Monday, November 27, 2017

Rachel Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is probably the most famous ecological work every published. Its clarity and its clarion call for action, as well as the way it located environmental crisis in a system that prioritised "the right to make a dollar" helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. Yet Carson was also a author of a whole number of works that looked at the ecological systems she was most familiar with, in particular a trilogy of books about the sea. Carson had worked as a scientist for the US fisheries bureau before becoming a full time writer and her knowledge of the sea and its ecology shines through in this book from the trilogy.

Under the Sea-Wind is a lovely piece of writing. Carson takes a number of key animals who live on, in or above the sea and describes their lives. Looking at individuals she uses a novel style narrative often naming the animal after its scientific name, but this is no work of fiction. Her descriptions of the lives of birds, fish and other animals like crabs are beautiful and often tragic, but this is no Watership Down. Her animals don't speak or have human characteristics; they shape and are shaped by the ecology they inhabit.

That said, some of the stories here are truly epic. We encounter the mackerel first as a tiny living thing, no more than a few living cells clumped together. As it grows it's life radically changes, initially eating other small sea creatures before it can feed on larger prey. Carson describes the luck that keeps our individual fish out of the belly of other predators, and we see how the huge shoals protect the individuals from death. But we also see the cyclical nature of life. The death of animals is usually the life of others.

This is no less true of humans and one of the good things about Under the Sea Wing is that Carson does not pretend the sea's creatures live isolated from human contact. In fact, humans, particularly fishermen are as much part of the world that these animals inhabit. Whether its the harbours that provide hiding places for young mackerel and some of their predators, or the fishermen whose nets threaten large numbers of the fish.
The fisherman who lived on the island had gone out about nightfall to set the gill nets that he owned with another fisherman from the town. They had anchored a large net almost at right angles to the west shore of the river... All the local fishermen knew from their fathers, who had it from their fathers, that shad coming from the channel of the sound usually struck in towards the west bank for the river when they entered the shallow estuary, where no channel was kept open. For this reason the west bank was crowded with fixed sighing gear, like pound nets, and the fishermen who operated movable gear competed bitterly for the few remaining places to set their nets.
Here we see the impact of human interaction with the sea, the potential for over-fishing and the consequent destruction of the ecology. But here is also the importance of the sea to human communities.

Over and again I was struck by how Carson emphasises the contentedness of life in the sea. There's a beautiful chapter early in the book where a bird is hunting crabs and other seashore life. In turn the crabs are eating fleas, but is scared by a fisherman walking on the beach. Fleeing into the surf the crab is eaten by a sea bass, which is then eaten by a shark. Some of the bass' body floats back to the beach where the meat is eaten by beach fleas.

When environmental NGOs campaign to save the tiger or the panda we can forget that these creatures are part of a wider network of interactions. These interactions are never one way, but rather cause numerous onward effects. The crab feeds off the fleas, and sometimes is eaten by a fish. But the fish in turn can be food for other animals or the fisherman casting their nets. Carson gives us the Sea as it really is - a network of interacting animals and plants, whose ecology can be distorted and broken by outside forces. It's a beautiful piece of writing that has much to teach us about how we think about the environment today.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist
Lewontin & Levins - Biology Under the Influence

Peter Watts - Blindsight

I'll admit to making a mistake with Blindsight. I bought it thinking it would be a 'hard' science fiction of first contact with a mysterious alien ship along the lines of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Ramaa book that amazed and inspired me many years ago. Blindsight is actually that, but it is much more - it is a novel that probes human psychology as much as speculating about alien culture. Unfortunately for those reading for a SF narrative this rather obscures the story. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it might not be what was expected.

The novel begins with a shower of shooting stars, thousands of objects fall and burn across Earth's skies in a clearly artificial way. Subsequent analysis shows these objects were making some form of survey and Earth's population prepares for some sort of alien contact. Years pass, and nothing happens until a strange object is found in the Kuiper belt. The ship Theseus is sent to study this object which turns out to be a massive and very alien craft called Rorschach. Theseus is crewed by a highly trained and very specialised crew. In this future Earth many social problems have been solved (women are now on an equal footing socially and economically with men) and humans are habitually engineered. Our rather unreliable observer Siri (who is supposed to be super reliable) has, for instance, only half a brain. The other half was removed to cure childhood epilepsy and this apparently makes him a near perfect observer. Another crew member has four human personalities in their brain (nicknamed Gang of Four) and yet another is a long extinct species of vampire. Siri has a detailed backstory that explains his personality, but also gives much context about the future world.

All of this allows the author Peter Watts to wax lyrical on the nature of humanity, intelligence and the reality of evolution. This is particularly important when discussing first contact because Rorschach turns out to be really really alien. It defies analysis and understanding. It is deadly to Earth's explorers yet does not act particularly threatening.

As a novel the book is relatively successful, though at times I found the structure difficult (though this turns out to be deliberate) and the musings on life, the universe and everything feel contrived at times. Some of the references seem likely to date quickly (who really uses the word sneaker-net these days) and character nicknames seem contrived in places.

But that said, the story does carry the reader along. If the suspenseful first exploration of the alien craft had some of the atmosphere of the first Alien film then the finale felt a lot like the sequel Aliens. The story is framed within an interesting future history which makes much on how society might change and how humans might allow themselves to develop.

If I'd bought this as a separate novel I might not have rushed to get the sequel. But my edition of Blindsight comes bound together with it's sequel Echopraxia and I'll likely read that soon. It's not what I expected and probably not to everyone's taste, but Blindsight has some great ideas.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell

The bravery of merchant seamen is often overlooked, and despite the horrific realities of the Arctic convoys during World War Two the experiences of those sailors was often discussed only through accounts of the naval escorts.

In 1942 PQ17 sailed from Iceland to the Soviet Union carrying vital supplies intended to alleviate the Russian military crisis during the siege of Stalingrad. What took place afterwards was a disaster of the highest magnitude but was the subject of silence and cover-up by the British government and military.

It was only after the war, and partly because German accounts of the convoy turned out to be more truthful than allied ones, that questions were asked. In the late 1940s and 1950s it became a major issue for the British media who demanded to know why the convoy had been decimated.

Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam's account from the 1970s draws heavily on the accounts of those involved. Paul Lund himself was on board the ASW trawler Lord Austin a small escort ship that was part of the convoy. The book is fascinating in part because it is more than a military history.

PQ17 was a heavily escorted convoy, though it lacked an aircraft carrier. At that time, the greatest naval threat was the Tirpitz and her associated naval ships. Much of PQ17's route was within reach of German air attack, but the Tirpitz was seen as a particular threat because it could easily outgun the escorting warships. Misinformation at the admiralty led to the convoy being ordered the scatter hundreds of miles south-east of Spitzbergen. The escorts were ordered to break off eastwards to engage the surface threat, though this was non-existent. For days afterwards the merchant craft came under sustained air and u-boat attack. Thousands of tonnes of shipping were destroyed and hundreds of men and women lost their lives. Despite the bravery of the armed merchant craft, little could be done to protect the individual ships or small groups and they were easy pickings.

Later analysis would lay the blame squarely at the desk of the First Sea Lord. That would be little comfort to those that were killed or frozen in the cold waters. And while this book finishes with the story of how the truth came out, most of it is an account of those harrowing experiences. I was struck by a number of things reading this. One was the way that the u-boats often surfaced and assisted (sometimes in a minimal way) survivors of life boats and rafts. The other was how many people did survive, picked up by other ships or making extraordinary journeys to land. But perhaps most fascinating are the little bits of social history that come through the personal accounts. Take this description of conditions on Austin after she had picked up dozens of survivors.
On Austin we turned to looking after out guests... They were men of mixed nationalities, Americans from both north and south, and Argentines, Poles, English and Chinese... All were given a double tot of run and then began the problem of feeding and finding sleeping room for eighty-nine extra bodies. The Chinese were very helpful, offering to give a hand in the mess and the galley, and refusing to sleep anywhere but under the whaleback on deck. The survivors as a whole were quite cool. cheerful and fatalistic... We had to improvise nine sittings for meals.. and there was a desperate shortage of cutlery. The white Americans did not like eating or even mixing with the coloured seamen and in the confined space quarrels sprang up between them.
PQ17 forming up off Iceland
Once again we are reminded that World War Two was won by the sacrifices by men of many different backgrounds and nationalities, but that racism was a real experience too.

The other fascinating aspect to this book is the experiences of the survivors when arriving in the Soviet Union - both in terms of the different way of life, but also the social structures. Without pretending that the USSR in the 1940s was a socialist paradise it is interesting to see how the allied men found it surprising to see women playing a leading role in production. All the Russian ships on the convoy had female sailors for instance.

PQ17 remains shorthand for an immense naval disaster. Future convoys certainly learnt from events, but one can't help but feel that this should never have happened. Certainly that is the conclusion of many of those who took part. Lund and Ludlam's book is likely dated and more information is available, but in its accounts from survivors of life on a merchant ship in World War Two and their visit to the Soviet Union it remains extremely fascinating.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Turkel - The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Alun Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Alun Howkin's book The Death of Rural England is a sweeping history of the transformation of the English (and occasionally Welsh) countryside in the 20th century. It is a fascinating read, that never loses sight of the fact that the landscape is, and was, shaped by the labours of thousands of men and women and those people today, and their ancestors, remain an integral part of what makes up "the countryside".

The century that Howkin's covers saw enormous change, he points out that "since at least the eighteenth century rural society had been divided into landowners, farmers and labourers. By the 1990s the farm labourer had all but disappeared.... By the 1980s... the majority of country dwellers who lived in the rural areas... had nothing to do with farming as an industry". Why this happens has many factors - not least the full development of capitalist farming and the integration of farms into a wider, national, agricultural system. This was a process that begun in the 19th century and continued to develop, encouraged and accelerated by both world wars. But it was a system that retained many old traditions, often related to employment rights or relations. These often were eroded (or smashed) as part of the transformation of agriculture.

The later part of the 19th century had seen the growth of the first agricultural trade unions. These revived in the early 20th century, encouraged, as Howkin's writes, by a "new kind of rural worker - the railway men". In Lancashire rail workers were central to victories of agricultural workers, because they were "unionised, free from the threat of parson and squire, yet often the sons of farm workers... [they] brought the first signs of a new culture into the countryside of England and Wales".

Agricultural workers' organisations would prove central to ensuring that working people in the countryside could resist the impact of the sweeping changes that were taking place. In particular, the years between the wars, called the "Locust Years" saw enormous poverty in the countryside as workers suffered with the sudden withdrawal of government subsidies for farming. The unions were unable to stop the destruction and "between 1921 and 1931 about 60,000 workers left agriculture and between 1931 and 1939 a further 100,000". As Howkin's points out, for the farmers it was "reducing costs" but to the workers it was "the loss of livelihood and often a way of life".

Additionally we see the rise of mechanised farming. Tractors did not truly supplement animal labour until after the Second World War. Though that war was a key moment in transforming agriculture and I would argue, shifting it towards fossil fuel farming. But we shouldn't simply see the impoverisation of the agricultural labourer as arising out of mechanisation - it was primarily to do with the interests of capitalist farming.

Howkins points out the centrality of women to agricultural labour in this period. His writing is supplemented by many fascinating accounts by women of their own work. The "combined income" of the family was often what kept things going as wages were so low. Here's a description from the "daughter of a jobbing gardener, farm worker and (very) small holder" in Sussex in the 1920s:
With the money that he earned and the garden produce from our own plot of land, we were much better off than before. To supplement fathers income mother made jellies, jams, pickles and wines. They were much in demand... We children had the task of picking the wild fruits in season... We also had to take our turn stirring the great pans.... Some of the ladies in the village would buy a jar but most of it was packed into wooden crates and these would be collected by Carter Paterson the carrier and taken to the various universities that were attended by the young gentlemen of the village.
Howkins points out how the perception of rural England changes too. Increasingly it is seen (and portrayed) as a place of leisure and relaxation - the opposite of the towns and cities. He traces here the development of tourism and how this affected the countryside and argues that today, modern politicians fail to understand the countryside as a place of work and farming. The environmental movement too began to take an interest, especially post 1960s. By the end of the 20th century Howkin's argues, the countryside was in crisis and politicians had lost any view of how to solve things. He argues that the appalling failures of government during the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises reflect this, and that 2002 policy documents showed that Tony Blair's Labour also had not real idea about how to move forward:
The familiar countryside environment - originally a product of farming and damaged by years of intensive production and the social fabric of the countryside (which depends heavily on farming) is being put at risk.
Howkins' argues that in the "battle" between town and country, the town has been "victorious". Now the countryside is the plaything of the urban dweller and everyone else will become subsumed into that. I wasn't entirely convinced - I think it is entirely possible to imagine a re-emergence of "British" agriculture, but it will have to be based on an entirely different system to the highly subsidised, highly capital intensive and highly chemically based agriculture that currently dominates. It will take radical policies from future governments to achieve this, as well as a new approach to the countryside which sees it as more than simply the place that is not the town. Alun Howkin's book has shows us about how the modern countryside has arisen and gives a few pointers to how it could be different.

One small note: My edition of this book was purchased in 2015 and has a number of missing pages due to printing errors. I'm using this platform to record how disappointed I am that I was unable to get the publishers (Routledge's Taylor and Francis Group) to offer a PDF of the four missing pages, never mind a new copy.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Paarlberg - Food Politics
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture & Food in Crisis
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Lavie Tidhar - Central Station

Somewhere about a third of the way through Lavie Tidhar's Central Station I realised that I had been missing a crucial aspect to the novel. The story was not slow in starting, it wasn't actually going to arrive. There isn't really a plot to speak of. Once I'd got my head out of my somewhat traditionalist approach I was able to open up to a fantastic depiction of a rather more hopeful future than we might currently predict.

The titular Central Station is the massive gateway to the world that dominates a future Tel Aviv. This is a Tel Aviv were the Israeli-Arab conflict has been solved in some unexplained way - Arabs, Jews and a plethora of others live side by side, in relative harmony. In fact, the city has become both point of intersection between Earth and space, and a place were people come from across the world in search of wealth, work... or any one of many other options. In one sense Central Station is a liberal fantasy of a multicultural future city, where people live happily together and technology has solved so many woes:
Central Station in spring, when the smell in the air truly is intoxicating. It is a smell of the sea, and of the sweat of so many bodies, their heat and their warmth, and it is the smell of humanity's spices and the cool scent of its many machines; and it is the scent of the resin or sap that sometimes drops from a cut in the eternally renewing adaptoplant neighbourhoods, and of ancient asphalt heating in the sun, and of vanished oranges, and of freshly cut lemongrass: it is the smell of Humanity Prime, that richest and most concentrated of smells; there is nothing like it in the outer worlds.
Ironically, given the setting, it seems that there are no longer any structural problems other than those of personal antagonism and history. Even the "question of Who Is a Jew had been asked not just about the Chong family, but of the robots too, and was settled long ago."

But things aren't perfect. Old robots, their technology and usefulness outdated, beg for spare parts from passers-by, and things feel frayed and dusty. Technology seems magnificent, yet collectors search desperately for old books to add to their collections. Workers fly through virtual reality in a fantastic cyber version of the Elite game, earning real money and fame to take back to the outside world. And a vampire comes. Not a blood sucking Dracula figure, but someone hungry for data, infected on board an interplanetary ship who makes it through quarantine onto Earth.

The chapters are like this, a semi-linked network of individual stories that weave in and out of each other, making a tapestry of a world, a future, but not really going anywhere. Take the bar that Boris Chong drinks in, run by a former lover. It isn't any different to a thousand bars that we might visit today in the 2010s. But that's not the point, this is the future. Things are different, yet they are the same. But for Tidhar, the type of future is important, it is where we might go if we only solve the problems we have today. Take the author's beautifully evoked dream of a day at the beach:
They had gone to the beach that day, it was a summer's day and in Menashiya, Jews and Arabs and Filipinos all mingled together, the Muslim women in their long dark clothes and the children running shrieking in their underwear; Tel Aviv girls in tiny bikinis, sunbathing placidly; someone smoking a joint, and the strong smell of it wafting in the sea air... the life guard in his tower calling out trilingual instructions - 'Keep to the marked areas! Did anyone lose a child? Please come to the lifeguards now! You with the boat, head towards the Tel Aviv harbour and away from the swimming area!' - the words getting lost in the chatter, someone had parked their car and was blaring out beats from the stereo, Somali refugees were cooking a barbecue on the promenade;s grassy part...
Its a beautiful future precisely because it seems so impossible if we look at the reality of Zionism today, the oppression of the Palestinians and racism in Israel. Yet it is a future, and Lavie Tidhar wants it to be real. Something as mundane as a multicultural day at the beach seems impossibly Utopian in today's context, and thus becomes a futuristic fantasy.

Lavie Tidhar's brilliance is partly to do with his ability to describe this future. Both the mundane and the weird. There are some amazing scenes (the part with the suicide clinc is genius for instance). But he also depicts a future so real and possible, yet unreal and impossible too. It certainly is a world worth fighting for, and that's the importance of the book; not the story or what happens to the characters, but the world they live in and what it says about the one we inhabit.