I didn’t grow up in California, so certain things about the history of the state, and in particular the history of San Francisco, only slide into place when I have a little more context. This can be around little everyday things — it was only after reading a history of the colonization of California by the Spanish, and subsequent annexation by the United States, that I understand the origin of half the street names in this city.
At a deeper level than street names, if you live anywhere long enough, you start to ask questions, often in fuzzy and inchoate ways. A lot of those questions boil down to: “How did we get here?” In San Francisco, a lot of the “how we got here” questions have at least some roots in the period Talbot covers in Season of the Witch, between 1967 and 1982. Talbot covers the Symbionese Liberation Army and their kidnapping of Patty Hearst, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone by Dan White, the Zebra killings, and some other less deadly but still fairly sinister episodes.
It’s not a perfect history, and the decision to end with (but not explore deeply) the AIDS crisis and the 49ers victories doesn’t seem quite right. But if you read this alongside Randy Shilts’s works (The Band Played On, The Mayor of Castro Street), the holes start to fill in. Among other effects, you start to see the force of history in the people and politics of today. Knowing our current Mayor Ed Lee, seen as a force of corporate gentrification in today’s housing crisis, got his start as a housing activist protecting the Chinese community changes how you see him, regardless of your opinion of his policies. Knowing (in gruesome detail) that Senator Feinstein saw the bodies of her murdered colleagues in City Hall and had to make the announcement of the assassination to the city goes a long way to explaining her personal brand of law & order politics, for example.
Also, in reading it, I’m apparently being a good San Francisco citizen and reading the One City Book of 2015.
Hugo and Nebula award winner! Despite some nasty Hugo award related hijinks. There’s an interesting Gender Thing, which works well in context and I enjoyed, but overall the story fits neatly into an Iain Banks style of space opera – very focused on the problems of empire, amorality, and an overall sense of futility, with also some stuff blowing up and cool things. The antagonist (kinda), Anaander Mianaai, is probably one of my favorite villains (sorta) in any recent novel. I’m eager to see what she does with the universe next.