Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Book Review - The Noah Option

Today, I am going to do another first for Twilight Patriot: reviewing a book by an author who personally asked for the review, and was kind enough to send me the book for free. Michael McCarthy is a semi-retired corporate trainer who lives in North Carolina; he recently discovered my blog, became a big fan, and asked me to review his debut novel, The Noah Option.

In case you’re wondering whether McCarthy is riffing off the popularity of Rod Dreher’s 2017 book The Benedict Option (which was my first thought, too) it turns out that he isn’t, since The Noah Option was published back in 2009, apparently as a response to the wave of anti-capitalist, pro-big-government rhetoric that hoisted Barack Obama into the Oval Office.

According to McCarthy, his novel was inspired by Atlas Shrugged, though it’s easy to tell that he has very different religious views than Ayn Rand did, and he displays them in his book by making his heroes men and women of faith.

Also, if you're asking whether the choice of title indicates that this is a story about mass dieoff – in the sense of all but eight people in the whole world being drowned – don’t worry; McCarthy’s book is actually a lot less violent than the biblical story which inspired its title.

I am not going to praise the literary aspects of McCarthy’s storytelling. The characters constantly make long, blocky speeches with no resemblance to the way people talk to one another in real life, and at times they interrupt their conversation even further to make longwinded references to the author’s favorite novels, plays, and political philosophers, such as Thomas Sowell.

The main characters have no apparent flaws, weaknesses, or inadequacies to overcome: from page one, both the hero and the heroine are the perfect lover, the perfect friend, the perfect athlete, the perfect scientist or businessman, and the perfect Christian – at least, within McCarthy’s own “prosperity gospel” sense of what that entails. Near the beginning, the two leads get in a small lovers’ quarrel, which is resolved two or three pages later; otherwise, none of the sympathetic characters ever have any disagreements with one another.

Now, since this is McCarthy’s first novel, and since I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has gotten better at the craft of writing with his subsequent works, I will spend the rest of my review analysing the underlying political and scientific assumptions of The Noah Option, and the suggestions it makes about America’s future. I will, as always, be frank about where I think the story gets things right, and where it gets things wrong.

The cover pitch for the novel begins as follows: “A tsunami of coercion and control floods the nation, wrecking lives and livelihoods....” After we open the book, we find that our heroine, Grace Washington, is a geneticist at Tuskegee University, where she creates GMO seeds for maize and other food crops. Everybody – hero and villain alike – agrees that these seeds can “end world hunger.” Like Norman Borlaug, the real-world botanist on whom Grace is modeled, she has won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

As I hinted they would, this character and her accomplishments strike me as unbelievable on account of being too perfect. Unlike the real Norman Borlaug, who won his Nobel Prize after a lifetime of work, Grace Washington is still a nubile young woman in at most her early thirties. And her seeds are far superior to anything that exists in real life, GMO or not. We’re repeatedly told that they yield four times more food than ordinary seeds, on one tenth as much land, using one tenth as much water, with one tenth as much fertilizer.

This sort of thing is what makes the scientist in me go, “Wait, that’s not how the real world works.

In the real world, after all, technological change is more gradual and involves more trade-offs, i.e. the real Green Revolution involved a lot of higher-yield crops that also required more fertilizer. A similar principle was behind Dr. Borlaug’s most famous achievement, his creation of higher-yielding dwarf plants: unlike wild cereal grains, which have evolved to grow as tall as possible in the struggle for sunlight, domestic grain usually grows in a field where everything is the same height; thus, it can be bred to be shorter and put its excess energy into making bigger seeds.

In the world of The Noah Option, on the other hand, being a geneticist means that nature is like a video game, where if you figure out how to hack the control panel, you can arbitrarily upgrade an organism’s stats to whatever you want them to be.

This simplistic way of looking at the world morphs into the downright silly in the person of Isaiah Mercury, Grace’s brilliant, software-developer boyfriend. His role in the story is to create a program that allows any farmer, anywhere in the world, equipped only with a flip phone, to sell his crops to any buyer, without a middleman – for instance, a farmer in Botswana can now sell his grain harvest directly to a miller or baker in Kenya.

There is no mention of how the grain is going to get to Kenya. Indeed, if McCarthy had even thought about that question, he might have realized that the need for road, rail, and sea transport – and not the lack of brilliantly designed software – is the reason that real farmers, whether they’re poor or not, usually sell to a merchant rather than to the end-user of the food they’re growing.

Thus we see, in both hero and heroine, the cult of the omnipotent entrepreneur in all its Randian hyperbole.

Thankfully, McCarthy’s portrayal of the business accomplishments of several of his minor characters is more balanced, and more realistic. We see, in Grace’s hometown, two friends of hers who are, respectively, a cosmetologist and an auto mechanic. Each has, through a lot of hard work, grown his or her business to the point of being able to employ half a dozen or so young people, starting them off at the bottom rung as teenagers, and helping them advance in the trade until they make a high enough wage to support a family.

Things are going well for each business until, near the beginning of the novel, new, draconian occupational training laws force each of these businesses to lay off most of its employees. This is indeed something that frequently happens in the US today, mostly to small businesses, though sometimes at a larger level as well – just look up what happened to Great Lakes Airlines after the FAA raised the flight experience limit for copilots from 250 hours to 1500.

Then you have the problem of large, controversial construction projects – mines, pipelines, ferries, wind farms, and the like – going through years of construction only to have their permitting process reopened in court by private environmental activist groups, and then getting halted by injunction moments before completion.

McCarthy includes this sort of thing in his book, with the bad guys waiting till the last moment to file their lawsuits, so as to cause maximum economic pain to the corporation that built the infrastructure and to its working-class employees. Meanwhile, the environmentalists themselves keep riding high on the hog, driving down the freeways in their gas-guzzling SUVs, covered in anti-fossil-fuel bumper stickers.

But after this, the author gets into self-parody by having the feds demand that every grocery story lock up all its chocolates and other candy, putting them behind glass like the drugs in the pharmacy section, in order to protect overweight people from their own appetites.

One of the ways in which the liberal elites in McCarthy’s book are such cartoonish caricatures of the real thing is the utter frankness with which they display their hatred for everyone less powerful than themselves. For instance, the activist group litigating against Grace Washington’s seed company repeatedly says, both in courtroom arguments and on the nightly news, things to the effect of: “We are seeking injunctive relief against you, Ms. Washington, because we do not want you to feed the third world. As everyone knows, there are too many people on this planet, and feeding them all will prevent the global population from declining to a sustainable level….”

Also, the leftist President and his cabinet have somehow managed to make a law to the effect that important government officials in need of organ transplants can kill random citizens and take their organs, because “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Basically, the liberals in The Noah Option talk the way that Michael McCarthy wishes real liberals would talk, so that everyone would see what monsters they were, and then the revolution could get started.

Which, in this story, turns out to be a remarkably bloodless revolution. Grace and Isaiah, on the verge of seeing their life’s work destroyed by leftist litigants and regulators, are contacted by members of the “Constitutional Resistance Movement,” who smuggle them to a secret hideaway in New Zealand, along with all their employees and all of the moveable capital of their respective companies, so that they’re essentially just as wealthy in their new home as they were before.

Our hero and heroine, along with the actual organizers of this plot, make long speeches over secret internet channels announcing their plans to the whole American public, and calling upon all the productive members of society to do what they just did – vacate their homes and businesses under cover of darkness, leave a little drawing of Noah’s Ark on the window to show everybody they’ve left their collapsing country behind, and then get themselves smuggled into a Noah Option refuge in Canada, New Zealand, or some similar place. (Just why Canada and New Zealand, which are as much under leftist control as the US, are suddenly willing to shelter huge numbers of right-wing anti-government dissidents is never explained).

The origin of the Constitutional Resistance Movement (CRM for short) is equally murky – we hear nothing of the huge amount of work that must be involved in creating a resistance movement, the long prison sentences that would inevitably face many of its early leaders and organizers, or the internal conflicts over methods and purposes that afflict all real insurgencies.

The CRM just shows up when it’s needed, to smuggle people into New Zealand, or break our heroes out of prison, or set up roadblocks and force “enviro-hypocrites” to be photographed in front of their bumper-sticker-laden SUVs, so that people on the internet can laugh at them. But unlike in the real world, none of these hijinks ever explodes into a firefight with government forces.

Three of the heroes, on various occasions, get captured by the authorities and imprisoned. They always escape, bloodlessly, within a week, and immediately celebrate by eating barbecue. One of the jailbreaks occurs during the middle of a show trial that was probably meant to evoke the ghost of Stalin, but ended up looking more like the courtroom scene from Idiocracy.

At the end of the story, well over ten million of America’s most hardworking and upstanding citizens have vanished into the “ark refuges.” Without these producers keeping the goods and services moving, the American system of government has collapsed, and the President is left standing bewildered in a mostly-empty White House, wondering why there’s no cream for him to put in his morning coffee.

To make a long story short, even though Michael McCarthy and I agree with each other about much of what’s wrong with America’s present system of government, The Noah Option presents a vision for America’s future that is very different from my own.

My vision is about what happens when the American Right keeps responding to social and political change in the same way it has responded for the last 50 years: with too little energy, courage, or intelligence to turn things around. (Rod Dreher and Mencius Moldbug have broadly similar outlooks, and are among my most important influences).

Michael McCarthy’s vision, on the other hand, looks to me like another tired iteration of the old and well-worn fantasy that if we just wait long enough, and give the Left enough chances to look idiotic, then somebody, somewhere, will do something. Grace and Isaiah do not create the Constitutional Resistance Movement; it just shows up when they need it. They do not have to choose between becoming wealthy and famous versus withdrawing from a society that doesn’t share their values; they just wait until they’re presented with a means of doing both.

In the real world, though, belonging to a resistance movement means accepting a large chance that you’ll spend much of your life in prison, if you don’t get yourself killed outright – think of Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, or Klaus von Stauffenberg.

Also, dealing with American decadence by emigrating doesn’t mean hightailing it to New Zealand with your multi-million-dollar company in tow. It’s more likely to mean giving up your nice house and your car and your whole social circle to get a job as a teacher or something in a place like Borneo where you’ll be poor – maybe not by Bornean standards, but definitely by American standards – because the alternative is raising your family in the land of white privilege bracelets, antiracist struggle sessions, and Genderbread Man.

By this point, I’ve already been writing for a rather long time, so I’m not going to get into a lengthy description of my own ideas about how American society is likely to evolve in the future. Like I already said, you can read them in other posts, like this one and this one and this one, if you care to.

But The Noah Option, however well it might satirize the contemporary Left, fails as an emotionally or intellectually satisfying tale of oppression and defiance. It fails because, in real life, the heroes aren’t as perfect as McCarthy writes them, the problems they confront aren’t as simple, the villains are neither as cartoonishly stupid nor as transparently evil, and, most importantly, resistance to the new tyranny won’t be as easy, or as imminent, or as widespread, as most conservatives wish that it would be.

3 comments:

  1. All novels, and all non-fiction attempts to predict the future, will fail, however well written.

    The 1950s in the US were, in some ways, similar to the present period, with the signs reversed. People on the Left -- liberals on out to communists of various persuasions, believed that the US was heading into fascism. The world they had experienced in the 1930s and during WWII -- when capitalism was discredited, and the Left gained credit as the people with alternatives to it, as well as the people who were standing up to fascism -- that world vanished in a few years, as Communism turned from an isolated 'experiment' into a world-powerful expansionist force. Communist Party members who were winning medals for bravery in 1944 were going to prison in 1949. For Leftists, things looked bleak.

    The only permitted form of social criticism was science fiction. Some very good minds turned themselves to contemplating future devleopments, technically, and socially. Some people call this period the 'Golden Age' of science fiction -- many of the authors' names still resonate today. None of them came anywhere close to predicting society fifty years after they wrote. Even their technical/scientific projections were largely wrong. (No one predicted the internet and World Wide Web, for example.)

    The America, even of 1970, would have been unbelievable to people living in it in 1955. So who can say what the America of 2035 will be like?

    So ... although I, along with the writer and the reviewer here, do not think there are grounds for much optimism about the future of America as a whole, which seems to be suffering from a form of progressive juvenile dementia ... I don't think we can predict what is going to happen in any specific form, even with the best novelistic skills. What might stir patriots to action, what form that action might take ... not predictable.

    But it's good to see people thinking and speculating about possible positive variants, at whatever level of authorial ability.

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    2. Doug,

      I certainly don't mean to fault Mike McCarthy's novel for not being an exact description of what will be happening on or around some specific date. Obviously, nobody can do that. If the goal of Orwell's 1984 was to provide details of what Britain would be like in 1984, it would be an obvious failure. But if the goal is to popularize concepts like "Doublethink," and "Memory Hole" and encourage people to think about what it's like to live in a time of deceit, the book was very successful.

      My main criticisms of The Noah Option are that it relies on heroes that are too perfect, and it makes their victory too easy. You don't get much of the uncertainty, or messiness, or the need for sacrifice, that come with dealing with tyranny in the real world - whether the hero's goal is to bring down the regime, or simply to survive under it. Classics like 1984 and Brave New World DO present those things, which is why they're worth studying, even though the societies described in them have few direct parallels with any real-world society.

      Looking back, though, I did realize you were right to fault me for talking about these books as if they were supposed to "predict" or "be a map" of the future, so I have toned down that language a bit, so the post now says things like "suggesting" what the future might be like, or or telling an "intellectually satisfying tale" of resistance.

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