Review: Lazarus #26
Welcome, as ever, to our ongoing annotations of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus. As Cull concludes, we delve into Lazarus #26.
The following are more annotations and reflections on the emerging narrative and world of Lazarus than reviews, providing an “enhanced” reading experience. These pieces touch on details, thematic connections and other areas to read and explore – sometimes with comments from the creators themselves.
To an extent, the broader roster of Lazarus creators now properly includes us, given our work on the Sourcebook: Carlyle, which delved into life under the Carlyle regime, and the upcoming Sourcebook: Hock – a glimpse behind the curtain of Carlyle’s (heretofore, at least) greatest enemy.
That being said, we only receive issues of Lazarus after they are produced, and the views that follow are entirely our own.
As always, spoilers abound for the current issue within! Enough chit-chat! On with the book!
What Price Experts?
Dating back to Plato’s Republic, the vision of technocracy is the heart of the smart man’s utopia, a promise of a better tomorrow premised on the rulers simply being better at what they do. If you look at climate change or healthcare or international trade, it is very tempting to imagine that if cool-headed experts were in charge and did not need to pander or prevaricate, the right answer – your answer – would soon be implemented, framing the basis of many of the appeals to authority implicit in our societies and the pushback against “elites” and even intelligentsia in populist movements today.
The promise of technocracy can be reduced to four fundamental premises:
That all problems have an optimal solution;
That sufficient application of expertise can arrive at that solution;
That expertise is best developed by developing dispassionate specialists selected by merit;
That once developed, the expert should have as unmediated access to authority as possible.
At its simplest, “technocracy” is simply the idea of governance by experts or rule by specialists, a model of governance covering everything from the predominance of civil engineers in the CCP’s ruling body to pre-Depression ideas of rule by economists responsible for central planning to everything about Singapore, Gibson’s infamous “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”. As we move into the era of total cybernetics, nudge theory and predictive technologies, the concept has necessarily expanded to include rule through expert systems as tools of governance, embracing not just clockwork economies but also the algorithm-run invisible networks that intertwine with and pre-empt democracy, everywhere from self-driving cars to credit assessment to new aggregator information bubbles to investments funds that change strategy faster than human cognition.
There are a number of axioms on which technocratic dreaming rests. Firstly, there is an idea that expertise is something that can be identified, assessed and created. That is, that there is an expert applicable to any situation. Secondly, it is not that any individual technocracy envisions that it can solve all potential problems. To the contrary, any panel of experts will be the first to advise the limits of their expertise and capabilities. It is, after all, one of the things experts are trained to do.
There are problems with both these axioms. The idea you can centrally plan for competence and genius is questionable. Are engineers any better at dealing with epidemiology? Are economists appropriate advocates for judicial reform? Are judges – a perfect and largely invisible kind of technocratic appointment in much of the West – appropriate adjudicators in questions of software IP? Even if the problem of impending famine or war can be solved by technocratic solutions, there is always the limitation of insufficient resources or insufficient time. An answer is held, as an article of faith in the technocracy, to exist, but it is accepted that it may not be reachable from the circumstances in which the relevant experts find themselves. The promised process of adapting is to create new and better experts, evaluate them and empower them.
Furthermore, the technocrat’s definition of what constitutes a problem, or to the converse, what constitutes an achievable social good, may differ wildly from the chosen aims of the general populace. In theory, of course, this is one of the strengths of technocracy: wrongheaded decisions, no matter how popular, are prevented by the judicious application of expertise. Dispassionate, principled decision-making sidesteps the cowardice of the career politician and the corruption of the absolute monarchy. Hard choices can be made on a utilitarian basis, and sacrifices taken head on. Government for the people, without the people.
What happens when a technocracy loses? What happens when we come to the end of the discourse? What happens when all the signs point to victory, but a situation that cannot be assured results in disaster? What happens when foreign agents co-opt your defences? When raw shock-and-awe brutality triumphs over technocratic modelling? What happens when the monsters don’t try and unlock the door, but simply break through the wall?
Just what happens when Malcolm Carlyle’s house of cards collapses just as it reaches its highest height?
In many respects, the domain of the Family Carlyle represents what the end stage of what a technocracy might look like.
Lazarus is replete with examples of the technocratic end stage. Malcolm’s government isn’t pure technocracy, of course. The former presence of Jonah is proof of that. Nonetheless, the Caryle solution to most every problem is to round-end the human element with automated or mechanised controls. There is the Family’s control of Eve through biotech, of course, but also the ongoing monitoring of her every action. The role of the Lift Process mirrors the controversial role of academic streaming in our own society: both systems drive a majority of people to make irrevocable life decisions and deliver indelible performance results before the point of maturity or self-determination. The Lift may further remove the veneer of choice, but both systems serve the interest of classes seeking a large body of labourers and a small number of technocrats. Sourcebook: Carlyle calls out subtler controls yet, ranging from manipulating advertising and TV selection to panopticonic observation. Malcolm’s power at the Conclave was his control of life-extension, and his vulnerability was Hock controlling that same knowledge.
In this issue, technocratic systems are in full display. The Carlyle polity is represented in General Valeri and Michael Barrett. Valeri is a well-drawn and instantly recognisable archetype, the very model of a modern major general. While he is a peripheral figure, more often used for exposition than moving the plot himself, Greg and Michael have arrived at a distinct aesthetic approach. Valeri is clean-cut, a pragmatic intellectual, found in his secure war room where he interprets data rather than leading from the front. His viewpoint is matter-of-fact, seemingly abstract, uninvolved in the powerplays bedevilling the other members of Carlyle high command, as he gives out balanced if conservative advice aggregated from his own intelligence assets. Michael usually frames panels so we look up at Valeri, giving him gravitas and command, or frames him at the tip of a V-formation even when his notional superiors are gathered around the room, granting him authority. He at once represents and exposes the technocratic fantasy of the modern military.
The armed services are often presented as an explicit meritocracy of self-created skilled and dedicated professionals. Arranged into hierarchy and function and trained to their physical and mental peak, they embody a pure reason and devotion that contrasts with the vacillation and self-interest of their political masters. Individual soldiers in this model are exemplars of constrained creativity, prized for initiative even as they subordinate themselves to a greater whole, human talent focused on contributing rather than criticising as a subfunction of a war machine, everyone reduced to a role in a grander, wiser design.
Of course, the positioning of loyal and ordered patriots under the command of technocratic generals is usually the first narrative building block of “reluctant” martial law. The image of discipline and outcome-orientation creating a more stable state, the hearts of technocratic self-congratulation, have manifested in classic examples of modern martial law: the Suharto regime in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines or Nasserism in Egypt. That these governments are in practice invariably corrupt, brutal and self-serving is ignored or, at most, framed in racial rather than sociological terms. The fall into dictatorship is treated as a specific problem of discipline, ego or inexperience, rather than an intrinsic response to the nature of unelected soldiers shaping policy.
What the recognisably American presentation of Valeri should re-emphasise that for all it is now the domain of a scant few dynasts, the world of Lazarus is still an America that fell to just such a military coup. Malcolm had no army of his own, but instead used wealth to co-opt a fragment of the US army to push his own agenda. A generation further down the timeline, Valeri is himself an aristocrat by blood, inoculated by family tragedy against independent thought, made effectively eternal like the other elites, a general who will never be retired by new blood as long as he proves useful.
On the other end of the technocratic spectrum, we have Michael Barrett. Over 15 issues, we have tracked Michael’s progress from precocious Waste prodigy to apparently the leading scientific mind of the entire Eastern seaboard. He has become a pillar of Carlyle rule, returning Malcolm to the field of play, and – implicitly, if not yet successfully – can single-handedly jeopardise the controls over Eve’s mind. Michael, like Casey, represents the ever-diminishing sliver of the American dream, the hyper-capitalist world’s remnant meritocracy, where expertise provides entry to both comfort and influence: but only just enough to ensure that their relevant patron’s ever-vaster pool of resources and privilege increases.
Michael has transitioned worlds, leaving behind the dirt and refuse of the Waste to enter the sculpted and sterile world of the Carlyles. Indeed, Michael’s entire Carlyle design aesthetic seems like something lifted straight from Gibson’s essay – “If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country…” – with its blue transparent Post readers, white corridors and over-elegant modernist architecture.
A lot of this can be seen in the present day (but evergreen) idea that the world is getting “too complex”. Malcolm Carlyle and Jakob Hock disagree about many matters of substance, but they converge on the argument that the fickle populace are utterly unequipped to cope with the X +64 world’s challenges. “All others are Waste” is the endpoint for treatment and rights, but it is the starting point for the technocrat describing the population’s contribution. It is all too clearly part of the narrative of the rainmaker or utopian genius, that familiar story where billionaire philanthropists are all too often relied upon as voices of reason and agents of political change. This narrative is of course there in libertarian fantasies like Atlas Shrugged and APB, but it is disturbingly an increasing part of the liberal response to a seemingly radicalised mass, whether it is the hope that Bill Gates will stop climate change or George Soros will shore up democratic institutions. Silicon Valley becomes increasingly enamoured with basic income as a policy position, and ethical auditing of the blind and invisible algorithms that are increasingly ruling our lives has become another commercial service. The idea that our new-age geniuses will sort this out, that turning the brains that made Facebook and Crossy Road to climate change or democratic reform will inevitably breed the same sort of “success”, rests on the idea that the world’s problems are difficult because of a lack of ability.
In Lazarus #26, power rests in Michael’s hands, a victory of technocratic principles over oligarchy itself. But this is also moment of peril, where Michael, a medical expert, is being asked to make decisions as to governance and justice well outside his wheelhouse. There are many cases of technocratic systems institutionalising inherent biases that are destructive to the vulnerable or dissident. “Unmodeled externalities” is one such choice approach, developing systems of economic modelling for prosperity that do not account for, say, massive manmade extinction events; another in the vein of Hock is to categorise undesirable behaviours as medical conditions.
Eli Lilly developed the mass production mechanism for penicillin, insulin and the polio vaccine, and have invented countless drugs, but they are not a research organisation and their aim is not to develop medicines but to deliver profit to shareholders. Their expertise and the benefits thereof are incidental. Governments engage in all kinds of scientific and cultural research, but their function is not discovery, except insofar as it resolves other issues that are part of their administration.
The technocracy has placed itself at risk. If Lazarus models the concentration of power, knowledge and influence into an increasingly smaller set of hands and takes it to a logical conclusion – if the immortal Carlyle serf is so well-equipped as to be of a higher echelon to ordinary beings – how can they lose? Where does the technocracy collapse?
Page 2, Panel 2 lays out the problem succinctly, in the no-nonsense words of General Valeri: “Don’t trust anything or anyone once you’ve got your boots on the ground.”
Juxtaposing this caption with Joacquim is, of course, an expert piece of foreshadowing of his upcoming betrayal, paired neatly with the following panel of Forever literally leaping from a chopper and laying boot to pavement but it is also a neat encapsulation of the themes of the issue. No matter how well prepared the plan, it cannot always survive the unanticipated chaos of real life.
There is no such thing as a stable State, because there is no such thing as a stable state.
Never invade Russia in winter. When America spent millions on a pen that would write in space, the USSR sent a pencil (apocryphal, but illustrative). Reds under the bed. The steroid-jacked Olympic swimmer. Ivan the Terrible cowing the burghers. The KGB. The Bear. The Dragon.
Russia has long been presented as the immovable object against which technocratic prowess collapses; the stoic monster committed to total warfare or sociopathic espionage. Vassalovka is – so far – the presentation of that very particular kind of threat, embodied in the Family’s Lazarus. A thing “not deployed but unleashed”.
The danger of the chaos created by bad actors to expert systems are deeply embedded throught Lazarus, and build to climax through Poison and Cull. Hock’s dismissal of the Accords, his use of poison over diplomacy and real war over a clash of technologies embodied in Lazari was a precursor of the speech Valeri makes in the opening pages. The conflict of four Lazeri against the Zmey the culmination of an ideological and technocratic conflict to determine the order of the world through careful strategy vs. naked brutality. The conflict between too many choices given to too few, or the stark simplicity of no choice at all.
Consider the following exchange between Malcolm, Valeri, and Johanna:
Too much resistance legitimizes the threat, and increases the threshold risk of a loss. Too little resistance allows the threat to run ramshod over your capabilities, arms them better for the next battle against you, and disrupts your plans. The failure to defeat the opponent is devastating, because the victory of the putative underdog increases their reputation. The defeat of the opponent – at any kind of cost – is a neutral point, even a negative, because “why were they so hard to beat in the first place? Are you not the experts?”
Expertise loses this round.
Sir Thomas, the experienced – almost jaded – Lazarus is the one who dies. Thomas, as much as anyone in the X+ world can, represents the old order. The understood norms of operation, the civility and the polish, the hearkening back to tradition. Note that he explicitly retains a title, drawing a link between the Lazari of the present and a martial tradition thousands of years old. James Bond, for all the flash and swagger, is at heart a British civil servant, as much Humphrey Appleby as Batman. The world of Lazarus is an uncertain one, but the function of killing Sir Tom is to have us experience within the narrative what has up until now been a matter of prologue – the breakdown of even lip service acknowledgement of established social systems.
Why? Because the Zmey simply doesn’t care. The bodies scattered about the church pews are also not accidental. The use of sites of religious worship as sanctuary, removed from greater conflicts, a sheltering place for civilians and innocents is a normative tradition to which we pay a form of instinctual homage (even if realpolitik provides that these norms are regularly disobeyed). Look at the bodies in the church on page 23: they’re not soldiers. Just civilians, caught in the crossfire.
If the Zmey’s methods are brutal, even simplistic, that doesn’t make responding to them uncomplicated. Fascism is brutal and simplistic too, but the technocratic challenge in responding to it is well canvassed in the pages of Lazarus #26. Open totalitarianism on one hand and anarchic violence on the other are at least as anathematic to technocracies as democracies, if not more so. Rule by the people, however limited, involves consent and the mass dissemination of norms. The appeal in technocracies, in stark contrast, is exclusively one of performance.
Consider the parallel of Joacquim, who (barring an elaborate triple-bluff) finally has his personal intentions laid bare this issue, and is revealed to personally be no traitor at all. It turns out the Morray Lazarus is not on a seduce and destroy mission of his own making. His feelings for Forever are genuine: something we discover alongside Eve, just in time for that blossoming romance to be harshly (and literally) ripped away. Joacquim is explicitly stripped of his humanity: his technological augmentation physically (and viscerally) removes the covering of his human flesh and takes over his mind. In the visceral moment of the Morray Lazarus trying to take his own life, we have the technocrat’s final alignment with and submission to brute force. Technocrats are prone to treating people as tools, capable of manipulation. It is a simple step from there to using tools to exert more direct control through violence against others.
With Thomas dead and Joacquim suborned, this leaves Sonja and Forever left, badly beaten by the monster and the ghost.
The Allergy to Allegory
Though the events of this issue must, given their presaging, have been planned before the election, inauguration and development of the present United States presidential administration, it becomes clear (particularly given ongoing delays) that the present course of events in Lazarus is explicitly a response to the current decline of democratic norms inside the United States.
We spoke back in the issue 22 annotations about three lenses by which a comic can be appreciated – the political analogy, the futurist world-building and the character-driven drama – and while that discussion is always live, it is hard not to read our broader political context into Lazarus #26. Nor, as Greg makes clear in a searing backmatter essay, are we being asked to. Insofar as Lazarus has always been a political book, it is evident from a quick survey of the surrounds that the issues we raise above – technocracy, corruption, nepotism and cronyism, authoritarianism and class warfare – have become ever more urgent, ever more relevant.
So, then, are the Carlyles the Republicans, leveraging the horrors performed against people they do not value in the service of their own exploitative ambitions? Or are they neoliberals? A technocratic council of established political elites led by a powerful (but in many respects flawed) woman engaging with a brutalist force of carnage, vastly underestimating the ability of said agent of that carnage to upset the apple cart through his raw disregard for any kind of social norms? Is it commentary that the Zmey is a Russian client, profaning the sacred, disturbing civic society with his willingness to defy norms, focusing on unpredictable disruption?
It would be very easy to draw a parallel to suggest that – perhaps – by concentrating power into a number of wealthy elites, supposedly in defense of the best interests for those forgotten Waste people nominally in their care, the political system left itself open to an attack by a single bad actor, propped up by a rival state with a goal to break the entire system. That the bad actor was able to outmaneuver an opponent who represented that entrenched oligarchy with the aid of traitors inside the overall structure designed to govern that first state.
But that would be misconceived.
Just as Michael’s documentarian art style by building from components – imagination fed by cutting edge motorcycle designs and building architecture and a million other fragments – so too is the research recognisable because the components are all around us. But art is not tied to intentional visual or allegorical symbolism. Relevance is not allegory, and matters that can be drawn even in close parallel to current political events cannot be said to circumscribe or reduce the complexity of those events – no matter how well drawn the narrative that makes the reference.
What Comes Next?
The problem with technocracy as an ideology is that it centres on the use of science under the guise of science itself. It is a form of government ultimately about making things impossible rather than illegal; about portraying aggregate human endeavours as cosmic laws. The problem, in short, with technocracies is that they often work, but not always, and in no way are assured to work in our interests.
The flaws of the Carlyle system are not confined to the victory of the Zmey.
Once power is accrued, the technocrats become ever more willing to place their tools in the hands of those using them to exert control or commit violence, be it controlling Eve, deploying force or compelling compliance. Joacquim is not nudged into new choices pre-emptively. Indeed, technocracy ideologically removes meaningful choices by making the choice that isn’t desired by the powerful impossible rather than illegal. Eugenics over genocide, contraception over One Child Policies, loyalty drugs over commissars. However, as technology that directly impacts the will progresses, the straightest line to an objective may be not to go from prohibiting to preempting but to the assumption of direct decision making on behalf of the individual. At this point, technocracy is undifferentiated from plain autocracy.
Michael Barrett may be one such flaw in the system. Recruited by a Lift system that Malcolm himself designed, the presence of Michael via that process, and the expertise he has gained through its culmination and fruition, may represent the greatest threat to Malcolm’s perceived order. A product of his system, but not wholly codified or defined by it. At the end of the day, Michael must make a choice based on who he trusts and the world he wishes to see, and by making that choice, he is neck deep in the same ground-level operations as everyone else. The technocrat, ultimately, is not made separate by his knowledge.
In this way, Michael – who has otherwise been at something of a remove from the problems that confront Forever – finds himself on the same path as she is, and grappling with the same questions. The product of a program designed to convey him power and mandate his loyalty, he faces a choice based on very real human notions of compassion, interpersonal commitment and free will. The process has not been all-encompassing.
The war, the real war, is not between the forms of process, but in the balance between process and humanity. If human inclinations can – and sometimes must – be curtailed by process driving limitations, then the converse is also true: the struggle of shared humanity is to ensure that it not be lost to the process entirely.
This issue also sees the return of Cady Rosales, whose father Forever killed back in Issue #1, and who explained to Forever the difference between the information of what a family is, and the known experience. The difference is that human connection, the distinction between being presented with information and absorbing it as part of yourself.
Johanna in this issue, when speaking to Michael, also makes reference to a deeper motivation than self-regard or self-interest. She is keeping a promise. It is that simple, human motivation that finally convinces Michael, not the threats or the promise of reward. He needs to know why, and she tells him. But a promise to whom? Forever? Jonah? The very present in her absence Abigail? Such questions are for another time, but they aren’t germane to the issue here. What matters, in this moment, is that what drives Johanna is not process or indoctrination, but a vital human connection.
And yet… is not this exaltation of the monkey circle, the surrendering to human instinct and personal connection, the common thread to our criticisms of monarchy, technocracy and capitalism? These moments of compassion and connection are, stripped of sentiment, surely the same spirit that moves cronyism, nepotism, favouritism of all kinds. The common weal surrendered to the uncommon one, the needs of the few put ahead of the needs of the many.
This is, from our limited perspective, an inescapable paradox: human connections might destroy the benefits of submission to expertise and reason, along with their potential benefits, but they might also be the only things that keep us alive when the technocracy fails.
The true nightmare scenario for Forever in this issue isn’t defeat at the hands of the Zmey. This hurts, but she is prepared to stand a fight again. It is, in fact, precisely what Malcolm warned her of (himself not immune to some form of paternal emotion), that the human she knew, Joacquim, was unreliable as soon as he became a Morray asset. She is forced to watch him become what she fears she is and always has been – an instrument, devoid of will or human connection, hijacked by programming to commit a potentially endless series of atrocities.
No process can save us. Sometimes we lose, and the protections and stratagems we think are robust collapse. Sometimes this happens to a relationship, sometimes to a person, sometimes to a whole society.
Lazarus 26 reminds us that sometimes this is unavoidable. It also gives us our remedy, even if there is no promise of victory therein either. We find our feet. We regroup. Then we fight back.
This isn’t over.