It's a bright and sunny day; I've got the office window open, the cats are dozing on the sofa, and in between fitful bursts of writing I'm daydreaming about heading for one of Edinburgh's many public gardens with a book and a bottle of water.
Speaking of books, I haven't been reading enough lately. On the fiction front, stuff is piling up; I was meaning to read and review Cory Doctorow's Little Brother some weeks ago, and I've just been given advance copies of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains and Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids to review. Or blurb. (Or drool over incontinently while muttering "precioussss" — as one does to advance copies of books by authors whose work induces much fannish squeeing.)
But enough of that. What I have been reading is mostly research around some of my current writing preoccupations. That'd involve dictators, and secret police, and other twisted epiphenomena of politics gone bad. On the secret police front, to try and get a feel for what living in a police state actually means to the ordinary people on the receiving end of it, I can solidly recommend Stasiland by Anna Funde. The creepy sense it conveys — of how our existence as social organisms is mediated by the society around us, and how people who in other societies might have been drawn to the professions of plausibility (insurance sales, real-estate, advertising) instead ended up forming the serious-minded backbone of the East German secret police, the Stasi — feeds directly into other explorations of how social architecture controls human behaviour. For a more theoretical exploration of this problem, Philip Zimbardo should require no introduction; his The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People turn Evil is a timely and relevant reminder of the Stanford Prison study, and an explanation of just what it tells us about the effects of inhumane social systems on the behaviour of the inmates (be they prisoners or guards) — in this case, with specific reference to Abu Ghraib.
Drawing the focus in from the wide picture of abusive societies, I've also been reading up on dictators — actual individuals who wield unrestrained executive power. Dictators never cease to fascinate; Hannah Arendt's thesis about the banality of evil notwithstanding, something about these men frequently transcends our expectations of brutality and petty malice, rising to the level of surrealism. They're frequently uneducated, frequently thuggish, and mostly use their position in the military to seize power in chaotic circumstances with a large measure of blind luck on their side; once in power they find themselves propelled onto the world stage, blinking and twitching under the bright lights like rabid groundhogs. Subsequently, they usually give the shocked audience an object lesson of what happens when the ultimate lottery drops an enormous pay-off on the head of a complete asshole — but do they have any insight into their own condition? Riccardo Orizio, in Talk of the Devil, tracked down and interviewed seven deposed dictators, from Idi Amin Dada and Jean-Bedel Bokassa (former NCOs in the old imperial powers' armies, made good in the wake of the western withdrawal from Africa) to the schoolmasterly and severe General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a former general in a rather different imperial power's service (made good in the chaos of the 1980s that marked the onset of the collapse of the Soviet empire) and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
I'm probably not giving anything away if I mention that they don't come over well — although I'd have a devil of a job parodying a real dictator of their ilk in fiction. (Many of the antics of Idi Amin, for example, would have been perfect for an episode of Heil Honey, I'm Home! ... albeit slightly too blood-drenched to show on British network TV before the 9pm watershed.)
Finally, if that's not enough to demonstrate that the triumph of the will is no guarantor of good taste, I'd like to recommend the high weirdness of Dictator's Homes: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colourful Despots by Peter York and Douglas Coupland. A lush, photographic travelogue accompanied by an acerbic style commentary, it's as much a tour through the subconscious desires and longings of these little men, gifted with too much power and too little restraint; much as your (or my) furnishings and surroundings can tell you a lot about us, so, too, do the palaces of dictators expose their fears and neuroses. (Which goes double for Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu's bathroom habits; readers with a weak stomach probably ought to skip that section.)
Summary: this stuff isn't just banal, it's deeply strange, with a salad portion of evil on the side. Implications for the student of the human condition: significant.