress he puts them through — in this sense he reminds of Friedkin.

10. Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m not the biggest fan of this giant, but his highs are so high (especially There Will Be Blood and Magnolia) that I have to include him. As far as I’m concerned, There Will Be Blood is to the 21st century what Citizen Kane was to the 20th: the film of all films. Punch Drunk Love, on the other hand, may be one of the most offensively steaming piles of artistic shit I’ve suffered through.

Honorable mentions: Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Cronenberg, David Fincher, Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson, Steven Soderbergh.

Way overrated (WO) or downright shitty (DS): Woody Allen (WO), Wes Anderson (WO), Tim Burton (WO), James Cameron (DS), Alfonso Cuarón (WO), Ron Howard (DS), George Lucas (DS), M. Night Shyamalan (WO), Stephen Spielberg (WO), Oliver Stone (WO), Joss Whedon (DS).

The Presidents Ranked in Brief Capsules (Trump Included)

After the 2020 election I decided to bring together my work on the presidents and condense the rankings into short capsules. So here they are, all on one page, with links (from their names) to the full analyses.

In order to qualify being ranked on this list, a president must have served at least two years (half of one term). So I do not rank the following three: William Henry Harrison (9th president, who died after serving only a month), Zachary Taylor (12th president, who died after serving a year and a half), or James Garfield (20th president, who was assassinated after serving six months). That leaves 41 presidents — from the unassailable John Tyler to the excremental Woodrow Wilson. It’s taken years for me to get a handle on evaluating presidents, and well, this is where the road took me.

1. John Tyler. (10th president, 1841-1845, Whig/Independent). Rating: Excellent. Tyler, the “accidental president” who never wanted the job, ended up being the best at it. He (1) ended the Seminole War, the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history, and allowed the Indians to stay on their ancestral land; (2) agreed with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the high-seas slave trade (and Tyler was a Virginian southerner, no less); (3) vetoed the Third National Bank, against the wishes of his party the Whigs, as most American people didn’t want it (Tyler put the interests of the people above his party, which got him ostracized from the Whigs and cost him the re-election); (4) recognized and protected the Kingdom of Hawaii; (5) peacefully opened up China to free trade, which allowed the U.S. to begin leading in the Asian theater (America’s European rivals would struggle to catch up and get the same commercial and political benefits); and (6) diffused a rebellion in Rhode Island, by letting both sides know their actions could have serious consequences (because of this, the positive outcome was possible — an improvement over the status quo in Rhode Island without more violence). Tyler was a true leader, a Constitutional president, executively restrained, and virtually flawless. The only strike against him is Texas: he had been warned by the Mexicans that annexation would mean war, yet persisted in the face of those warnings, and so bears at least some responsibility for the Mexican War that happened under his successor James Polk.

2. Warren Harding. (29th president, 1921-1923, Republican). Rating: Excellent. He started an economic boom that would last for an entire decade (the “Roaring Twenties”). He was more fiscally austere than most any other president in history, and yet he used government funds to help those in need (like pregnant women and farmers), even in the face of protests about welfare. He cleaned up all of Woodrow Wilson’s damage and reversed Wilson’s racist policies. He campaigned in the south for blacks and gave them jobs in the federal government and high positions. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, and appointed free speech and liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices. He pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly imprisoned under Woodrow Wilson (for simply speaking out against World War I), and kept the nation at peace. His foreign policy was immaculate. Of all the smear campaigns leveled against excellent presidents, none is more astonishing than the one that continues against Warren Harding.

3. George Washington. (1st president, 1789-1797, Federalist). Rating: Excellent. We owe this man a great debt for all he did, especially for recommending the Bill of Rights, and for getting a new Constitutional system through a very rocky stage. Most importantly, he stepped down from office after two terms. He could have easily kept the presidency until he died if he had wanted to; people loved him that much. But he established the important precedent so that America would not become a monarchy. Relinquishing the presidency when he could have kept it is the best and most important thing a president has ever done in his capacity as president. The only reason I rank Washington at #3 instead of #1 is because he bought into the vision of Alexander Hamilton, which carried some long-lasting negative consequences.

4. Rutherford Hayes. (19th president, 1877-1881, Republican). Rating: Excellent. Mark Twain, usually contemptuous of all politicians, pronounced Hayes a great president. Twain was right, but few people appreciate Hayes if they remember his name at all. He ended the military occupation of the south as it needed to be, intervened abroad only when necessary and did it well, pursued outstanding economic and domestic policies, and aside from waffling a bit on immigration, served the cause of liberty extremely well. He defied Congress on behalf of African Americans, Native American Indians, and poor children. He was a model of executive restraint, and thanks to his fiscal austerity presided over one of the highest economic growth periods in the nation’s history. He pledged at the outset to serve only one term, and there hasn’t been a president since who has done this.

5. Chester Arthur. (21st president, 1881-1885, Republican). Rating: Very good. He wisely avoided military intervention, while at the same time rebuilt the navy, since ships had been badly eroded. He went to bat for African Americans when the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Most importantly, he advocated for and signed the Pendleton Act of 1883, also known as the Civil Service Act, which for the first time allowed government employees to be appointed on the basis of their skills, rather than their party affiliation. They no longer had to contribute money to party elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about new parties in the White House. The Pendleton Act was a landmark, but it alienated Arthur’s Stalwart Republican base and cost him the reelection. (On April 22, 2020, a Trump official stated that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional, and that all two million federal employees should be Trump loyalists. In other words, Donald Trump tried resurrecting Andrew Jackson’s spoil system of rank amateurism.)

6. James Monroe. (5th president, 1817-1825, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Very good. He presided over the “Era of Good Feelings”, because he kept Americans prosperous and in harmony. This was a much needed kumbaya after the disastrous War of 1812, and before the ascendance of Andrew Jackson’s frontier politics. We need another executive like this today. He founded the Monroe Doctrine, which basically said that America would mind its business unless British or European powers tried encroaching on territory in the new world. That doctrine became perverted in the 20th century (especially under Teddy Roosevelt) to mean the U.S. could intervene over any perceived threat of encroachment, rather than waiting for an actual invasion. But at the start it was a sound doctrine. Monroe also has the honor of being one of the four top-notch presidents for national economic growth (along with Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding).

7. Harry Truman. (33rd president, 1945-1953, Democrat). Rating: Very good. Much maligned by the woke left and hard-core libertarians, Harry Truman did what was necessary in bringing World War II to a close. Using the atomic bomb saved more lives than it destroyed. He built a national security apparatus, and made it independent of the military. He made America economically great again, after 16 years of depression under Hoover and FDR. He established a Committee on Civil Rights that would outline means of eliminating racial discrimination, and gave a famously thundering speech at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, saying that “the extension of civil rights today means not just protection of the people against the government, but protection of the people by the government”. He also asked Congress to satisfy the claims of Japanese Americans who treated horribly by FDR during World War II. He wasn’t perfect (witness the Korean War), but on whole he was very good, and remains the best Democrat president of the 20th-21st centuries.

8. Dwight Eisenhower. (34th president, 1953-1961, Republican). Rating: Very good. Precisely because he had been a military general in WWII and knew the cost of war, Eisenhower wisely kept the nation under military restraint for eight whole years. He is the unshakable proof that it is possible to stay out of war in the post-World War II era. His outstanding fiscal policies gave an era of prosperity rivaled only by the ‘20s and ‘90s. He was the last good Republican president, and would rank much higher if not for a few missteps, like siding with Egypt against Israel in the Suez crisis, and refusing to support desegregation in schools and universities.

9. Calvin Coolidge. (30th president, 1923-1929, Republican). Rating: Very good. He continued Warren Harding’s amazing fiscal policies that kept the Roaring Twenties going (see #2, above). When Coolidge left office in ’29, the amount of households with these “luxury items” had increased as follows: electric lights 35%-68%, central heating 1%-42%, indoor plumbing 20%-51%, vacuum cleaners 9%-30%, washing machines 8%-24%, automobiles 26%-60%. Like Harding he kept the nation at peace and free of entangling alliances. By rights he should rank up near the top with Harding, but sometimes he wasn’t as proactive as he could have been with African Americans and Native Americans. He also expanded the money supply, which contributed to Black Tuesday on October 29, 1929, causing an initial economic downturn before the Great Depression. (Though note: Coolidge did not cause the Great Depression; his successor Hoover caused it, and FDR prolonged it.)

10. Jimmy Carter. (39th president, 1977-1981, Democrat). Rating: Good. His landmark energy bills, causes for the environment, fiscal restraint, military restraint, and overall sound priorities testify to a much better legacy than his critics allow him. Like John Tyler (#1) and Chester Arthur (#5), he did the right thing for the country instead of what his party expected from him — he prioritized fighting inflation over unemployment — and that cost him the reelection, as it did for Tyler and Arthur. Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve, whose tight money policies would eventually produce the prosperity in the ’80s and then renewed in the ‘90s. Carter gets a bum rap, and if not for his terrible foreign policy blunders (Camp David, Afghanistan, the Iran-Hostage crisis), he would place in my top 5.

11. John Quincy-Adams. (6th president, 1825-1829, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Good. Unlike his horrible father, John Quincy-Adams was a good and underrated chief executive. On his watch the nation was kept safe. He continued his predecessor James Monroe’s policy of staying out of foreign affairs. He stood up for African Americans and Native Americans (more than his predecessors and two successors did) and he spoke scathingly against the religion of Islam and Islamic oppression. In other words he applied social justice principles consistently. He didn’t whitewash a violent religion for fear of offending people. This is the kind of guy we need today. He did have domestic transgressions, being a Federalist at heart, and though they weren’t terrible ones, his Antebellum New Deal and ideas for expansive government provoked enough anger to guarantee the emergence of Andrew Jackson’s Democrat party. For this reason he places outside my top 10.

12. Millard Fillmore. (13th president, 1850-1853, Whig). Rating: Good. Often blasted for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore was actually a damn good president. He personally loathed slavery but as president he knew it was his job to uphold laws until slavery could be peacefully abolished — and to get us much for the north as possible. That’s exactly what the Compromise of 1850 achieved; the North was the slam-dunk winner in that Compromise. The Fugitive Slave Act was the only Southern-friendly part that meant anything, and in any case should be seen as a good consequence, since the hunting of slaves was made more visible to people in the north, which woke people up and caused the required outrage. Fillmore did lots of other positives, facing down rebellion in both Texas and South Carolina. He began a good-neighbor policy with Latin America; avoided war with Cuba; pushed the French away from Hawaii and preserved Hawaiian independence. Negatively, he opened Japan to trade by military coercion, subsidized railroad building, and a few other black marks, but on whole he was good.

13. James Madison. (4th president, 1809-1817, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Good. Like Thomas Jefferson, Madison was great as a founding father (for his blueprint for the Constitution), but not necessarily an excellent president. He took the new and weak nation into war with Britain — the War of 1812, and because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). The war was justified, however, since Britain would have kept bullying the U.S. had it not stood up to them, and it did stop the impressment of sailors. He also (against his better judgment and wise principles) created the Second Bank of the United States. The best thing he did was preserve people’s civil liberties through the war, unlike almost every other president who presided during a major war (Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR).

14. Thomas Jefferson. (3rd president, 1801-1809, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Average. Some presidents were great, others were terrible, and others were both great and terrible. Thomas Jefferson is a classic example of the mix. His first term was excellent: he turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech; he smashed the Barbary Pirates who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam — America’s first defensive war against jihad terror; he expanded American territory by purchasing the Louisiana region from France. All of this and more would earn him his place on Mount Rushmore. But his second term torpedoed that glowing executive image: the Embargo Act of 1807 was an act of commercial warfare meant to punish Britain and France, when it only punished Americans; they starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops and workers lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved due to presidential incompetence. To add insult to injury, Jefferson violated civil liberties by his oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. We can praise Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence. But as a president he deserves praises and curses in equal measure.

15. Bill Clinton. (42nd president, 1993-2001, Democrat). Rating: Average. Like Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton was both excellent and awful. The excellent: he reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. The result was the immense prosperity of the ’90s. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. (If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.) Clinton worked with Republicans to curb welfare and encouraged the lower classes to work. The result of his fiscal reforms was the lowest unemployment in thirty years. The awful: his needless, countless military interventions. He at least avoided ground troops and major wars (unlike the two Bushes and Obama), but his military engagements were so numerous and costly that it still downgrades his ranking considerably.

16. Gerald Ford. (38th president, 1974-1977, Republican). Rating: Average. Unlike Jefferson and Clinton (who are average by virtue of being great and awful in different ways), Ford was average across the board. He wisely continued Nixon’s policies of detente with the Soviet Union and China. He signed the Helsinki Accords, which finally accepted the post-World War II borders in Europe, and which also called for the respect of human rights and basic freedoms. Inflation went down during his term, though only because of the recession/unemployment that Ford helped somewhat to exacerbate. He proposed spending cuts along with his tax cuts, and left the Federal Reserve alone to its natural policies, all of which was a vast improvement on Nixon. On the bad side, he pardoned Nixon.

17. John F. Kennedy. (35th president, 1961-1963, Democrat). Rating: Average. Kennedy deserves neither the hero worship nor the over-reactive censure that he tends to receive. To his credit, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis well, defended West Berlin’s freedom, and established the Peace Corps. To his shame, he was responsible for the Bay of Pigs and escalating conflict in Vietnam. His tax cuts were mostly positive, though they were unaccompanied by corresponding cuts to federal spending. He could have been better on civil rights, but he was better than a lot of people give him credit for.

18. William Howard Taft. (27th president, 1909-1913, Republican). Rating: Average. Taft was elected mostly to carry out Teddy Roosevelt’s programs, and while he did continue on in some ways that were detrimental, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive in foreign policy. And though he prosecuted anti-trust lawsuits like Roosevelt, his lawsuits were at least grounded in legality (and not capricious views about “a greater good”). Taft was in fact a vast improvement over Roosevelt (for whom the Constitution was anathema), but in truth that’s not saying much. On whole he was mediocre.

19. Benjamin Harrison. (23rd president, 1889-1893, Republican). Rating: Average. Harrison undid the damage of his predecessor Grover Cleveland, and provided aid to Civil War veterans. He crusaded for African American equality, and tried to get bills passed that protected black voting rights and funding for black schools (the Democrats in Congress blocked him). But Harrison was somewhat inconsistent on human rights, persistently calling for progressive legislation (for blacks) on the one hand, while also calling for unnecessary restrictions on Asian immigrants on the other. He didn’t have the best fiscal policies, supporting tariffs as well as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which depleted the nation’s gold standard. He wisely avoided conflicts with Chile, Italy, Britain, and Germany, but nefariously tired to annex Hawaii. For all his pros and cons I rank him towards the bottom of the average presidents.

20. Ronald Reagan. (40th president, 1981-1989, Republican). Rating: Average. Enshrined in myth as a demigod, there is less to Reagan than meets the eye, though he’s not the demon of leftist narratives. On the upside, he was willing to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that enslaved its people in a system of poverty and despair (and without ever firing a shot); he kept the Federal Reserve in good hands on a tight leash; he declared a federal holiday for Martin Luther King, and appointed the two great Anthony’s (Scalia and Kennedy) to the Supreme Court; he gave an amnesty to millions of immigrants. On the downside, he escalated the drug war; funded jihadists to fight the invading Soviets in Afghanistan and Pakistan; engaged needlessly in Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada; and he cut taxes without cutting federal spending. On the last point in particular, Reagan aspired to be like his idol Calvin Coolidge (as well as Harding), but came up short. He did not win the Cold War, contrary to myth; the Soviet Union simply collapsed as it was fated to, from overextending itself and its bad economy.

21. Abraham Lincoln. (16th president, 1861-1865, Republican). Rating: Poor. He attains the #1 slot on most presidential ranking lists, but a careful study of “Honest Abe” shows that there is less to him that meets the eye. Some critics of Lincoln are southern/Confederate revisionists, and they have no credibility. But there are valid reasons to criticize Lincoln, not least because the Civil War may have been unnecessary. Lincoln could have (1) let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists urged, or (2) offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves, which other countries (like Britain and Mexico) had done. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South, helped out by a slave haven in the free North. Under the second option (which I’d have preferred), Lincoln would have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829). The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans. Lincoln treated the Native Americans horribly, even by 19th-century standards, seizing one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. He authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, which totaled 38 Indians. On top of this, he was an enemy of the First Amendment, arresting journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and throwing them into prison; he closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies; he “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). However, the end result of the Civil War was the liberation of the slaves — in itself obviously a praiseworthy and momentous event. And to be fair, Lincoln did offer the border states emancipation (though not the offer to secede), and so there was no reason to expect the southern states to agree either. But he did nefariously maneuver the south into firing first. An objective assessment of Lincoln puts him right in the middle of the ranking, leaving much to be desired, though also achieving something of legendary importance.

22. Herbert Hoover. (31st president, 1929-1933, Republican). Rating: Poor. Contrary to liberal myth, Hoover didn’t “do nothing” about the nation’s recession, but just the opposite, and not for the better. He took many actions that interfered with the economy’s tendency to right itself naturally. It was he who created the Great Depression, which FDR prolonged. If Hoover didn’t create the welfare state, he was certainly its precursor, paving the way for FDR. For all of his rhetoric about individual freedom, he set direct precedents for FDR’s programs. He also zealously enforced prohibition, and catered to American xenophobia by stopping immigration (though immigrants would have helped the economy). What saves Hoover from ranking much lower is his immaculate foreign policy record, second only to Warren Harding’s.

23. George H.W. Bush. (41st president, 1989-1993, Republican). Rating: Poor. The Elder Bush’s foreign policy ventures (in Iraq and Panama) were disastrous and effectively resurrected Wilsonian interventionism for sake of making America the world policeman. By planting permanent troops in the Middle-East (for no good reason; Saddam posed no threat to the U.S., Bush seemed more interested in serving the United Nations rather than the United States), he initiated a chain of events that we’re still reaping the consequences of today. It set a precedent for even worse interventions under the Younger Bush and Obama. His bank bailout was another horrible precedent. What saves him from the bad category are his surprising enlightened views for a (post-Eisenhower) Republican president: he was a free trade advocate (unlike Reagan, W Bush, and Trump who supported tariffs), and raised taxes in order to heal the budget. He even signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set voluntary curbs on greenhouse gases.

24. Andrew Johnson. (17th president, 1865-1869, Democrat). Rating: Poor. No one likes this guy and he’s hard to rate objectively. He gets high marks for opposing a military occupation of the south, but then low marks for advocating this cause in a completely racist way (which called down the wrath of Republican military measures). He gets very high marks for his fiscal and economic polices (he’s one of the four best presidents in this regard, alongside James Monroe, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding), but then abysmal scores for his racist vetoes, and for lobbying states to not ratify the 14th Amendment. His impeachment proceedings were a farce; even the Supreme Court ruled his favor afterwards.

25. Ulysses Grant. (18th president, 1869-1877, Republican). Rating: Poor. His heart was in the right place, but the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. By trying to pass laws and enforcing them at gunpoint in the South, Grant (and Congress) made things worse for the African Americans they were trying to defend. The KKK evolved into a terrorist group as a result, and Jim Crow laws were foreordained. (Nation building at gunpoint never works, and always produces backlash, whether in foreign countries like Vietnam and Iraq, or on home turf in the South.) Grant is also responsible for the horribly disproportionate Indian slaughters that happened on his watch. He deserves credit for signing progressive legislation for blacks and supporting the 15th Amendment, but those efforts were substantially torpedoed by his inability to uphold them in any meaningful way. The best thing about him was his fiscal and economic policies; he’s one of the four best presidents in this regard (alongside James Monroe, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding).

26. Grover Cleveland. (22nd & 24th president, 1885-1889 & 1893-1897, Democrat). Rating: Poor. He was president during the progressive era in the 1890s, but he shat on almost everyone who wasn’t white and male — African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, women, union workers. He did give the Indians full citizenship, but that actually ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it, since the Natives had to accept farming roles alien to them. He was both good and bad for the economy. The best thing about him was that he kept the nation at peace with excellent foreign policy, and refused to annex Hawaii. (The native Hawaiians didn’t want to be a part of the United States, and the treaty signed by Cleveland’s predecessor Benjamin Harrison had been foully obtained.) The worst thing was his veto-happy pen: he vetoed 584 fucking bills, thereby making himself a one-man tyrant over an entire legislative body.

27. Richard Nixon. (37th president, 1969-1974, Republican). Rating: Poor. Most people think of Nixon as a conservative, but he was a flaming liberal. He was a strong activist for environmental protection. He ended the military draft, creating the voluntary army we have today. He ended public school segregation in the South. He was the best and most effective president for the Native American Indian cause. That’s the upside of his liberalism. The downside is that he was also a fiscal liberal — the last Keynesian president until George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He spent huge amounts on welfare (even more than Lyndon Johnson had for his “Great Society”) and alongside his loose money policies, this ended up causing the great stagflation of the ’70s. Foreign policy wise, he was a mixed bag: a war-monger in Southeast Asia, but a dove elsewhere, establishing good relations with China and making the Soviets want better relations with America. He also started the drug war, however, and that added to Watergate brings down his ranking considerably.

28. Martin Van Buren. (8th president, 1837-1841, Democrat). Rating: Poor. Libertarians love this guy, and I’m somewhat of a libertarian myself, but Martin Van Buren was actually a rather dismal president. Yes, he avoided conflict, which is usually a good thing, but he did so at all costs, which in his case amounted to leaving serious problems for future presidents to solve under worse conditions. He helped the economy by creating the Independent Treasury, but that only helped to an extent and brought its own problems. And if America was a bastion of liberty on Van Buren’s watch, it was only that for whites; Indians and blacks suffered horribly, even by 19th-century standards. Van Buren is almost as responsible for the Trail of Tears as his predecessor Andrew Jackson; and the way he handled the Amistad incident was reprehensible.

29. William McKinley. (25th president, 1897-1901, Republican). Rating: Bad. McKinley brought immense prosperity to America (by going on the gold standard) and this is what keeps him from ranking among the very worst presidents on my list. His Spanish-American War (over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) was one of the worst wars ever fought, putting America on the road to becoming a trans-world empire. The Cuban crisis had no relevance to the Monroe Doctrine, since it was a preexisting Spanish Colony. While McKinley’s intentions in the Philippines may have been benign, they were also imperialistic, and his pure intentions didn’t matter in any case: when the Philippines put forth their own guerilla independence movement, the U.S. responded with horrendous atrocities against the Philippine people. It was because of McKinley’s precedent that the U.S. in the 20th century evolved into the world policeman. And his decisions resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

30. Franklin Pierce. (14th president, 1853-1857, Democrat). Rating: Bad. His notorious claim to fame was endorsing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed those two vast territories to determine whether or not they would be slave states. But Pierce was a doughface (a northerner who went to bat for the southern cause), and actually injected himself into the territories’ decision-making process — encouraging pro-slavery border thugs to cross from Missouri into Kansas and set up a pro-slavery government. He then recognized this government, and appointed countless pro-slavery governors in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Northerners were so pissed that a mini-civil war broke out in Kansas. Thus was born the Republican Party (in 1854), in opposition to the causes of slavery. What keeps Pierce out of the very bad rankings is his fiscal record: he paid down the national debt by an amazing 83%.

31. James Polk. (11th president, 1845-1849, Democrat). Rating: Bad. Polk is usually praised by historians for accomplishing all of his stated goals, even though those goals were terrible. He recklessly courted war with two countries at once (Mexico and Britain), and unethically provoked the weaker one (Mexico), for what he perceived as a God-given right. The term manifest destiny gained traction on his watch, as critics ridiculed him for his “God given rights”, and for waging a war which the American citizens and Congressmen resented. Polk actively promoted slavery: not only did the Mexican War itself advance that cause, but he took part in crushing the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which would have at least banned slavery in newly acquired territories. Saving him from the cellar of this ranking is that he respected people’s civil liberties during wartime (which is rare in U.S. history), and he also successfully fought inflation and opposed tariffs.

32. Theodore Roosevelt. (26th president, 1901-1909, Republican). Rating: Bad. Teddy is on Mount Rushmore, but he absolutely shouldn’t be. He was not a constitutional president and he brazenly flouted the document. He set an extremely dangerous precedent — that it was okay for the president to ignore or go beyond the document he swore to uphold. He was blasted by legislature officials for this, but Teddy was unfazed, stating that he could do whatever he wanted “for the greater good”. (Donald Trump has been similarly drunk on his own self regard.) Teddy perverted the Monroe Doctrine and constantly meddled in other countries for no good reason. He believed that African Americans were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”, outrageously declaring a group of black soldiers guilty until proven innocent. On the plus side, Teddy got Congress to pass reforms like The Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which served the much needed cause of sanitation and the proper labeling of ingredients in food and drugs. He was also an environmental conservationist and set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust — for national monuments, parks, forests, bird refuges, and game preserves.

33. Barack Obama. (44th president, 2009-2017, Democrat). Rating: Bad. Obama was George W. the Second, though a slightly improved version of Dubya. Foreign policy wise, Obama repeated Bush’s disasters as if trying to outdo him. Bush removed Saddam; Obama removed Mubarak and Gaddafi. The result was the same: Islamists/jihadists stepped in and made things worse. Bush used drone attacks; Obama increased the drones tenfold. Bush peddled Islam as a religion of peace; Obama carried the propaganda to irresponsible lengths, even ordering a purge of any mention of “Islam” from counter-terrorism training, blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror. To his credit he killed Bin Laden, but did nothing to stop the covert war on terror after killing him. Domestically, Obama followed Bush’s playbook in using toxic bailout/stimulus relief strategies; and like Dubya printed money to kingdom come. Other Bush-sins include detentions without trial, domestic spying, and warrantless searches. To his credit, Obama stopped torture overseas, refused to suspend habeas corpus, made a couple of moves for gay rights, and did some things for the environment. But he did nothing to combat the drug war (for a black president in the 21st century that’s a major strike) and nothing to help the middle class, which fueled the rise of Donald Trump.

34. Lyndon Johnson. (36th president, 1963-1969, Democrat). Rating: Bad. He was the most effective president in U.S. history (James Polk was a close second), and not for the better, accomplishing his goals by doing the wrong things in the worst possible situations. The only good thing he did was push for and sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — fully accepting that he was sacrificing his own party in the South — and that critical landmark keeps Johnson from falling in the bottom category of this list as a complete failure. Everything else was disaster. He fought the Vietnam war, which he knew and acknowledged was stupid and wrong, and for purely political purposes; then he escalated it to the point of getting 58,000 American soldiers killed — one of the most reprehensible acts of any Commander in Chief. His Great Society program was a train wreck, promising the abolition of poverty, where in fact Johnson had no idea how to abolish poverty (any more than anyone does). In his mind there were no limits and he acted like Santa Clause.

35. Donald Trump. (45th president, 2017-2021, Republican). Rating: Very bad. Trump gets due credit: He kept America out of war and put an end to the vain, costly, and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama, which had made things worse in the Mid-East and indeed for the world. He knew when to strike appropriately (against Soleimani), and he commendably withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, currently the best Supreme Court justice (no points for Kavanagh though, and it’s still too early to tell about Barrett). He made Obamacare non-mandatory. Those are non-trivial points. But the rest of Trump’s record is abysmal. He gave fake tax cuts (like Reagan and the Younger Bush) without making cuts to federal spending; he supported tariffs, which protect businessmen but not free trade; his Muslim travel suspensions were Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), but they were needless and toothless (not least since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist); his wall along the Mexican border was absurd, and his mass detentions and separating children from their parents was an appallingly inhumane way to handle illegal border crossings; he withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement; he was no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water; he fired the Pandemic Response Team and mismanaged the Covid crisis; he undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas opposed their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc. His rhetoric inflamed white supremacist groups; racial violence escalated during his administration. Worst of all, like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump openly flouted the Constitution, by making fastuous appeals to the Constitution itself, which on his reading gave him the right to do whatever he pleased. He was an unbridled authoritarian. In the final days of his term, he incited violence, prompting rioters to storm the Capitol in an attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. It’s true that this was not an actual attempted coup (the military was not involved), and it was put down swiftly by the Trump administration itself, but a dark stain nonetheless.

36. John Adams. (2nd president, 1797-1801, Federalist). Rating: Very bad. He almost brought a ruinous war down on America. Strangely, he is usually given credit for avoiding that war with France, but it was he who stoked up the battle fever to begin with. His notorious sins involve committing some of the worst crimes against liberty in American history, with The Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams enforced these acts with zeal. The acts (1) made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act), (2) allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), (3) allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act), and (4) criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act). Before he left office, he pulled a stunt that presaged FDR. After he lost the election to Jefferson, he took the last month of his term to stack the courts with partisan (Federalist) judges. John Adams was a disgrace, and the fact that he was the second president shows how vulnerable the republic was in its earliest years, even with the hatred of British tyranny still hot on people’s minds.

37. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (32nd president, 1933-1945, Democrat). Rating: Very bad. Like Ronald Reagan, FDR has been enshrined in myth as a demigod, but the myths are even deeper and the offenses more egregious. School teachers tell kids that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, Roosevelt lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president. The best part of his presidency is that he won World War II, which (from our hindsight perspective) needed to be won; but to get there he provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed. Aside from a few provisions, most of the New Deal was disastrous to the economy and prolonged the recession. As far as his treatment of minorities, he issued one good executive order, stating that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. Outside of that singular positive deed, he avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans in camps as if they had the plague. During the war he used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested. He assaulted the Supreme Court by filling it with friendlies. FDR, to say the least, was a disgrace.

38. Andrew Jackson. (7th president, 1829-1837, Democrat). Rating: Very bad. The best thing Andrew Jackson did — vetoing the Second National Bank — he did for the worst reason.  But at least he did it, and for decades the American people were better off. The problem with the national bank is that it had no accountability to the American people, and was essentially an independent fourth branch of government — dominating the economy while operating completely free of any checks and balances. It had the power to destroy state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans; it gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk; it was knee-deep in corruption, bribing government officials and making sweet deals with congressmen newspaper editors. But Jackson had supported the Bank when he was Senator from Tennessee (in 1823-1825), and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. From then on, he was on a crusade to kill the bank simply to spite his arch-enemy Henry Clay. Which he did. Also, Jackson was the only president in history who balanced the federal budget to the point that there was no national debt at all. Big kudos there. But unfortunately everything else he did was pernicious. His fiscal war with Nicolas Biddle and his specie circular were the primary causes of the Panic of 1837. He began the spoils system, resulting in amateurism and unearned privileges in civil service, which wouldn’t be fixed until Chester Arthur’s Pendleton Act in 1883. He was the first active pro-slavery president, ramming through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal, and infringing on free speech. He signed the Indian Removal Act, and was responsible for more pain and suffering on the part of the Natives than any other president. He gave the middle finger to the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties.

39. James Buchanan. (15th president, 1857-1861, Democrat). Rating: Complete Failure. Buchanan was like Franklin Pierce — a northerner who went out of his way to accommodate, encourage, and inflame the pro-slavery cause of the South — but even worse than Pierce, and with none of the fiscal positives that keeps Pierce out of my lowest tier. Picking up where Pierce left off, Buchanan wreaked chaos on the battleground of the Kansas Territory: A pro-slavery faction in Lecompton had drafted a constitution that allowed slavery, and they encouraged pro-slavery residents of Missouri to state-hop and vote illegally in Kansas, while denying Kansas residents a vote if they favored a free state. On top of that, the Lecompton government made it a felony to criticize slavery. Anti-slave forces were bullshit with rage by this perversion of democracy and set up their own alternate government in Topeka. Buchanan openly favored Lecompton over Topeka, and sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress to be approved — using bribes and threatening peoples’ jobs to get the thing passed. His bribes came in all forms: cash, commissions, even whores. Because of Buchanan’s appalling shenanigans, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions. Pierce’s shenanigans had already caused enough outrage that the Republican Party was born; Buchanan enraged the northern Democrats to a breaking point. Buchanan then took the worst of both worlds. Once Lincoln was elected, and southern states started to secede, Buchanan sent a message to congress stating (1) that secession was illegal, but (2) that the Constitution didn’t allow him to force a state to stay in the union. He was dead wrong on both counts. If a president so chooses, he can act in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and allow states to secede. But he also has the authority, under the mildly centralizing powers of the Constitution, to put down secession attempts — again, if he so chooses. So Buchanan could have done either. He could have let the South go, or he could have done as Millard Fillmore did (see #12), by strengthening southern forts and sending in military forces to stop secession. Either option would have averted the imminent Civil War. Instead, Buchanan sat on his worthless ass, and said that his hands were tied.

40. George W. Bush. (43rd president, 2001-2009, Republican). Rating: Complete Failure. Aside from Woodrow Wilson (see #41), George W. Bush has the most catastrophic foreign policy record of any American president. He was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them. He was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed the lesser evil of Saddam Hussein. He was responsible for peddling a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, just as it drove the Barbary Pirates in the days of Thomas Jefferson (who unlike Bush knew how to properly smash jihadists). He was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq, for a war entirely without cause. The largest antiwar protests in history exploded over the globe. Bush’s domestic policies were just as outrageous. He caused the Great Recession (the worst hit since the Great Depression) and made it worse with bailouts — a horrendous policy on many levels, not least because it encourages more reckless decisions in the future by corporations who feel they can rely on Uncle Sam to save them from extinction. He tyrannically expanded the powers of the presidency, disdaining Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as commander in chief he wasn’t subject to the separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. Most notoriously, he created CIA detention centers overseas, and the Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture. He violated the Fourth Amendment with glee. There was nothing redeeming to his presidency. Nothing at all.

41. Woodrow Wilson. (28th president, 1913-1921, Democrat). Rating: Complete Failure. Wilson ruined the 20th century and beyond. If he had kept America out of World War I, the war would have ended sooner and for the better of all involved, and history would have turned out much differently. Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin were all monsters born of Woodrow Wilson’s policies. Even aside from World War I, Wilson aggressively intervened elsewhere; he was the most devastatingly interventionist president in U.S. history. He invaded Mexico, because — incredibly — a Mexican general refused to give a U.S. naval officer a twenty-one gun salute; he invaded Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and then Mexico again, repeatedly. These invasions were justified on the propaganda of “spreading democracy”, but really served neo-colonial interests like oil (in Mexico), collecting bank revenue (in Haiti and Cuba), and other greedy drives. Then there was the Spanish Flu. Donald Trump was not the first president who mismanaged a deadly pandemic. Wilson downplayed the impact of the Spanish Flu and refused to implement extensive health measures that medical professionals were recommending that would help slow its spread. Between October 1918 and April 2020, 675,000 Americans were killed by the flu. Wilson created the Federal Reserve, which shafts the working class with perpetual inflation and cheap credit, excessively expands the money supply, devalues the nation’s currency, is responsible for routine bailouts, and is unable to generate long-lasting economic recovery. Then there was racism. Even by early 20th century standards, Wilson was a virulent white supremacist. He pushed for legislation to restrict the civil liberties of blacks. He put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and of course the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. For that matter, Wilson’s presidency was the worst time in U.S. history for anyone’s civil liberties. Conscription was resurrected from the Civil War: the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized Wilson to draft men against their will. The Constitution doesn’t authorize a military draft, and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits involuntary service. This act has never been repealed, and to this day American men are required to register for the draft. The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or the aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war. John Adams (during the Quasi-War with France) and Abraham Lincoln (during the Civil War) were atrocious like this too, but Woodrow Wilson outdid even them.

 

Excellent

1. John Tyler (I)
2. Warren Harding (R)
3. George Washington (F)
4. Rutherford Hayes (R)

Very Good

5. Chester Arthur (R)
6. James Monroe (D-R)
7. Harry Truman (D)
8. Dwight Eisenhower (R)
9. Calvin Coolidge (R)

Good

10. Jimmy Carter (D)
11. John Quincy-Adams (D-R)
12. Millard Fillmore (W)
13. James Madison (D-R)

Average

14. Thomas Jefferson (D-R)
15. Bill Clinton (D)
16. Gerald Ford (R)
17. John F. Kennedy (D)
18. William Howard Taft (R)
19. Benjamin Harrison (R)
20. Ronald Reagan (R)

Poor

21. Abraham Lincoln (R)
22. Herbert Hoover (R)
23. George H. W. Bush (R)
24. Andrew Johnson (D)
25. Ulysses Grant (R)
26. Grover Cleveland (D)
27. Richard Nixon (R)
28. Martin Van Buren (D)

Bad

29. William McKinley (R)
30. Franklin Pierce (D)
31. James Polk (D)
32. Theodore Roosevelt (R)
33. Barack Obama (D)
34. Lyndon Johnson (D)

Very Bad

35. Donald Trump (R)
36. John Adams (F)
37. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D)
38. Andrew Jackson (D)

Complete Failure

39. James Buchanan (D)
40. George W. Bush (R)
41. Woodrow Wilson (D)

This Venn diagram

It’s amusing to see Trump in this Venn centerfold, but the overall chart is somewhat misleading. First of all, a single term isn’t necessarily a mark of presidential shortfall. It can mean quite the opposite in fact: some of America’s best presidents failed to secure a second term precisely because they did the right thing instead of what their party expected of them, which doomed their chances at reelection. Second, impeachments aren’t necessarily deserved. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton should have never been impeached; the fact that they were is no real strike against them.

Let’s focus on the one-terms. The chart properly omits the single-term presidents who died or were assassinated while in office (Harrison, Taylor, Garfield, Harding, Kennedy), and also those who pledged at the outset to serve only one term (Polk, Buchanan, Hayes), as well as the one whose party (the Whigs) dissolved at the end of his presidency (Fillmore). The chart should however include the two presidents who had intended to run for a second term and chose not to only when they realized they didn’t stand a chance (Tyler and Arthur). Conversely, the chart should have probably omitted Grover Cleveland, since he did get a second term, if non-consecutively. So instead of the 13 presidents listed in the “one-term” bubble, I would list the following 14:

John Adams (2nd)
John Quincy Adams (6th)
Martin Van Buren (8th)
John Tyler (10th)
Franklin Pierce (14th)
Andrew Johnson (17th)
Chester Arthur (21st)
Benjamin Harrison (23rd)
Grover Cleveland (22nd & 24th)
William Taft (27th)
Herbert Hoover (31st)
Gerald Ford (38th)
Jimmy Carter (39th)
George H.W. Bush (41st)
Donald Trump (45th)

The only really bad presidents on this list were John Adams, Franklin Pierce, and Donald Trump. Most were poor to average, and others were quite good (John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter) or even excellent (John Tyler, Chester Arthur). In the case of those four, it was precisely their good policy decisions that alienated their base and doomed them to a single term. John Tyler (1841-45) vetoed the Third National Bank, infuriating his Whig colleagues. Chester Arthur (1881-85) implemented the landmark Pendleton Act (which Donald Trump tried dismantling), thereby alienating his Stalwart Republican base. Jimmy Carter (1977-81), who gets a bum rap, prioritized fighting inflation over unemployment, turning his Democrat base away from him. Even George H.W. Bush (1989-93), while on whole a poor president, did a few things right, one of which was raising taxes against his promise not to (in order to heal the budget), turning his Republican constituency against him.

The point to take from this is that doing what’s best for the country often means sacrificing yourself when that policy doesn’t go over well. Imagine where we’d be today without the Pendleton Act. Many two-term presidents were horrible ones.

 

 

The Dune Series Ranked, and the Question of White Saviors

I’ve been dreaming of spice lately. That precious commodity belched up by sandworms the length of four football fields. It tastes like cinnamon and smells like it more. It promotes longevity. It allows some to see the future. It makes interstellar travel possible, allowing pilots to see through vast distances and safely plot their courses. Imagine a super drug that functioned like a psychedelic version of cocaine and the mental equivalent of petroleum. That’s spice, and it’s what wars are waged over in the Dune universe.

I’ve been dreaming of spice because I did a marathon of the Dune series. There’s always a lot going on in these books, with characters working at cross-purposes even when they seem like they’re on the same side. Everyone is trying to outmaneuver someone else, and no one seems to enjoy life very much. In fairness they have little reason to enjoy it, when messiahs, gods, and reverend mothers keep going out of their way to wreak disaster. Paul wages war across the galaxy; Leto keeps humanity bottled in tyranny; Odrade brings to power those who sexually enslave men. All of this in the name of saving humanity.

Before ranking the books, I want to address the question that never goes away, and which has gained traction especially with the new film being promoted: is Dune a racist “white savior” story?

Dune as a white savior narrative

The answer is no. Dune isn’t a white savior narrative, because Paul Atreides isn’t a savior. What he achieves isn’t good; it’s evil and terrible. He knows the role he will play from the start due to his prescience: he sees the future of his “terrible purpose” — his jihad which will kill billions — when he becomes the Kwisatz Haderach. His jihad isn’t confined to the Dune planet. It devastates the galaxy, lasting twelve years, killing billions of people and wiping out planets. That “salvation” then ushers in a barbaric reign of oppression under the Fremen. On top of that, Paul isn’t willing to undergo the tormenting metamorphosis to ensure humanity’s survival in the future. That falls to his son Leto, who becomes the God Emperor Sandworm, and who is as bad as Paul in any case — reigning for 3500 years as the Tyrant, oppressing people for their “ultimate good”, so as to instill in the human race a genetic hatred for authoritarianism that will allow future generations to expand and diversify.

Dune, in other words, is the very opposite of a savior narrative (whether “white” or whatever). It’s a slam against saviors. If the reader is so obtuse to miss this, Hebert explained it in interviews: “I had this idea that messiahs and superheroes were disastrous for humans.” And from the other horse’s mouth, Paul himself: “At a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others.” It’s true that Paul helps the Fremen achieve the dream of making Dune a green world with accessible water, but the costs to that dream are off-the-scales. The Fremen end up ruling the galaxy under a sharia-like law that sends everyone into the dark ages.

Paul Atreides is a lot like Game of Thrones‘ Danaerys Targaryen. The woke left have cried “white savior” over her too, but this is just as absurd. After she liberates the slaves of Mereen, Dany is more a problem than a solution. George Martin has also been accused of reinforcing “Oriental” stereotypes, when in fact he subverts those stereotypes throughout his saga. The white westerns of Westeros are just as cruel and dishonorable as the Dothraki and other eastern peoples, within the context of their cultures. Martin, like Herbert, depicted charismatic leaders who had no business sitting a throne.

Put simply, Dune isn’t Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, or Avatar. When you read insane articles like this, treat them with the contempt that they deserve. Articles trying to be fair to both sides aren’t much better. The fact that Paul Atreides is white means nothing in itself; that he turns out to be the “perfect” human being (the Kwisatch Haderach) from a eugenics experiment isn’t an endorsement of eugenics in our real world. Don’t manufacture offense where there’s none.

The Rankings

With that out of the way, here are my rankings of the six novels: 1 > 3 > 5 > 6 > 4 > 2. The odd numbered volumes are the best, and they descend, whereas the even numbered volumes ascend. Click on the titles for full reviews, except for the first. I didn’t bother reviewing Dune in full, as it would be as pointless as reviewing Lord of the Rings.

1. Dune. 5 stars. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel of all time, let alone the series it starts, is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill over sixty billion people and sterilize planets. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty-five years ago.

2. Children of Dune. 4 ½ stars. The third volume puts Paul’s children on a path to hell, a long-lasting “peace” that is destined crush the human spirit worse than Paul’s jihad did. It features mythical desert sites that host terrible miracles. It brings back Paul in a way that doesn’t cheat, and compounds his tragedy. In my unpopular opinion, Paul Atreides gets his best outing in Children of Dune. In the first book he was a naive hero on the make, and in the second too paralyzed by his disastrous impact. Here he atones for his mess under a lonely prophetic anonymity, hurling screeds of doom against his sister and the priesthood that once served him. Paul the “Preacher” is a genuinely heartbreaking figure and my favorite character of the Dune series, stripped down and hardly recognizable (his eyes are still gone), hating himself for everything done in his name, and thoroughly unable (at first) to give his blessing to the terrible road that his son intends to take: the Golden Path. The final act sees a ripping homage to The Exorcist, when Alia’s possession is finally stopped by her suicide — like Father Karras, she throws herself out a high-story window. And of course Paul is also killed at this climax, bringing his generation of Atreides to a close, and paving the way to God Emperor Leto.

3. Heretics of Dune. 4 stars. The raciest and most action-packed of the six novels is largely about sex, and the clash between two opposing matriarchal forces, the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres. The latter are a perversion of the former, intent on the enslavement of all mankind under sexual subservience. This book is the opposite in every way of its predecessor God Emperor of Dune, which had little very plot. In Heretics there’s so much plot and counterplot that only by the end do we make sense of who has been doing what to whom for what reason. It turns out that Mother Superior Taraza has been manipulating her subordinates Odrade (on planet Rakis) and Lucilla (on planet Gammu) to produce counter-intuitive results. She wants to provoke an all-out attack by the Honored Matres so they will wipe out the Dune planet altogether. It makes for thrilling reading but yields problems when crises tend to be resolved in the blink of an eye. Quick-and-dirty rescue operations make things too easy on the protagonists. If I were judging the book purely as an adventure thriller, I’d give it three stars. It gets four because as a Dune novel it’s more than an adventure; it’s an arms race and sexual power play that interrogates the species. Which it does very well.

4. Chapterhouse: Dune. 3 ½ stars. The end game that should have continued is front-loaded with too much introspection and reflection. It finally builds to a marriage made on the battlefield, between two matriarchal powers that hate as much as they need each other: the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres, each who use sex to manipulate humankind as they see fit, though the Sisterhood less malevolently. (Though perhaps that may be questioned after a shocking scene which shows a 26-year old Reverend Mother molesting a 10-year old boy, forcing his immature erection inside her over his screaming objections.) Odrade is now the Mother Superior of the Sisterhood, and she hatches a wild plan: to infiltrate the Honored Matres, install Murbella as their leader, and then have Murbella also take over as Mother Superior of the Sisterhood when Odrade sacrifices herself. The question is whether she will try to make the Matres more like the Sisterhood or vice versa. Murbella may have been an Matre double agent all along rather than a truly converted Bene Gesserit. Plenty are dissatisfied with this union, and Chapterhouse leaves us with fugitives fleeing the Sisterhood & Matres in a spaceship, with a hint of ghola resurrections and a new sandworm legacy. Maybe it’s best the series did stop here. That’s a lot to deliver on without repeating old ground.

5. God Emperor of Dune. 3 ½ stars. The most divisive book of the series could have been called God Emperor Leto’s Insulting Verbosity. The “narrative” consists of Leto the sandworm denigrating his favorite retainers, taking turns with them, never answering their questions, and making them feel like clueless idiots. His majordomo Moneo struggles to remain loyal throughout this treatment; his ghola Duncan Idaho seethes at being used as a sperm bank, to father kids on various women; the rebel Siona is tested and groomed by Leto for the Golden Path, but his vacuous aphorisms fuel her hatred for him; the Ixian ambassador Hwi Noree agrees to marry him, despite the extreme physiological barriers, and the fact that he deflects her concerns with the usual non-sequiturs. To say the least, Leto is an unrewarding conversation partner. He parries questions with counter-questions, insults, and obnoxious bits of wisdom, and these “discussions” fill about 80% of the novel. While I can understand the frustration of readers who don’t go for this sort of thing, I have to admit that it gratifies me on a rather sick level. In the end, Leto is a more tragic figure than his father, but much less sympathetic. Paul Muad’Dib hated the horrors committed in his name and so rejected his messiahship. Leto embraced his godhood and didn’t shy away from abusing his power and his subjects. By rights Dune Messiah should have been the better book, but God Emperor carries more conviction.

6. Dune Messiah. 2 ½ stars. Dune was an impossible act to follow, even for a genius like Herbert. It had everything — family drama, political intrigue, wilderness survival, action, introspection — and never for a split-second cheated the reader. Dune Messiah has little of any of that, and instead shitloads of sulking as Paul drowns in the self-pity of his messianic woes. The plot is sketchy, revolving around a conspiracy against this Emo-Paul; the conspirators range from the half-competent to the ineffectual, and succeed mostly in scoring philosophical zingers against each other that the reader can’t make sense of. Messiah is essentially a chamber piece that reads like an interlude between Dune and Children of Dune, showing how Paul’s reign fizzles out before his son Leto’s will begin. This could have worked fine, with a little more story and a lot less gas, but Herbert evidently wanted to write a sequel that was different from Dune in every single way, even to the point of ditching the essentials of narration itself. The best parts are when Paul is blinded in a terrorist attack, and his final act of rejecting his messiahship and walking off into the desert.

Retrospective: Chapterhouse Dune

Invisible pressures converged. A web enclosed the Sisterhood. The strands held them tightly. And somewhere on that web, a faceless Honored Matre commander crouched. Spider Queen…

And so finally Chapterhouse. The end of the road that shouldn’t have been the end. As cliffhangers go, the final pages offer the most outrageous I’ve read in sci-fic/fantasy, made all the worse by the fact that the author never resolved  it. Herbert’s death in 1986 killed the final Dune novel in its crib. Yes, I’m aware that Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson have written that seventh novel (in two volumes: Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune), but I’m almost afraid to read them given the high expectations.

I began my Dune marathon after the movie trailer was released (on September 9) and it’s been an immensely fun ride. The excellence has been intermittent, with the odd number volumes (Dune, Children of Dune, Heretics of Dune) impressing more than the even number ones (Dune Messiah, God Emperor of Dune, Chapterhouse) which get mired in some of the introspection. Despite the original marketing, the series isn’t really two trilogies, rather three duologies. Dune and Dune Messiah are all Paul Atreides, his rise in the first novel and regrets in the second. Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune deal with his son Leto, his ascension in the third novel and tyranny in the fourth. Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse are Odrade’s story, as she climbs the ladder in the fifth novel and masterminds in the sixth.

Chapterhouse is the story of a marriage made on the battlefield — between two matriarchal powers that hate as much as they need each other: the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres. Each uses sex to manipulate humankind as they see fit, though the Sisterhood is less malevolent about it. The Matres are a perverted version of the Sisterhood, ruthlessly enslaving mankind under sexual subservience. While the Sisters do manipulate men under a policy of systematic rape (the equivalent of drugging someone into “consent”) in order to achieve desired results, the Matres turn men into sex addicts in thrall to the woman’s every cruel whim. Men raped by Reverend Mothers are imprinted to act favorably (in varying degrees) to the Sisterhood afterwards, but they aren’t robbed of their will.

Odrade is now the Mother Superior of the Bene Gesserit (after Taraza’s death in Heretics), and she hatches a wild plan: to infiltrate the Honored Matres, install Murbella as their leader, and then have Murbella also take over as Mother Superior of the Sisterhood when Odrade sacrifices herself. Murbella, as a former Honored Matres (captured in Heretics) and trained in the Bene Gesserit for a decade now, is judged by Odrade to be the perfect instrument in uniting the two groups. The question is whether she will try to make the Matres more like the Sisterhood or vice versa. She may have been an Matre double agent all along rather than a truly converted Bene Gesserit. We’ll never know since Herbert didn’t write the seventh novel.

The novel is a slow-build toward the Sisterhood’s attack on the Matres’ planet; the first half is filled with Odrade’s inner reflections. She’s an interesting character, but it is a bit much, like the stylistic problems with Dune Messiah and God Emperor of Dune; somewhat of a waste of Herbert’s storytelling talents. When the pieces start moving, the board finally gets interesting… and some of the scenes impossible to look away from. Keep reading if you dare.

Miles Teg gets his memories back — and how

The most unforgettable scene — of the entire six-volume series, let alone Chapterhouse — is Sheeana’s rape of the 10-year old Miles Teg. Sheeana is no longer the 15-year old girl of Heretics; she is now 26, a skilled Reverend Mother, and is ordered by Odrade to force Miles into having sex with her:

“Isn’t someone coming to help me?” Teg demanded. More desperation in his voice than predicted. “Isn’t someone going to tell me what to do?” The young voice had a lonely piping sound.

Sheeana’s cue and she entered the room through a hidden hatch behind Teg. “Here I am.” She wore only a gossamer robe of pale blue, almost transparent. It clung to her as she strode around to face the boy.

He gawked. This was a Reverend Mother? He had never seen one robed that way. “You’re going to give me back my memories?” Doubt and desperation.

“I will help you give them back to yourself.”  As she spoke, she slipped out of the robe and tossed it aside. It floated to the floor like a great blue butterfly.

Teg stared at her. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” She sat down beside him and put a hand on his penis.

His head tipped forward as though pushed from behind and he stared at her hand as an erection formed in it.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No! You know! Why won’t you tell me?”

“I’m not your memory.”

“Why’re you humming like that?”

She put her lips against his neck. The humming was clear to the watchers. Murbella called it an intensifier, feedback keyed to the sexual response. It grew louder.

“What’re you doing?” Almost a shriek as she sat him astraddle of her.

She swayed, massaging the small of his back.

“Answer me, damn you!” he shrieked.

Sheeana slipped him into her. “Here’s your answer!”

His mouth formed a soundless “Ohhhhhhhhhh.”

The watchers saw her concentration on Teg’s eyes but Sheeana watched him with other senses as well.

Feel the tensing of his thighs, the telltale vagus pulse, and especially note the darkening of his nipples. When you have him at that point, sustain it until his pupils dilate.

“Imprinter!” Teg screamed.

Imagine if this scene had been written in the 21st century instead of the ’80s: a ten-year old boy, placed naked on the floor in a room surrounded by spectating women, is then raped as he screams objections. These women, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, are the protagonists — or what can ever pass for protagonism in the Dune universe — and they are watching the whole thing to supervise the event, but they come across like pedophilic voyeurs. Today’s readers would excoriate Frank Herbert and demand that his books be delisted.

It’s a powerful scene that shows the excruciating psychological ordeal of the ghola. In order to unlock the memories of the individual he’s been resurrected from, the ghola must pass through a trauma. In Dune Messiah the trauma was unresolved conflict: the Duncan Idaho ghola remembered his life as the first Duncan Idaho when he tried to carry out his assassination order against Paul; the clash between his programming and his innate love for the Atreides family was too much, and his memory returned. In Heretics of Dune the trauma was harassment: the umpteenth Duncan Idaho ghola remembered all of his previous lives when the bashar (colonel) Miles Teg bombarded him with psychologically upsetting questions and provocations. In Chapterhouse the trauma is rape, and of a child no less. The first Miles Teg died at the end of Heretics of Dune, and the Sisterhood, needing his military brilliance, had a ghola made of him. When events converge in Chapterhouse, the Miles Teg ghola is only ten years old, and the Sisters can’t wait; they absolutely require his previous military knowledge for their attack on the Matres’ planet. And so they come up with this bright idea of sexually molesting him. I suppose that is a smart idea. Pretty reprehensible too.

The Wildlings over the Wall

Murbella is set up as the key figure for what would surely have been a cracking final novel. In Heretics of Dune she was captured by the Sisterhood when she tried to sexually enslave Duncan Idaho — only to be enslaved by him since he’d been programmed by the Tleilaxu as a weapon against the Honored Matres. They had fallen in love in their confinement on Chapterhouse’s no-ship, which put me in mind of Jon Snow and Ygritte’s love affair in the cave. In the end Murbella is let loose by Odrade (who hasn’t told the other Sisters about her audacious plan) to become both the new Grand Matre and Mother Superior… welcoming the hordes of Honored Matres onto Chapterhouse planet. Years before Game of Thrones, Frank Herbert let the Wildlings over the Wall.

Those on the no-ship don’t like this development to say the least and make a hasty escape: Duncan Idaho and Miles Teg, the two gholas; Sheeana, who can control sandworms; Scytale, the Tleilaxu master; a Jewish Rabbi and his wife; and some other members of the Sisterhood. Sheeana has a baby worm, and Scytale has (wait for it) a vial containing old cells of Dune legends — Paul Atreides, Chani, the Lady Jessica, Alia, etc. — and it’s not hard to see where that would have gone in book 7. Chapterhouse leaves us with fugitives heading out into the Scattering with nothing less than a Dune civilization starter kit. A promise of ghola resurrections and a new sandworm legacy. Maybe it’s best the series did stop here. That’s a lot to deliver on without repeating old ground.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5