Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Nicholas Orme - Going to Church in Medieval England

Despite my avowed atheism, I find churches fascinating. Travelling in the countryside I find myself drawn to the churches that usually form the centrepiece of villages. They are historical records, and while today they rarely have the congregations that they had in the past, they remain links to the distant past. Their memorials, burial stones, records and, frequently, their very structures are testament to the lives of people who lived nearby and worshiped there. When I wrote about the history of rebellion in the countryside in my book Kill all the Gentlemen I frequently noted how churches formed the basis of rebellion - as places to meet, to debate and sometimes as sparks of rebellion. The history of the Reformation in particular was, I argued, a process of change that sometimes drew people into direct conflict with their rulers.

So I was tremendously excited to receive Nicholas Orme's new book Going to Church in Medieval England. It is nothing less than a deep exploration of the custom and practice of religious worship in the period leading up to the Reformation. Orme begins with the parish, the geographical structure that forms the basis for the local Church's influence and the component part of the wider Church's structure. The basis for its taxes and its congregation. He emphasises that a church and its parish "were more than a religious unit... being also a social one", the social unit "might precede the church, if the church was built to serve an existing estate and community". The parish had a wider social impact though "Congregations understood themselves as different from those in parishes next door, and sought to equal or surpass in their own buildings what others had in theirs". 

From the parish, Orme moves on to the staff of the church, their roles, their backgrounds and training and their knowledge. Then we explore the buildings themselves. What did they look like? Why are they usually certain shapes? How and why did those shapes change? Why were certain things in special places. We learn some surprising things - originally there were no seats and the seats that were eventually introduced were an example of the congregation shaping the church, not the other way around. People needed somewhere to sit, though the seats themselves were frequently cause for confrontation and disorder. Who should sit where?

Which brings Orme to the congregation. Most people went to church, but not all went all the time and for many their attendance fit around their wider lives. Orme shows how different aspects of the Church's calendar were designed in part of try and encourage attendance, though there was official recognition that some people might not be able to attend services that were otherwise compulsory - shepherds or fishermen couldn't miss their work, even on a Sabbath. Orme is adept at drawing out real experiences from a wide variety of sources. Take his description of children in church. Once they reached adolescence (12 for girls, 14 for boys) attendance in church became required but,
Notwithstanding this exemption, some children certainly came to church or were brought there... Parents took small children with them because they could not be left at home. The author of Piers Plowman used the simile 'as chaste as a child that in church weepeth'. Noisy or restless young children in church sometimes caused annoyance, as they do today. A visitation of Lincoln diocese in 1519 heard complaints... that 'children there make a noise indecently, so it is hard to hear divine service', while at Kimpton, Hertfordshire, infants 'laugh, cry and clamour'. Some adults might event condone the noise like Thomas Leyk of Gosberton, Lincolnshire who 'impeded the service with an infant'. Other parents left their toddlers at home, either from embarrassment or in order to escape for an hour, a practice which came to light when it led to fatal accidents.
This a good example of Orme's style and attention to detail, and in fact the best part of the book is when it explores the real people who worshiped in the churches and how their religious lives interacted with their actual lives. Orme approaches this in two specific ways. Firstly he shows the relations between the church and the seasons, the way services change in different times of the year - most obviously Easter and Christmas, though these were very different festivals. Secondly he links the church to the lives of its congregations - its presence at their births, marriages and death.

Orme doesn't pretend that everyone went to church all the time and some people never did. He also doesn't portray the church as perfect or its clergy as unfailing. People are punished, or behave badly - people gossip in church or show off hunting birds or flirt with the opposite sex. But this is very much a church "for life and death".

I loved reading this book. But I did feel it had somethings missing. I don't think the book got to the heart of what its congregation thought. Orme meticulously documents how the church functioned - what the priest did, and when. He takes us through how services changed and how their meaning changed. But I wanted to know a little more about what people actually thought. Did they really believe that God was present? How did they feel when the priest spoke words of Latin they didn't understand? What did they really think about the religion they were said to believe in? Of course this is difficult even when discussing practice, as Orme acknowledges :
The services that accompanied the life cycle may be well understood, thanks to late-medieval copies of the manual with their detailed prescriptions for baptism, churching, marriage and burial. Yet here too there is a disparity between what the Uses prescribe and what probably happened. More, sometimes less, took place than they describe on days such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter Day and St Nicholas Day. The services of the life cycle must also be envisage in a context of popular observances that have left much less in the record, such as church decoration, procession...and feasting and gift-giving afterwards. 
We don't even really know how long services took, as clocks only came into use after 1400.

I was particularly disappointed that Orme didn't discuss some significant events like the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 or the Prayerbook Rebellion of 1549. This is not solely because these are subjects of great interest to myself, but because they are events closely linked to religious, economic and social changes. These movements give great insights into how people viewed their church and religion. Sadly Orme only mentions 1549 in passing and wider peasant revolts are dismissed in a words. 

Orme's book certainly draws out how religion played a dual role in peoples lives. As part of the structure of rule by the upper-classes and as support and solace for people through their lives. For instance, Orme shows how class divisions played a role within the church space, as well as in the wider social context of the church. I was frequently left wandering whether the book could have explored this further though. At times I felt Orme portrayed the medieval church as essentially benevolent, with congregations happily following their local priest. I'd have liked more on dissent - and not just religious dissent. What happened when people refused to pay their tithes? Did people disagree with sermons? Did the congregation round on a few badly behaved attendees?

On the other hand this is a remarkably detailed book, and, it must be added - a beautifully produced one. There are lavish full colour pictures, plans of buildings and a lovely cover reproduction of a painting by Simon Bening from ~1550 showing peasants (and their dogs) trooping to a church (though readers ought to note it depicts a Flemish scene). Those wanting to understand what happened in a English church and how people worshipped will get a great deal out of this enjoyable work. Perhaps there's more to say about what they thought too - but that may well be another book.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Rachel Carson - The Sea Around Us

Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us is nothing less than a complete history of the oceans and an study of the sea's human and non-human ecology. Part of her sea "trilogy" it was first published in 1951 and became a bestseller, cementing her place as an author and leading scientist. Today Carson is mostly remembered, rightly, for her wonderful work of ecology Silent Spring. But it was in these earlier books that she first demonstrated the talent she had for describing complex scientific concepts for the lay person, and let me emphasis the beauty and clarity of Carson's writing in The Sea Around Us.

The Sea Around Us begins with the history of the oceans, then looks at the way the sea is, from top to bottom. For an audience mostly unfamiliar with the deeps, then only just being explored by deep sea explorers, it is an insight into an unknown world. We learn about some of the creatures that live in the deepest parts of the oceans and how their habitats are shaped by the upper reaches of the oceans. Carson also explains the tides, the waves and the currents - and there's a lovely illustration of the Gulf Stream.

Interestingly for the contemporary reader Carson also includes some material on changes caused by melting ice caps and warming oceans. She doesn't ascribe them to global warming - no one did then. But she does consider what these changes might mean. She sees them as part of wider cycles of the Earth's systems. 

Unfortunately for the reader today, there are significant problems with the book. It seems incredible today that when Carson was writing significant parts of geological science were not known. So she lacks any knowledge of plate tectonics, so cannot adequately explain the history of the oceans. 

It would be churlish to dismiss the book for science that came after Carson's time, and its important to say that there is a great deal of interest here. So the book is far more than a historical curiosity. Modern editions often have an introduction updating Carson's work and the interested reader would do well to hunt these down. Most of all I enjoyed reading The Sea Around Us because it is such a wonderful example of how scientific writing need not be dull, or weighted down with figures, but can be poetic and accessible. I'm not surprised it was such a bestseller, and readers today will still get much from it.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Friday, September 10, 2021

Terry Pratchett - Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures is the tenth of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and the first of the so called "Industrial Revolution" works. It still retains a little of chaos and uncertainty in world building that characterises Pratchett's early Discworld. The main characters don't reoccur in other works, and other - more mainstream characters like the Wizards, form the background and are mostly played for comic purposes.

But Moving Pictures is an excellent early example of what Pratchett came to do so well. To take an aspect of our world, and transport it into comic fantasy. But because it is more free than the later works which were tightly bound into the framework that evolved over 41 books, Pratchett is able to play fast and lose with the story. The puns come fast and furiously, and all are glorious. These jokes and asides betray a deep knowledge of film history and the making of movies.

The story centres on Holy Wood. A dark place were ancient species lurk, held back by powerful magic. When the protection fails, dangerous ideas enter into the heads of the Discworld locals. Suddenly they want to tell moving stories on an illuminated screen, and lead the mesmerised viewers too a horrific fate.

The lead characters, Victor Tugelbend and Theda Withel are clearly meant to be Rudolph Valentino and Ginger Rogers, though there is at least one reference to Marilyn Monroe. Victor rescues Theda, over and over again until they are "stars" before anyone knows the reference. Moving Pictures introduces at least one important Discworld character Gaspode the talking dog, and CMOT Dibbler has his biggest role in the series here. He is also the cause of the biggest running joke in the book. Though there is a bit of Pratchett genius in his reversal of the traditional telling of King Kong.

Moving Pictures is unusual in another way. The ending isn't particularly happy. We, the reader seeped in Hollywood romance, expect Victor and Theda to have a happy ending, but that's not quite so clear. In fact the ending is a little underwhelming, but fits the darker mood of the overall book. The book also does well to critique the greed and exploitation of Hollywood, not least through some rather clever references to real life figures.

It has been many years since I read this Pratchett and I actually picked it up after reading a history of more recent movie making shenanigans. I enjoyed it this time round, though it doesn't have the same returning power as some of Pratchett's more mature works. Nonetheless its clever and packed full of laughs from a period when Discworld was less industrial and more magical.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Snuff
Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Pratchett - Making Money
Pratchett - Wintersmith
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Colour of Magic

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

James Marriott & Terry Macalister - Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation

James Marriott and Terry Macalister's new book Crude Britannia could be described as the post-war history of the relationship between the British state and BP and Shell. It is, at times, a strikingly close relationship. The authors quote James Bamberg who wrote in his history of British Petroleum [BP] that during World War Two, British government control of the company expanded so far that "the seam between the company [BP], other oil firms and the government seemed scarcely to exist at all".  

But to just describe Crude Britannia as a history of Britain and oil is inadequate. It is much more than this. The book traces the changing relationship between companies like BP and Shell and the British state, through a discussion of the rise and fall of the oil industry on the British isle in the post-war period. It does this through a unique combination of travelogue and interviews - an exploration of the physical remnants of Britain's oil infrastructure and a discussion with the men and women who worked in it, governed it and the minority who enjoyed the benefits of its immense profits.

In the post-war period the UK went from a "coal state to oil state". The authors argue that "without cheap coal there would have been no modern London" but after World War Two the capital was transformed into an oil city. Wartime pipelines were expanded and extended to fuel the needs of Heathrow and Gatwick, New Towns were built "focused on motorways". The close relationship between oil multinationals and country was exposed again in this period - "Basildon was part financed by Mobil and Shell" for instance. Britain's infrastructure was restructured in the interests of oil company profits and this primarily meant the car. As the authors comment, "London was emulating the interstate highways of the US and the autobahns of Nazi Germany where mass ownership of cars was seen as the road to national advance."

Roads are the most visible legacy of this period. But less obviously the oil companies constructed enormous oil infrastructure that is out of sight of the majority of the population. Refineries, terminals and pipelines were needed to take crude oil deliveries, transform it to fuel, plastic and other commodities, and transport it around the country. Such building work was not just about the infrastructure that could maximise profit, is was also a response to wider global political instability.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which became BP, responded to Iranian nationalisation of oil infrastructure in the 1950s, by choosing to site a new refinery on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary instead of Iran. It was an explicit decision to ensure the company could "ride out any future loss of overseas refining capacity it made it possible for the company to demand, and enforce, an embargo on Iranian crude and refined products and thus put immense pressure on the Iranian state. Grain [Island] was a weapon in the economic war which underpinned the covert war and helped fell the democratic government of the largest state in the Middle East". Not for the first or last time did oil interests, mix with UK government foreign policy in ways that undermined democracy and maximised profits as well as "income to the Exchequer in London".

The oil terminals, refineries and other infrastructure had to be staffed by workers. The authors travel around the UK exploring old sites and abandoned buildings, while interviewing former and current members of staff. Occasionally these are harrowing stories of communities which have lost their main employer and now face economic stagnation and unemployed. More often they are interviews with older men who remember with great fondness working for companies like BP and Shell, and the benefits it had on their lives.

Less positive is the record of these companies outside of the UK. Several chapters look at what happened in places were the oil was extracted, in particularly the appalling experiences of the Ogoni people whose land in the Niger Delta was devastated through the extraction of oil and who saw many of their activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, killed or tortured for their protests against the oil company responsible. 

The authors ties these stories closely together with the way oil companies used their base in the UK to further their interests. But they also address the way those companies tried to also to shape government policy. Central to this story is North Sea oil. The authors explain how North Sea oil provided a "laboratory" for Thatcherism, but also how the oil companies fought the British government over how the oil should be extracted. As the authors say:

It was Britain's misfortune to find oil at a time when the UK's oil companies, losing control of sovereign states in the Arab World and imbibing a corporate philosophy from America, were determined to fight hard to ensure that North Sea oil should be extracted by private capital and that the companies should be evermore independent from the state. There's a tendency to blame successive UK governments for the failure to spend the treasure of oil wisely, such as by setting up a sovereign wealth fund, but this story ignores the fact that the corporations fought a determined war against such measures by the state.

The complex relationship between state and private company is brought out time and again through the book. Thatcher's government finally broke the formal link between the UK government and BP by selling off their shares. BP, Shell and others might also try to move beyond their national base as well, but they aren't able to do this entirely, and they still rely on the UK government at various times. One example of this is the way that BP leant on the British government to lobby the US government for them in the aftermath of the massive Gulf oil spill.

Today the story of Britain and oil is particularly important today because of climate change. The authors discuss the way that big-oil tried to undermine action on climate change. But they also show how BP's much vaunted attempts to move "Beyond Petroleum" ground into the dust. Fundamentally this was because the company could not maintain the level of profits that its share-holders wanted. 

The authors report a conversation with Simon Henry, Shell's chief financial officer, after the company's 2013 AGM. Henry tells them, and an indigenous environmental campaigner, that "the world's population is growing and energy demand will grow with it, we have to help meet that demand and that is why we need to explore for resources in the Arctic". The authors describe the "fundamentally contrasting views of the world" of the oil executive and the environmental campaigner. Its a contrast that does not bode well for the future.

Later, while discussing these issues with the CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, he raises the "energy transition" and how Shell needs "certainty" of government policy. The authors comment:

We have a flash of understanding of a future conflict between democracy and tackling climate change. And remember that in its century-long history Shell has worked in hundreds of countries and political systems, many of which were effectively one-party states. The company's task is always the same, return on capital, the nature of the state it works in comes second.

For those of us who don't put profits before people, it's a worrying reality. Despite van Beurden's promises to the authors about energy transitions and putting Shell's money where its mouth is, they say:

It seems the company is hedging its bets or heading in two different directs at once. Building a future around the core means of generating profit through carbon, plus a small amount of renewables investment on the side.

They go on to note that Shell's zero carbon target is "far below" the demands of many other institutions and organisations of 2030 as a target for zero carbon.

What becomes clear by the end of the book is that since World War Two the oil companies have gone through a series of changes. While the UK no longer has the huge infrastructure that the corporations like Shell and BP built in the 1950s, they do retain a lasting importance and centrality to the British economy. Attempts to move away from their core source of profits have proved limited and the behaviour of the oil companies over the last 70 years has demonstrated that their have always adapted and changed in order to maximise their profits from their core industry - fossil fuels.

I picked up Crude Britannia expecting it to be a lengthy polemic about oil and climate change. I was surprised to find that it is much more than this - a deeply human story of how oil companies have shaped and continue to shape our lives under British capitalism. For those of us committed for fighting for a sustainable future the book shows the tasks we face. Excellently written, accessible and full of interesting anecdote, interview and commentary (as well as some superb maps of oil infrastructure) I highly recommend socialists, trade unionists and environmental activists in the UK read it.

Related Reviews

Marriott & Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London
Hughes & James Marriott - All that Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan
Nikiforuk - The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Klare - Blood and Oil: How America's Thirst for Petrol is Killing Us
Huber - Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom & the Force of Capital
Heinberg - Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future
Malm - Fossil Capital
St. Clair & Frank - The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink
Commoner - The Poverty of Power: Energy & the economic crisis

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Tom Wolfe - The Right Stuff

When I was a space-obsessed teenager in the 1980s I loved The Right Stuff film. I watched it multiple times glorying in the realistic portrayal of the space and the US test pilot programmes. During one of 2020/2021's lockdowns I rewatched it and found it as breath-taking as I remembered. But this time I was taken by the story itself - not just the bravery of the men but also the links between the space programme and politics. This is, of course, not a new story, but it was done well in the context of the film.

So I was determined to read Tom Wolfe's book on which the film was based. Wolfe's The Right Stuff is a classic of the genre, alongside Norman Mailer's account of Apollo 11, both read today more as literature than as historic records. Wolfe's book takes an unusual angle. It focuses on the Mercury programme, the US's panicked response to the Soviet Union's success in space. An attempt to put the first person in space and make sure he [it was always a 'he'] was America. In this the programme failed and the early US rocket launches were marred by failure and humiliation.

Wolfe however focuses on the individuals, and particular the rivalry between the test pilots who were considered to be actually flying their high-velocity, high altitude planes and the astronauts who were simply passengers. It's a compelling tale and Wolfe tells it extremely well - his lyrical prose is filled with call-backs to earlier comments as his central theme of "the Right Stuff" holds the book together. Wolfe's concept of the Right Stuff is worth dwelling on. He describes it as an essential feature of the pilots at the top of the military tree - the test pilots who survive the elimination process of recruitment, promotion and the dangers of flying. It is more than chance, skill or style - though all of these have their role. It's an ethos that is supposedly inherent to the pilot, something jealously guarded and only those who know, know.

It's also bollocks. Wolfe demonstrates plainly that the pilots who had the Right Stuff had it because they had skills, didn't die accidently and made it through a vigorous training programme that sorted precisely for men life them. But these few men did manage to create an aura around them - of power, bravery and machismo that caught the attention of the press and public. In Wolfe's telling it also led to intense rivalry between the space and test pilots, particularly among the later who considered the astronauts lacking in the Stuff. The astronauts, by contrast, were desperate to prove themselves - doing so, eventually with Wally Schirra's flight where his skills saved the mission and proved the essential role of the astronaut.

The fascinating thing about the US and Soviet space programmes (and indeed the military side of things) was that the most visible men were literarily at the top of an enormous pyramid of people and machines. Wolfe's telling of the story focuses on a handful of these men, and sidelines (deliberately so) the role of almost everyone else. A handful of figures get to stand in for these - the male and female doctors who are given comic roles to highlight the seriousness of the astronauts are a classic example. The reduction of the space programme to a few brave individuals who supposedly have the "Right Stuff" obscures a much more fascinating story. That's not to say there isn't stuff of interest - the book reads like a dream and Wolfe shows how the astronauts were pawns in a larger game, but charmingly unable to cope well with fame and fortune that followed. 

I enjoyed The Right Stuff. But ultimately it felt like Wolfe set out to write a parable, not a history and it tells only a partial story. That said it gives a flavour of the excitement of the early space programme - but only hinting at a bigger story.

Related Reviews

Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Stern & Grinspoon - Chasing New Horizons

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Peter Linebaugh - Red Round Globe Hot Burning

Going on the title alone a casual browser in a bookshop might assume that Peter Linebaugh's latest work is a book about climate change. The phrase is actually one from the poet William Blake, and while the book is not devoted to environmental destruction, it provides a neat link between this subject and wider discussions about the transformation of humanity's relationship to the world around us during the rise of capitalism.

The long subtitle of the book draws out many of Linebaugh's themes: "A tale at the crossroads of commons and closure, of love and terror, of race and class and of Kate and Ned Despard". Most of us who have encountered the story of Kate and Colonel Edward Despard will have done so as a result of E P Thompson's pathbreaking book The Making of the English Working Class. Their story was told further, in more detail and in a somewhat different way by Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's book The Many Headed Hydra. In this latest book Linebaugh open's with his quest to learn more about Catherine "Kate" Despard, and to try and locate her burial place. Kate (Linebaugh insists on using familiar names for the Despards, an attempt to make them closer for the reader) Despard was a creole woman from the Carribean, who married Edward and returned with him to London where they became part of a radical plot to overthrow the government.

Readers who have read the two books mentioned earlier will know some of the biography of the Despards. Those who don't know the story will not find a straightforward historical account in Red Round Globe Hot Burning. In fact Linebaugh encourages readers who want this to seek out other works. What he does instead is to develop a revolutionary narrative that links the story of the Despards to the swirling changes taking place on the burning globe in the 18th and early 19th century. In doing so he answers a question that many people must have asked around 21 February 1803 when Edward Despard was executed - how did a man who had been part of Britain's colonial project become such an ardent critic of the state?

The answer lies in the way that capitalism was transferring the world. As Linebaugh's subtitle suggests, race, class, enclosure and terrorism were part of the new world order. Despard's role as the colonial administrator in present day Belize no doubt led him to see slavery and violence at first hand, but as an Irishman he would have already known the reality of colonial rule. The racism and raw class power on the western edge of the Atlantic opened the eyes of many to the nature of capitalism, but Linebaugh highlights another, neglected, factor - the resistance of ordinary people.

There are two aspects. One are the repeated revolts of the slaves and the resistance of indigenous peoples' to the exploitation, destruction and violence of the capitalist colonisers. This culminated in the Haitian Revolution, an "historic fury" that culminated 12 years after its start in August 1791, "in the abolition of slavery and the independence of Haiti". Linebaugh tells us that "labor was most intensely exploited, enslaved and immiserated in Haiti and Ireland" providing further links between Catherine and Edward's journey to revolution. But the other aspect to the resistance is the the fight to stop the enclosure of the commons. We are used to understanding this in terms of the class struggle over common land in England, a key feature of the primitive accumulation that Marx argues was needed to kick start capitalist accumulation.

But Linebaugh argues that there is a wider enclosure of commons that shaped the politics of the Despards and many others. The first is that represented by the classical enclosures of England, "Common right... [the] power of direct, mutual appropriation, in contrast to the exclusivity of private property". The second is the "ideal commons", the "Land of Coackaigne" or other utopian visions "not restricted to the commons of property; they described general conditions of mutuality and happiness for all". Finally there is the "commons observed", "neither real nor wholly imaginary" a "European name whose referent was to the indigenous people in contrast to European settlers". In other words the generalisation, extrapolation of the "primitive communism" seen among American indigenous peoples and reported back to others. 

Linebaugh argues that "Ned and Kate experienced all three kinds of commons... They were not alone. People with experience in all three began to encounter one another during the 1790s." These encounters, produced Linebaugh says "revolutionary promise". They inspired, angered and motivated not just those who were oppressed and exploited but anyone who might look around and see injustice. Such people included Ned and Kate. The route of Edward to execution then was one travelled by many others, but he was, by no means the lone revolutionary beloved of government propaganda. He was part of a wide movement and Kate was his equal comrade. Their last hours together were spent composing his gallows' speech, agonising over the words as any writer might do at a much less stressful juncture. They were words that inspired and brought terror to the Sherriff overseeing the judicial murder.

Linebaugh's book is challenging. Its structure does not follow an easy narrative. He jumps from place to place - Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa and London. To explore his arguments he focuses in detail on obscure moments. There are many asides (sometimes many pages long) - from life in Ireland, to the minting of coins, to military sieges in South America and the enclosures in London. His language is lyrical, poetic and full of allusion and references. But this does not make the book any less scholarly or revolutionary.

It certainly was not the easiest of Linebaugh's books to read. Nonetheless it is compelling and rewarding. It reminds us that the current "Red Round Globe Hot Burning" was foreseen and resisted. Our hope for the future lies in rekindling that revolutionary burning as an answer to the capitalist destruction that Edward and Catherine Despard fought so hard against on two continents.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh - The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day
Linebaugh - Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance
Linebaugh - The Magna Carta Manifesto
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Hay, Linebaugh, Rule, Thompson and Winslow - Albion's Fatal Tree
Linebaugh and Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Daniel Bensaïd - The Dispossessed

This book collects a long essay by French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd on the nature of property and ownership with several famous articles by Karl Marx from 1842. Marx's pieces examine the debates in the Prussian parliament about the ownership and theft of wood from trees in private estates. It's a study of the way capitalism transformed property relations and how Marx's response to these events shaped his own ideas. It comes with a framing essay by the translator Robert Nichols.

I've been asked to review this book in detail for a journal and I'll post a link to that review here when it is published.

Frederik Pohl - Gateway

Frederik Pohl is a remarkable novel, but there was a fatal problem with it that I will mention in this review. This is, essentially, a spoiler, so stop reading here if you don't want to know a key plot element.

In the distant future the solar system has been colonised, but one most of the inner planets working people struggle to survive in appalling conditions of over-population, low wages, synthetic food and very low income. Robinette Broadhead is a miner, but has dreams of escaping and one day wins the lottery. With his cash he buys a trip to Gateway and signs up to be an explorer using the alien spacecraft there. Years before humanity discovered this hollowed out asteroid which contained hundreds of alien craft. The technology was barely understood, yet using the spacecraft could take their crews to far-off stars, solar systems or even outside the galaxy. At these destinations there might, and the emphasis is on might, be technology that could make the crew richer and the company that runs Gateway even richer.

But some of these destinations are lethal - perhaps the edge of a supernova or black hole, or they might need travel time in excess of the air and provisions that people like Robinette could take with them. Essentially its a gamble, but in the overcrowded, poor future, its the only way to make real wealth for those from a lowly background. So Gateway attracts those who are desperate, or hoping to turn a small amount of money into extreme wealth. 

Gateway is tightly controlled. Air, water, food costs money and potential crew must pay their bills or risk being kicked off the asteroid. Despite this, the unknowns about the flights keep Robinette from flying until he can no longer put it off. 

Gateway is a carefully constructed novel. Alternate chapters look at Robinette's interaction with his electronic shrink, trying to come to terms with some disaster that takes place, we understand, during his time flying from Gateway. The other chapters follow Robinette's adventures, his love life, partying and life on Gateway. Between these alternating stories we find extracts from Gateway's rule book and workers' contracts, small ads and reports from other missions. Some of these are automated as they describe the destruction of crews.

Its an excellent premise for a science fiction novel and Frederik Pohl brings to two parts of the story together very elegantly. But something soured the whole book for me which was when Robinette beats up his girlfriend. She leaves him, but then returns and professes her love. Its an unpleasant moment in an otherwise interesting novel. It's unclear why the author put the scene into the book as later it seems as though it never took place. I don't recollect any other science fiction of a similar era, or even by Pohl that has similar scenes and it left me feeling extremely unhappy with how the author seemed to be portraying women.

The strange moment distracted from a fascinating concept. Pohl was of the left - he'd been a Communist Party organiser in his youth, and his anti-corporate politics comes through in this, as in other science fiction classics written by him alone and in collaboration with others. Gateway is certainly a classic - though its gender politics date it a great deal. The concept of Gateway the asteroid, the unknowns that pepper the story and the interesting structure to the book make it a compelling read. This must be a key reason it spawned several sequels. Though, as I say, I was left feeling extremely discomforted by Pohl's insertion of a violent assault by his male character on his partner.

Related Reviews

Pohl & Kornbluth - Wolfbane
Clarke & Pohl - The Last Theorem