Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cixin Liu - The Three-Body Problem

This is a startlingly original piece of science fiction, which is as fascinating in its look at the history of 20th century China as it is with its story of the beginnings of an alien invasion, by a superior technology. Cixin Liu cleverly interweaves the historical backdrop to the contemporary story with that of a virtual reality 'game' designed to win converts to an understanding of what the aliens have done to human society.

Beginning in the 1960s, the story focuses on Ye Wenjie's work at the Red Coast station. A place she thinks is designed to track and destroy imperialist space-craft. Instead, the highest levels of the Chinese government are concerned that attempts to communicate with aliens will initially come from the capitalists, not the puveyors of peace and socialism represented by the Chinese state. Socialist readers may well smile at this, but the denunciation of the deviate socialism of the Soviet Union by the characters in the book certainly evokes certain Maoist political propaganda. Ye Wenjie manages to communicate with an alien society, and despite a warning not too from a dissident alien, she directs the civilisation to Earth.

But faster than light travel is not available, and the aliens know that they could arrive at an Earth with better technology than they have, so they devise a cunning plan to undermine Earth technology. To encourage science to be feared, and scientists themselves to go insane. Its into this world that the character at the centre of the story, a nanotech scientist, Wang Miao is plunged when the united secret services and military forces of the world conspire to try and find out what is happening.

The novel is original, and highly enjoyable. At times some of the characters felt a bit thin, and the dialogue a little wooden. I don't know whether that is the writing, or the difficulties of translating Chinese into English. There are certainly lots of footnotes to explain the history, the translation and cultural differences which I actually found added to the novel. Despite this limitation the story builds up to a satisfying climax and I look forward very much to the follow up volumes.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Ian W. Toll - The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944

Volume two of Ian W. Toll's history of World War Two in the Pacific begins almost were the first volume finishes. With a decisive victory at the Battle of Midway, American forces could begin the task of taking the war gradually towards the Japanese homeland. In between stood tens of thousands of square miles of ocean and dozens of heavily defended islands.

As I noted in my own review the first part of this trilogy put the first year of the Pacific War in the context of both American and Japanese history and military doctrine. Volume two plunges straight into the action and the author clearly assumes that most readers will not start with this book. I'd encourage that view - a great strength of Pacific Crucible was the background, and it will help with this volume as well. That said The Conquering Tide deals with a somewhat different conflict. This part of the war begins the "island hopping" that characterises the latter years of World War two. As such the role of the American naval forces becomes much more one of supporting and defending the troops in their amphibious assaults on islands like Guam, Saipan and Guadalcanal.

The book begins with the battle for Guadalcanal, though the importance of this victory for the United States is only really underscored towards the end of the book as the scale of their advance becomes clear. Without the victory at Guadalcanal, US forces would have been delayed and hampered as they drove north and then west towards Japan. Yet the victory was a close run thing - descriptions of the US military machine at the end of the period covered often emphasise the enormous amount of men, materials, ships, aircraft and weaponry. This could be deployed with great skill and on a scale that meant the US war machine could move with great speed.

For instance, the capture of Guam in the Summer of 1944 by the US was on such a scale, that "even before" the island was declared secure, thousands of US men were engaged in rebuilding its infrastructure to make it a base for the further assault on Japan. The rebuilding was on an enormous scale - 103 miles of new paved roads were completed in a year, two massive 8,500 feet long runways were hacked out of the jungle to provide launch pads for B-29 bombing raids on the Japanese mainland.

This can be dramatically contrasted to the invasion of Guadalcanal where US soldiers were short of food, water and ammunition. Reading the breathless accounts of their defence it seems miraculous that the Japanese did not manage to push the US marines back into the sea. Nonetheless they failed, less through the overwhelming US military might and more through the enormous bravery of US soldiers and sailors. Exceptional military leadership managed on more than one occasion to turn successful defence into offensives that further isolated the Japanese forces.

The US learnt a lot from its campaigns. One gets the impression of a military machine capable of rapidly learning from mistakes and adapting to best utilise men and resources. At times though, the errors were nearly disastrous, as during the naval campaign around Guadalcanal, and the failure to spot a Japanese retreat. Nonetheless, the most far-seeing Japanese commander, Admiral Yamamoto, was able, as early as 1942/1943 to foresee Japan's defeat.

The gradual erosion of the Japanese military machine is one of the key themes of Toll's book. The systematic sinking of Japanese shipping which starved the population of food, and deprived the military of resources such as oil was a massive part of this. Linked to this, however, was the limitations of Japanese military doctrine which saw death in battle as a glorious end, and thus failed utterly to try and rescue downed pilots. Those Japanese men left to drown in the sea from crashed aircraft, or sunken ships, often preferred death to capture. But they were very rarely going to be rescued and the consequences was that expensively trained and experienced men were lost to the military. As the war carried on, the inexperience of the Japanese aircrew became obvious and Toll's accounts of the heavily one-sided dog-fights are harrowing.

One point that is worth noting is that the Pacific War was very much a total war. And total war makes brutes out of everyone. The shocking accounts of Japanese war crimes, pointless charges and mass suicides are, at least on occasion, matched by violence from the American side. The account of the commander of the US submarine Wahoo, ordering the systematic machine-gunning hundreds of Japanese survivors as they swam in the sea, is a particularly harrowing one. Sadly it isn't unique.

Toll pays sympathetic attention to the war's impact on the Japanese people. They were victims of a heavily authoritarian regime that kept much of the reality of war from its people. Newspapers were heavily censored (though in the best capitalist spirit those prepared to go along with the regimes lies, were able to prosper). Over time people began to build up a picture that helped them see through the lies about fighting defenses and tactical retreats. Discontent was bubbling and repression was heavy. The government feared revolution at home, though the pre-war destruction of the Japanese left would have made that less likely.

Toll's ability to link the military story to the social history of the era is what really makes these books such wonderful pieces of writing. Whether its Japanese families mourning their loved ones, or black Americans experiencing relatively desegregated life in Hawaii in contrast to the prevailing racism at home, there are countless memorable accounts in this book. In passing it is worth noting the excellent chapter on the shock that Australia received when thousands of US servicemen arrived in its cities, loaded with cash and eager for fun after the violence of Guadalcanal.

The US was able, through economic resources and military might (as well as a good amount of luck) to utterly undermine the Japanese military machine. That didn't make victory automatic, but it made it more likely. The transformation of the US economy in the interest of winning World War Two in Europe and the Pacific helped of course set it on a road towards its post-war superpower role. But before that took place, there were further islands to capture, the firebombing of Tokyo and the use of nuclear weapons. It is to be expected that when Ian W. Toll's third volume covers these subjects, it will do so with the excellent history and writing that characterises the first two books.

Related Reviews

Toll - Pacific Crucible
Jones - The Thin Red Line

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

E.P.Thompson - Customs in Common

Described as a "companion" to E.P. Thompson's classic work The Making of the English Working Class, this is actually more of a series of essays around the changes that took place in rural and working class communities with the development of capitalism. As such it is very different to Making which had a much more coherent historical narrative and argument. Customs in Common's chapters tackle much more specific issues though this doesn't detract from a very well argument and fascinating book.

Several of these essays have appeared elsewhere. Thompson's essay on Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism is a justifiably frequently cited article that explores the nature of time and how it has been marshaled and organised as a result of the interests of developing industrial capitalism. In this, as in other articles, the reader is struck by Thompson's expert knowledge of sources and his expertise in a breadth of subjects. He moves from the Nuer (a Nilotic herding people who I have also noted had a very different attitude to 'time') to the history of clockwork, carrying the reader from one satisfying nugget of information to another while building up a powerful argument. His conclusion - that capitalism imposes a rigid structure of time on a population that had no previous need for it - should come as no surprise to the worker who has experienced the tyranny of the clocking in machine.

However the most important arguments in this book centre on the question of "custom" and how it was challenged and destroyed by the development of capitalism, yet formed a site for resistance to those changes. Thompson writes:
Agrarian custom was never fact. It was ambiance. It may be best understood with the aid of Bourdieu's concept of 'habitus' - a lived environment comprised of practices, inherited expectations, rules which both determined limits to usages and disclosed possibilities, norms and sanctions both of law and neighbourhood pressures.... within this haitus all parties strobe to maximize their own advantages. Each encroached upon the usages of the others. The rich employed their riches, and all the institutions and awe of local authority. The middling farmers, or yeoman sort, influenced local courts and sought to write stricter by-laws as hedges against both large and petty encroachments [etc]... the peasantry and the poor employed stealth, a knowledge of every bush and by-way and the force of numbers. 
Such customs and lived experience involved everything from the expectations that people had from landowners and the wealthy, to the right to use land, or cut wood, or hunt animals. They were even, anticipating latter chapters in this book, concerned with how divorce took place and the right of the collective to discipline those who had gone beyond reasonable perceived behaviour in the community.

Two chapters deal with the question of Thompson's famous "moral economy". This is the idea that within struggle, collectives of the rural poor would try to impose a more moral and more rational economic reality on those that grew, traded and sold food and goods. In particular this takes place through the authors famous discussions on food riots. Space (and the current class struggle) precludes a detailed discussion of this here, but a highlight of this book is Thompson's defence of this thesis (and his arguments around the gender question in food riots) in a follow up chapter written years after the first, more famous article.

Too few modern day socialists read E.P.Thompson's classic Making of the English Working Class and I would suggest new readers begin there. Fewer still read this lesser known book, but this collection of writings contain some powerful polemics, and some of the best researched history by a radical historian. Its also laced with wit and fire, with no fear of stepping into modern day critiques of nuclear weapons and Tory governments. For all these reasons I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For: From Food Riots to Food Banks
Linebaugh - Stop Thief!
Sharpe - In Contempt of All Authority

Hill - Liberty Against the Law

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Alastair Reynolds - Revenger

Alastair Reynolds is the master of big themes in science fiction, so its nice and somewhat surprising that his latest book, Revenger, takes place on a much smaller scale. Closer to a more traditional space adventure, its premise feels closer to some early twentieth century's pulp science fiction, but updated for the new millennium.

In a universe very different from Reynolds' Revelation Space, this is a setting that is only gradually revealed to us. In fact Reynolds keeps a lot hidden, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Humans inhabit a small part of the galaxy, on planets and habitats that have been left over from early generations. Floating around space are the alien artifacts which contain technologies that can make fortunes. These only open periodically, and giant space going vessels ride ion drives and solar winds to rendezvous with the booby trapped baubles.

The novel draws heavily on pirate themes - and while set a long time in the future, with advanced technologies, this is a tale ship to ship battles, hand to hand fighting below decks and a fabled pirate queen trying to steal everyone's treasure. It all seems, as you write it down, faintly ridiculous and only Reynolds' brilliant story telling can hold it together. Its fun, readable, and exciting, and, dare I say it, would appeal to the young adult audience as much as Reynolds' older fans. Unusually for science fiction it also has two young female heroes which makes it even more attractive as a present for a science fiction fan looking for something out of the ordinary.

I haven't always been impressed by Reynolds' excursions from Revelation Space so I'm really happy that this is as good as it is.

Related Reviews

Reynolds - Zima Blue
Reynolds - Galactic North

Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Redemption Ark
Reynolds - House of Suns
Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth
Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Pushing Ice
Reynolds - Century Rain

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Christopher R. Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution

Reading and reviewing books about the Holocaust is no easy matter. Christopher Browning's book is no exception. The material is horrific less because of gruesome detail and more because of the sheer scale of murder that takes place. Page after page, paragraph after paragraph mentions the deaths of thousands of people - Jews, Gypsies the mentally and physically disabled, Soviet prisoners of war, enemies of Hitlers' regime.

Browning seeks to understand precisely how this could take place. How could a single state reach the stage where six million Jews were killed, and perhaps four million other in a mechanised, bureaucratic way way? The answer is not easy, and has many lessons for today.

Browning argues early on in the book that Hitler and the Nazis did not begin with the concept of genocide - though its important to understand that they did not fear or oppose murder of their enemies on any scale. The Holocaust has its origins in both the fanatical anti-Semitism of the fascists and their belief in conquering and rebuilding Europe in the interests of the Nazi state. (This is something that has been also explored by Mark Mazower in his Hitlers' Empire, reviewed by me here).
Hitler's belief in the need for German Lebensraum implied that the Nazis would construct an empire in Easter Europe analogous to what other European imperial powers had constructed overseas... this also meant that the Nazi regime stood ready to impose on conquered populations in Europe... the methods of rule and policies of population decimation that Europeans had hitherto inflicted only on conquered populations overseas.
However the particular nature of Nazi colonialism, coloured by its violent anti-Semitism and racism meant this would inevitably lead to mass murder. The execution of Jews, prisoners and undesirables that accompanied the German army's entry in Poland and the German Wehrmacht's "feeble resistance to even the earliest manifestations of mass murder" permitted this.

Browning takes us through the different stages of the development of the Holocaust. The early attempts to relocate Jews to the East. Latter plans, that reached a surprisingly level of organisation, to turn Madagascar into a Jewish state run by the Nazis, and finally the way all of this was shaped by the invasion of Russia. None of this can be separated from the particular nature of Hitler's regime or those who managed it. Their appalling racism drove the mass murder forward, to the extent that it became the only answer to the problem of where to put the Jews being forced out of their homes in Germany, Austria and the conquered territory of western Europe. Browning details how the different stages followed each other, even in the way that the gassing of victims began as a way of dealing with the mass killing of the disabled, but then became a way of coping with the realities of mass-shootings - soldiers were unable to cope with the death. Once each decision was made it led to other follow up decisions that made further mass murder more likely. As Browning concludes:
The extermination camp was not an accident. It did not result from some mysterious process of spontaneous generation. It was a horrific monument to the perpetrators' problem-solving abilities, but they needed lead time to invent and construct it.
One aspect to this that I felt could have been developed further was an attempt to understand what led people to do this. Browning does explain the way that the particular nature of the Nazi state and its ideology helped legitimise murder, through its demonisation of Jews and others. But I think this is only part of the question - other aspects have to include the particularly brutal nature of the genocidal war on the Eastern Front, and, most importantly, that Hitler rose to power on the back of a mass movement aimed at destroying his enemies through a rhetoric of blaming Jewish-Bolshevism for Germany's economic problems. This created an mass layer in German society, won to the idea that Jews were the enemy, filled with racism and loyal to the regime. (I read this piece by Alex Callinicos at the same time and felt it helped fill in the gaps). It helps explain why Germany continued to fight for so longer after defeat was obvious, and it also makes us understand the particular nature of Nazi Germany that meant the Holocaust could take place.

This isn't a pleasant book to read. But it is an important and carefully researched one. Every argument made by the author is backed by examples and reference. It will fill the reader with sadness and horror. But it will also make them keen to fight racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism today and to organise against the fresh appearance of fascist movements in the 21st century that would seek to emulate Hitler.

Related Reviews

Mazower - Hitler's Empire
Moorhouse - Berlin at War
Black - IBM and the Holocaust
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Sereny - Into that Darkness

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pamela Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760-1850

Reading Pamela Horn's history is always a joy. Her writing is simultaneously entertaining as well as having the ability to draw out the historical trends. This short book covers some of the same ground as her longer book The Rural World but focuses on using examples from contemporary commentary and literature to explore how people in the period covered understood the changes taking place. But Horn never once sentimentalises the life of the people in rural England. This was a time of poverty, of (especially in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars) economic crisis for the agricultural areas and there was a vast difference between the experience of those with money and those without. Horn points out, when discussing a Wordsworth's poem The Prelude (1805) that Wordsworth's
vision of pastoral serenity conveniently ignored the harsher realities of day-to-day life on the land. It gave no indication of the long hours of drudging labour expected from most peasant cultivators or the feudal dues exacted from them by many landowners in Wordsworth's native Cumbria... This is rather a 'countryside of the mind' - a place of intellectual refuge - than one rooted in the reality of Georgian England.
She continues by quoting W.J.Keith who highlighted that "it is no coincidence that the romantic cult of wild nature flourished just at the time when the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum; the countryside is cherished only when it is seriously threatened - and it is cherished most by those who threaten it."

What the reality was for the people of rural England is ably drawn out by Horn's writing as well as the many writers she quotes. Some of these are well known, Horn draws on William Cobbett's extensive writings about the people and places of England, as well as quotes from Charlotte Bronte and others to illustrate the class contradictions. But I was struck by the power of the quotes from ordinary people. Here's a section from a long quote by Joseph Mayett, a Buckinghamshire labourer who was demobilised from the army in 1815 at the age of 32.
I gave up gathering rags and took to work for which I received 7 shillings per week to maintain me and my wife and bread was 3 shillings per loaf.. I was much distressed by the summer coming on I was soon relieved by an advance of wages but the harvest proved very wet so that I met with a disappoint[ment] by the great loss of time I sustained but after harvest I met with a place of work at the Esquire at 10 shillings per week and the price of bread was sunk to 2 shillings per loaf and by these means things of a temporal nature began to take a favourable turn... [but] in the month of January 1818 the esquire being gone out for a long time the baily took it upon himself to reduce the wages of me and several more of the men [who] had no children for he said a man without a family could live better upon 9 shilling per week than those that [had] Children could on 10 shilling but he required us to do as much work as they so in the month of March we all left.
Here we see the lot of the labourer... bounced between employers who could change salaries on a whim, food prices that rose and fell dramatically and short term working opportunities, for low pay. It is no surprise that men life Mayett would riot, protest and destroy farm equipment in order to try and defend their jobs and wages.

Horn does look at these protests (and there were significant ones such as the Captain Swing riots during the period covered). But her major focus is to try and get across the immense change that took place in the countryside in this period.
As a result of enclosure and, in particular, of the post-[Napoleonic]war agricultural depression the number of small owner-occupiers had dwindled, and the tripartite system of land cultivation, comprising landlord, tenant-farmer and agricultural labourorer had become ever more firmly entrenched.
As a French traveller noted in the early 1860s:
the commons have been continuously reduced; thus the peasant can no longer have recourse to his own small supplies of meat, and having sold his strip of land is left with nothing but his two arms, which he now hires out.
Thus, while Horn doesn't use the word particularly, this period sees the entrenchment of agricultural capitalism, and coming to dominance of urban industry in the British economy. The world had been transformed, and the rural population, rich and poor, but particularly the poor had been changed too. Horn's book is an excellent over-view of these changes, from the role of clergy to the laws on poaching, and the changes that hit the landowners. But her focus on those who worked the land is really key and is what makes this a lovely introduction to the subject and period.

Related Reviews

Horn - The Rural World 1780-1850
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hill - Liberty Against the Law

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Gerrard Winstanley - The Law of Freedom and Other Writings

I've been writing a couple of pieces around the Diggers and the English Revolution recently and have taken the opportunity to delve deeply into the writings of one of the most remarkable radical thinkers that have ever been produced. Gerrard Winstanley is famous for being the leader of the Diggers who camped at St. George's Hill from April 1649 and later moved to Cobham in Surrey. They were followed by a number of other camps as the English Revolution developed following the execution of Charles I. The particular conditions of the time - a desire for fundamental change, a frustration at the lack of action after Charles' death and a land and food shortage meant that Digging was not as surprising a reaction as might be expected. The camps didn't last - mostly as a result of repression - but they did serve as a minor experiment in revolutionary new ways of living.

This collection of essays comes with an excellent introduction to the life and ideas of Gerrard Winstanley by the radical historian Christopher Hill. Since many of Winstanley's writings are available online, it would be worth searching out the book just for Hill's introduction. That said, however, the real pleasure in this volume is the remarkable writings of Winstanley himself.

This is for two reasons. Firstly Winstanley writes beautifully. Much of his polemic is deeply immersed in biblical allusion and analysis. For those of us not well-versed in the Bible, this is a challenge, but as Hill himself points out, Winstanley can actually be read like you would read poetry. But even a passing understanding of the bible allows the reader to get a sense of Winstanley viewing his world, and his history through a radical religious reading that is fundamentally challenging the status quo.

Winstanley didn't believe the bible was a literal work of history, but he did believe that God had created the world to be a common treasury for everyone. This arrangement had changed with the Fall of humanity, a fall that took place as individuals began to covert things and private property arose. For him, private property caused the fall of humanity, and led to war, jealousy and conflict. Thus the opposite was also true. A new world could be built, that would end private property and transform human relations.

The biggest gem in this collection, and perhaps Winstanley's most fascinating work is the title piece, The Law of Freedom, in which a disappointed Winstanley, who has seen the end of his efforts to built a new world through exemplary farming of waste land, appeals to Cromwell to bring about the Commonwealth. Winstanley systematically describes the workings of his utopia, from the shared storehouses that take the surplus of production to distribute to everyone who needs it, to the postal system that will ensure the news of the realm is distributed everywhere and, perhaps most importantly, to the system of annual elections that ensure corruption of officials cannot take place. It's a fascinating vision of Utopia, which has some similarities to actually revolutionary changes, in others, such as its focus on the family unit of production and its absolute patriarchy, it is clearly born of the limitations of 17th century radical politics. That said, these writings are a fascinating read, and this collection is well worth hunting out. I'll link my forthcoming piece on Winstanley here on publication.

Related Reviews

Berens - The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth
Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - Liberty Against the Law

Gurney - Gerrard Winstanley
Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England

Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice and its sequels have been showered with praise. They've won a bunch of rewards and rave reviews from almost everywhere. So I was disappointed to find that I found the first in the series very difficult. Part of the problem is that in sections of the books the characters are split into multiple persons. Each of these carries, and communicates with the others, yet retains an independence from the whole. It must have been hell to write, but its hell to follow. I'm wary of spoiling it for future readers, but I could not work out at points who was who.

Leckie's ideas deserved better. The idea of a former Ship's AI, used to having sensory input from thousands of simultaneous sources and being simultaneously in numerous different locations, suddenly reduced to a single entity could have been brilliant. But I found the pacing, the characterisation and the dialogue wooden and unbelievable. Clearly Ann Leckie has dozens of fans, but I almost gave up on several occasions, and I won't be getting hold of the sequels. Nice cover art though.