Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Paul Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster, By Train Through China

I've reviewed several other of Paul Theroux's travel writings elsewhere and one of the things that has struck me time and again, is that he tends to have a somewhat condescending attitude to the people he meets. I remarked on this in my review of his book about his travels through America "The Old Patagonian Express" and re-reading that review after finishing his book about travelling through China, I was struck by the similarities.

This book documents Paul Theroux's second visit to China. This is China in a period of immense change, with millions of people attempting to come to terms with the recent past and the future. He travels from London, by train of course, with a collection of odd-balls and people who seem to be deliberately chosen to annoy him. As an aside, I have to admit to a slight unease with the way that Theroux hides who and what he is. Perhaps he feels that if people know that he is writing about his travel experiences then they won't behave naturally - though you could also argue it's unfair to air people's dirty laundry in public without their consent.

Passing through Eastern Europe just as Chernobyl explodes the travelogue almost becomes a metaphor for the failure of the Stalinist version of socialism. But he avoids this because he has a better understanding of ordinary people and a realisation that the country he comes from has limited moral standing (Reagen had just bombed Tripoli as he sets off).

But the bulk of the book is Theroux cris-crossing China. He avoids the tourist sites in the main, having seen them before, trying to concentrate on the little known destinations accessible by train. Along the way he meets dozens of people, with very similar stories.

China at the time was recovering from the decade long social experiment that was Mao's "Cultural Revolution". This period of social and economic upheaval was an attempt by the ruling class of China to reassert ideological and political power, by sweeping away what were deemed "liberal bourgeois" who were trying to bring back capitalism. In practice this meant the persecution of anyone who displayed any interest or favour for any cultural ideals that didn't fit into the strictest (and most totalitarian) definition of socialist ideas. English teachers were hounded for teaching Shakespeare, professors were forced to work in the fields, religious buildings were razed to the ground and the monks forced to work for the revolution.

Such activities, urged on by political cadres galvanised many thousands into frenzied work, but a decade later the period was whispered about and referred to obliquely. Theroux tries to get to the bottom of what happened and how ordinary people feel about it. He meets a few who stand by what was done, perhaps believing there was only the odd excess. The majority seem to think that the whole affair was a giant mistake.

Perversely, the reaction to the Cultural Revolution amongst people seems to have had the opposite effect to what Mao would have wanted. Everywhere he goes, Theroux encounters people desperate to make a fortune. The opening up of the economy to the free market is everywhere and despite official statements to the contrary it's clear that there is a rising capitalist class who are doing very well for themselves, alongside an ever impovrished class of workers and peasents.

Paul Theroux isn't a socialist, so he can't explain what happened in China - that this wasn't a genuine working class led revolution and Mao didn't rule in the interests of ordinary people. But despite his condascending tone, his simple descriptive style and his lack of presumption about people and places makes this another fascinating read.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Dark Star Safari
Theroux - The Old Patagonian Express

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tim Flannery - The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

The relationship between humans, the societies that they create and the natural world around them is something that fascinates me. Of particular interest is the way that the most modern human society, capitalism, is inherently anti-nature.

All societies have a history. Capitalism is merely the latest stage of human history. However there is also a non-human history too – this is the history of the world that we live in, its flora and fauna, its geology and geography.

What Tim Flannery has done in The Eternal Frontier is to take one great continent – and look at the history of the place as a whole. In many ways this is unique. 65 million years ago, what became North America was pretty much ripped apart as a giant object impacted in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The nuclear winter caused by the dust and smoke created wiped out something like 80% of all species, including of course the giant reptiles that had dominated until then. This opened the way for the rise of the mammals.

Flannery documents brilliantly the evolution of plant and animal life post impact. He describes the few living fossils that remain, left over from before. But mostly he concentrates on the evolution of the new. The book comes into its own when Flannery describes the arrival of humans. The relative isolation of the American continent didn’t stop plants and animals going back and forth, though that was rare and limited.

But it was only recently that humans arrived there. They arrived in a land dominated by giant creatures that had not learnt to fear the hunting ability of humans.

Flannery describes the role that these hunters played in the extinction of the mega-fauna – the mammoths in particular. He very much sides with the “black hole” theory of extinction – dozens of species were wiped out to fill the hole in the face of the hunters. This contrasts with those who argue that only climate change was responsible for the decimation of the animal populations.
To back up this argument, Flannery points out that not all previous changes in climate caused such specific extinctions, and he presents us with the evidence of mass culls and hunts by ancient peoples.

We then follow the rise of agriculture and the city states that often developed around this new practice of creating food. Flannery shows how in the American context, these were often short lived, but nevertheless, by the time of the arrival of the first Europeans the population of the American continent was something like 30 million people.

With this new immigration, everything changed. The mad rush to exploit the wealth of this new continent had a devastating effect on the native population. But the exploitation of the natural resources was just as devastating. The obvious example of this is the buffalo which went from a population of between 30 and 60 million to a few hundred in a couple of decades.

Flannery doesn’t pretend that there was some sort of wonderful Utopia before the arrival of Europeans. The native Indians are often portrayed as living in balance with the natural world. Flannery argues that this is rarely the case, though clearly the Indian societies had a far better understanding of how to husband animals than those who took their place.

But the ability of capitalism to find ways of exploiting the natural world for profit and to create the infrastructure to maximise this exploitation is far greater than any previous human society.

The Clovis Hunters might have forced the mammoths into extinction, but they couldn’t fundamentally alter whole eco-systems. In the few centuries since Europeans arrived in the “New World”, Flannery argues that the American continent has been re-shaped and changed beyond recognition.

The last chapter of this book then is an appeal for a more sustainable way of living that both preserves the natural world but also understands how to exploit nature without permanently destroying. It’s a noble hope, though whether capitalism can do this is very much open to question.

Related Reviews

Flannery - The Weather Makers

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Terry Pratchett - Making Money

Rarely do I come away from reading a Terry Pratchett novel feeling disappointed. Sadly, this most recent Discworld story left me with the sense that the author was writting almost to a template. This is a shame, because the previous book that features the central character, Moist Von Lipwig was really rather good, full of excellent observations and amusing moments.

Of course, Pratchett at his worst is still an entertaining read and I am certainly not trying to put anyone off, but as I have argued before, I feel that Pratchett has got to the stage of the Discworld series were he is reduced to asking "What aspect of modern human society haven't I parodied yet?" and then inserting it into a book. So the previous Von Lipwig tale was the story of how the outmoded and haunted Ankh-Morpak Postal Service got a makeover, while our hero saved the city from some demonic dangers. This time the story is how the outmoded Mint gets a makeover, while Von Lipwig saves the city. In the process he invents paper money and demolishes the gold standard (though I have to say that I thought the alternate Golem Standard was a fabulous rummination on the Labour Theory of Value).

Sadly I fear that the next in the Von Lipwig tales, in which our hero takes over the Tax service for the city, will bring more of the same.

Still, it is an entertaining read, just not up in the stratospheric heights of some of the other Discworld novels. The truth is that if you liked the previous ones, you'll read this. If you've never read Pratchett, don't start here, and if you hate him, you'll never read it anyway!

Related Reviews

Pratchett - The Colour of Magic
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Wintersmith

Friday, July 03, 2009

Robert Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Robert Heinlein was never afraid of using his novels as a political vehicle. Often however they had other things going for them. Whatever the politics that informed Stranger in a Strange Land for instance, it is a very good commentary on organised religion, amongst other ideas.

Starship Troopers doesn't have this. Its one dimensional characters use the backdrop of a interstellar war against a ruthless insectoid race who are difficult to distinguish (read Russian/Chinese communists) to expouse their own ill thought out ideas.

Human society we are told, until the near future would be fatally flawed. We've grown soft by refusing to deal with inherent problems in society, failing to punish people adequeatly and bringing things near to collapse. Luckily there is a solution, and luckily for the reader its a military one. Only those prepared to commit themselves to the military can have a say in how society is run, because only they have proved themselves worthy.

Unfortunately, Heinlein doesn't have the wit to weave these dubious morals into the story line, hiding the more obvious right-wing libertarian propaganda behind a clever plot. Instead we get lectures from the characters - whether they are our hero's teachers, or the letters they write to him as he waits in gigantic battleships ready to fight the alien hordes. Our hero has run away to join the military, escaping his rich, over-protective father who would rather he took on the family business and has endured the trials of combat school.

While training to be the ultimate killing machine, war breaks out. Though rather unbelievably our hero tells us that the cadets weren't really aware of the war starting. This seems unlikely given the highly militarised society and environment they are in. The evil insects destroy Buenos Aires and our hero's mother. So the scene is set for the coming conflict, which seems to involve pitching large numbers of troops into stupidly dangerous situations were they are easy prey for the bugs.

Later on, when Heinlein has realised he can no longer give us his cod philosophy through the medium of flashbacks to our hero's school days, our square-jawed character bumps into Dad on a troop transport. Guess what! Dad has realised his son was right all along and joined up to fight the alien peril. He's even managed to wrangle a position on his son's own spaceship.

Hero son goes away to officer school and becomes an officer, despite being bad at mathematics. The point about mathematics becomes something of a stick that Heinlein uses to beat us with as it gets mentioned over and over again. Despite his ineptitude at sums, our hero can still be a superb officer. Do you get the point Dear Reader? Schooling doesn't help us in the fight to make our society better, and it certainly doesn't help us kill communists. I mean Bugs.

At officer school, various senior officers lecture him in their version of Heinlein's worldview and then more fighting happens with Dad and Son, side-by-side, fighting for the soft civilians back home, who don't know what war is really like. Even though millions have died. Civilians are, you see, not too bright.

Starship Troopers isn't a manifesto. It's a sort of anti-manifesto. A list of things that Heinlein doesn't like - communal societies, juvenile delinquents, Buenos Aires perhaps - it does list some of the things he does like, war, guns and the military in the main.

Oddly enough for a Heinlein novel, the hero doesn't appear to want to try and sleep with his mother. Though he does get closer to his father as the story progresses. Sadly, Heinlein doesn't explore this relationship any further and the novel sort of peters out, which is a bonus really, because it could have been hundreds more pages long and life really is too short.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land