Thursday, March 30, 2006

C L R James - The Black Jacobins

C L R James’ work “The Black Jacobins” was once described to me as the best piece of history ever written. Certainly it is one of the best that this reader has ever had the pleasure to review. James looks at a short period of history (which at first glance might seem somewhat obscure) – the rebellion of the slaves of San Domingo in 1791.

In reality, this insurrection, and the battles that followed it had far reaching ramifications. James examines the revolution through the prism of class politics – not for him is this simply a matter of black versus white, or slaves against former oppressors. His starting point is the radicalisation of the French Revolution. The slaves who heard the words of Liberty, believed that it should also apply to them, and rose accordingly.

What makes the revolution fascinating – apart from heroic figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, is the way that the changes and battles taking place in Europe had such impact on the island and the revolution. Ultimately, even though the rebellious armies defeated invading, counter-revolutionary forces, they kept facing the prospect of slavery's return. For the emerging Bourgeois class in France, the a thriving San Domingo, producing a wealth of materials from its hundreds of thousands of slaves, was something worth bringing back the chains for.

Ultimately, Toussaint wasn’t able to see beyond the words of the French revolution, and the leaders of that monumental transformation of society destroyed him. But those who were left behind, who had been radicalised and inspired carried on the battle in a more radical form.

Defeating more armies, and a vicious counter-revolutionary movement that was ordered by Napoleon (one that drowned thousands of people in the sea for being black, and murdered many men, women and children), the blacks finally forced independence on San Domingo, renaming it as Haiti.

This review cannot do justice in such a short space of time, to such an important event. James’ great achievement is to make the reader do two things – to be inspired to try and challenge the system responsible for racism and slavery today, and to show how revolution always forces stark choices on those who would lead. He hoped as he wrote it, that a new generation of revolutionaries in Africa, fighting colonialism would learn from the events of their history. We can read it today to re-learn those lessons and be inspired ourselves.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Larry Niven - Ringworld

Larry Niven's Ringworld is one of the truly great science-fiction novels. It might lack some of the subtle commentary on contemporary society that grace some of the other works on that list, but it is a fantastic and fascinating read.

Niven introduces us to the Ringworld, a gigantic ring around a sun, massive in scale and scope, populated by the weird and wonderful and as is traditional in such matters, it is explored by a motley gang made up of humans and aliens, in an unlikely alliance.

Ringworld is part of Niven's "Known Space" future-history, but that aspect of the story is only really explored in the sequels. Ringworld here concentrates much more on the adventure, as well as introducing us to the concept of the world. The idea has been tremendously influential since - consider Iain M. Bank's Orbitals for instance. The Ringworld itself has provoked much debate and discussion - I like the story quoted on Wikipedia of the MIT students at a 1970s SF convention chanting "The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable" at Niven.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting and entertaining read. Perfect for an escapist weekend when you're lying sick in bed. Which is exactly what I've been doing.

Related Reviews

Niven - Ringworld's Children
Niven - Crashlander
Niven - Destiny's Road

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Tom Holland - Persian Fire (*)

The war between the Persians and the Greek city-states is one where ancient myths seem to mingle with real history. The tales of heroism and bravery have inspired people for centuries. In particular the last stand of the 300 Spartans and about 6000 of their allies against up to 250,000 Persian troops at the “Hot Gates” has been retold time and again.

But the wider history of this period is little known, and Tom Holland’s book is an exciting introduction. I say it is little known, because for most people, ancient history is that of Egypt, Rome and Athens. The Persians are neglected (the recent exhibition about their empire at the British Museum in London last year was not unreasonably entitled “Forgotten Empire: the world of Ancient Persia”).

So this book’s greatest service is to bring much of the history of that forgotten Empire to life.

The problem is that Holland tends to frame events in terms of contemporary politics a little too much. 
In Athens, not only were the great King’s demands dismissed out of hand, but his ambassadors, in blatant defiance of international law, were put on trial by the Assembly, convicted and put to death. Perhaps – given that Athens was a proven terrorist state…the outrage was no surprise.
Was there really such a thing as "international law" in this period? Holland thus becomes perhaps one of a tiny number of writers to describe the Athenian state as terrorist, though of course he isn’t the first historian to judge the past in terms of the prejudices and language of more contemporary times.

But even flaws like this cannot stop it being and enjoyable read, though I was often left feeling that my enjoyment stemmed from discovering a new and exciting period of history rather than Holland’s particular treatment of it.

(*) Full Title "Persian Fire - The first World Empire and the Battle for the West"

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