Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Cixin Liu - The Dark Forest

Volume two of Cixin Liu's science-fiction trilogy is a brilliant follow up to his earlier Three Body Problem. In fact, that first novel, excellent though it is, serves in my opinion merely as an introduction to this far sharper story.

Readers of my review, or the first book will recall that humanity is faced with an existential threat - an alien invasion force, travelling at sub-light speeds is heading for Earth with the complete destruction of humanity as its explicit intention.

At the heart of this book is a study of how people react to the potential threat. Earth is limited by the restrictions the alien Trisolarans have placed on its scientific and technological development. Rather brilliantly, Liu's aliens are not simply humans with different exteriors as so much science-fiction has it. Instead they are completely alien, so much so they give humanity a single advantage because they cannot conceive of communicating anything other than their thoughts. So the human ability to think one thing and say another, is incomprehensible to the aliens.

With this in mind (ha ha) the United Nations conceives of the wall-facer plan, a group of brilliant individuals who are to come up with strategies to defeat the alien invasion, without letting the enemy know their plans. The story of the wall-facers is the core of this novel, the backdrop though is almost as fascinating. This is how the threat of alien destruction changes the wider social atmosphere on Earth. Despair, economic crisis, over-reliance on technology and faith in the military all take their toll.

Unlike many trilogies, this second volume is deeply satisfying in its own right. I eagerly await book three.

Related Review

Cixin Liu - The Three Body Problem

Friday, February 24, 2017

Victor Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution

Victor Serge is one of the most important figures to come out of the Russian Revolution. A Belgian/French anarchist he was already immersed in revolutionary politics long before the 1917 revolution, and traveled to Russia in 1919 to see events for himself. Once there he quickly aligned himself with the Bolsheviks and proceeded to both document the revolution and serve as one of its leading figures. A brilliant author his novels and non-fiction are powerful arguments of the need for Revolution, as well as defenses of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks.

Year One of the Russian Revolution is a history of the early years after the revolutionary year of 1917. Serge begins with historical context to the Revolution stressing the importance of the earlier 1905 revolution and Lenin's Bolshevik organisation to the eventual successful seizure of power in October 1917. Serge careful documents the historical development of Russia - the role of the peasantry and their changing circumstances, the industrial development of the major cities of Petrograd and Moscow (often with massive French loans) and then, the collapse of the Russian economy during World War One.

There is a good over-view of 1917 itself, but those looking for a detailed account of this must look elsewhere. That said it is worth noting that one of Serge's central arguments is that the seizure of power in 1917 was not a coup by a minority of revolutionaries, but a movement that was supported by the vast majority of workers and peasants.

But the bulk of the book is a historical account of what takes place in the immediate aftermath of the seizure of power and the start of the counter-revolutionary civil war. The demand for peace is the central question, but a separate peace with Germany provokes the anger of Russia's former allies. Germany itself uses the opportunity to try and seize vast areas of land to obtain more food for its own military forces. In addition, the absolute hatred of the ruling classes for the revolution forms the basis for the begins of the Imperialist assault on Revolutionary Russia itself.

Serge really brings to life the debates of the era. The struggles within the Bolshevik leadership about how best to bring peace, as the likes of Lenin and Trotsky thrash out a strategy to best defend the fledging workers power, are amazing to read, and one can only feel the tragedy of knowing that Russia was to become even more isolated with the failure of the German Revolution. On a slightly less serious note, the account of Trotsky besting the rhetoric of the German generals at Brest-Litovsk are hilarious.

As it became clearer and clearer that the Revolutionary leadership was not going to collapse, the old ruling classes, together with their friends abroad became more and more prepared, in the words of Serge to "view democratic illusions more and more as a watered down variety of Bolshevism. It was waiting for its own moment."

Serge fills this book with little known bits of history. Writing in Russia in the late 1920s he would have had access to sources that few other historians can have read. Despite having read extensively about the period, I have never read of the events in Finland when counter-revolutionary forces decimated a new government installed on the back of a movement by workers in that country. While relatively radical, in that workers were intended to have real input into production and politicians were more accountable than in any other democratic country, this did not stop the whole of the left being smashed by the counter-revolutionary forces. Men, women and children were murdered in the name of re-establishing "order".

Such realities were to form the basis of the counter-revolution and the blood baths that followed the white armies and the imperialist invasions. Serge quotes Leon Trotsky defending the violence that revolutionaries resorted to in defence of their state,
Now that workers are being charged with committing cruelties in the civil war, we must reply, instructed by our experience: the only unpardonable sin whic hthe Russian working class can commit at this moment is that of indulgence towards its class enemies. We are fighting for the sake of the greatest good of mankind, for the sake of the regeneration of mankind, to drag it out of the darkness, out of slavery.
Repeatedly Serge emphasies the violence of the counter-revolution, which purely numerically, had far more enemies that the revolutionaries, and spilt far more blood. Indeed, Serge bemoans the softness of the revolution, which in its early months frequently let its enemies off, despite the most awful counter-revolutionary actions. Only to see them reappear at the head of invading armies months and years later, slaughtering men, women and children. Indeed, "terror" was not the immediate response of the revolutionary leaders, as Serge points out:
The Moscow Junkers who massacred the workers in the Kremlin arsenal [October 1917] were simply disarmed. It took ten months of bloodier and bloodier struggles, of plots, sabotage, famine, assassinations; it took foreign intervention, the White terror in Helsinki, Samara, Baku and the Ukraine; it took the blood of Lenin before the revolution decided finally to let the axe fall! This in a country where over a whole century the masses had been brought up by the autocracy in the school of persecutions, flogging, hangings and shootings!
Reading this during the centenary year of the Russian Revolution I was struck by the contrast between "official" accounts of the Revolution which focus on the "terror" of the Bolsheviks while neglecting the historic context or the violence with which the ruling class tried to regain its lost wealth and power. Serge's book is more than a brilliant history of the Revolution, it is a polemic that reminds us that the ruling class will not give up their position without a bloody struggle. If we want a socialist world, where people are not put before profits, than we will need to learn the lessons of history and be prepared for the violence with which their side will defend their privilege.

The tragedy was that Stalin's rise to power destroyed that vision. Genuine revolutionaries like Victor Serge lost their lives, or fled into exile. When Serge was arrested his unpublished follow up manuscript Year Two of the Russian Revolution was confiscated. We can only hope it remains as yet undiscovered in some former Stalinist vault.

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, I'm reading, or re-reading, some of the classic works about 1917 - click on the 1917 tag to find these reviews, together with earlier ones published on this blog.

Related Reviews

Serge - Memoirs of a Revoltuionary 1901 - 1941
Serge - Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia 1919-1921
Serge - Conquered City
Smith - Red Petrograd

Cliff - All Power to the Soviets

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