Friday, March 31, 2017

Liu Cixin - Death's End

Any review of Liu Cixin's Death's End has to simultaneously be a review of the whole of his trilogy. These are three interconnected works that rely on each other, despite their self-contained stories. The trilogy deals with humanity's first contact, but it is a first contact in a deeply hostile universe. The three books look then at how humanity through hundreds of years goes through various crises that result from the different aspects of knowing alien life is real, meeting them, discovering that they are threatening, and finally, not impotent.

Liu Cixin is adept and thinking outside the box of 21st century society to imagine how humans might deal with such threats in the future. He's a little overly optimistic in thinking that transnational institutions such as the UN might play this role - and at times his belief in human society working collectively towards a particular technological goal, through the medium of maximising profits feels more utopian than ambitions of light-speed travel.

That said, the author creates a believable future history that spans three remarkably different books. Unlike some SF authors who have written "future history", such as Isaac Asimov, Liu Cixin manages to describe huge social changes and people well. In fact, one of my disappointments was that the reader invests a lot of emotional time in the different individuals at the heart of each book, only to find them playing peripheral roles in the sequels.

Death's End is a fitting finale. It reminded me of Joe Haldeman's Forever War were hibernation is used by the central characters as a form of time travel - allowing them to wait until particular events happen, or technologies develop. As in Haldeman's work, there is great delight for the reader in the as each new era gives the characters social problems as they adapt to changing social norms. In Death's End Liu Cixin uses gender as a way of describing the characteristics of different epochs of humanity. People take on more feminised aspects and styles when society is more confident and expanding; as it becomes desperate and warlike the fashion is toward the more rugged male image of our own times. I'm not sure its a great analogy, but it does create a sense of a changing, evolving society.

Cheng Xin the woman at the centre of this novel, begins as a failure. Her initial role, to protect humanity, is disastrous because the aliens are not convinced she is prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to defend Earth and its solar system. This is a kill or be killed universe and humans have yet to understand the nuances of this. As time develops she becomes a much more nuanced enemy. Through her, we follow humanity's emergence onto the galactic stage into the midst of a very hostile audience.

Death's End is pessimistic - both in terms of its portrayal of the wider universe and humanity's ability to collective respond to situations. In Cixin's view, humans are all to prone to seize on the next hope, or plunge into despair. A particular scene when a false alarm creates a panicked attempt to evacuate Earth is very well described and might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which different parts of the world will react to climate change.

This trilogy will become a 21st century classic and deserves to be read far beyond the confines of a SF&F audience. The author has a tremendous grasp of history, literature and science and has created a terrifying future. Each book has its different style and emphasis, and they are very much individual works tied together with a single narrative. You could do a lot worse than spending a week locked indoors with these three books.

Related Reviews

Cixin Liu - The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu - The Dark Forest

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Reid - Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt 1812

This is a far more accessible and better written than the previous book I reviewed on this subject, Malcolm Thomis' The Luddites. It also benefits from better analysis of events and people. That said they are quite different books - Robert Reid is writing for a wider, more popular audience who might not know the history of the period, and as such he links the story of the Luddites to historical figures (such as the Bronte family). Reid also focuses his narrative on events in Yorkshire, though he does not ignore Luddite activity elsewhere.

Reid argues that the ruling class responded badly to the Luddites. He suggests, as other commentators have done, that they were very slow to awake to the scale of the rebellion and when they finally did so, where prone to see it as a Revolutionary situation, fueled by their angst caused by the French Revolution and, to a great extent, by their over-reliance on spies who frankly told their masters the stories they wanted to hear.

That said, Reid does not ignore the extent of the Luddite movement, nor does he pretend that there was no motivation behind it. Reid is excellent at explaining precisely what angered the Luddites about particular machines, and the scale of poverty, unemployment and hunger. Reid is also good an analysing the influence of the Reform movement on the situation. He notes that figures such as the Reform parliamentarian Francis Burdett inspired the radicals who had enormous illusions in them. Despite some fear from senior members of the government however,

Burdett had no interest in leading a radical movement, and in this disappointed thousands of working people in London and elsewhere. Reid also notes that the different geographical strands of the movement tended to reinforce each other, though contact between them was limited. Events in the South inspired action in the North and vice-versa, though rumours of massive armies ready to march on the capital were just the products of hope, or lies spread by spies.

Like most other commentators Reid locates the Luddite rising within the development of capitalism, and the transition to production for profit. One brilliant proof of this is when he quotes a prosecutor at one of the Luddite trials using Adam Smith's "economic argument in favour of machinery" as part of the prosecution. No further evidence might be needed.

I was less convinced by Reid's argument about the "law of technology" which he suggests will inevitably lead to unemployment. Reid was writing in the aftermath of the Great British Miners' Strike, so he is right in a sense. But the problem is not technology, but the economic system that puts technology at the service of profit. Reid is wrong when he argues "the most realistic solutions to problems created by technology are likely themselves to be technological". Instead the answer has to be a change to the political system that puts technology at the service of people.

That said, Reid is firmly on the side of those who fought back and continued to do so. His book powerfully demonstrates the extent to which a ruling class will use "Fear, and Fear alone" as General Maitland promised, to hold down workers fighting for their livelihoods. Most Luddites did not believe in fundamental change, but a few did draw that conclusion. They were the precursors of those that would try to build radical organisation to try and bring that about.

As a footnote, I wanted to mention the slight oddity that this book is endorsed on the back by both the Revolutionary Socialist Paul Foot and the appalling right-wing, racist Tory Enoch Powell. Given Foot's critique of Powell, its a strange combination.

Related Reviews

Thomis - The Luddites
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Malcolm I. Thomis - The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England

Destruction of property - the burning of ricks, maiming or killing of animals, the breaking of machinery or the burning of buildings - was long a part of the resistance by rural labourers in the late 18th and early 19th century. Today the practice is most commonly associated with the movement known as the Luddites which peaked in 1812, and has wrongly become associated with an irrational hatred of technological advance.

The movements known collectively as the Luddites were a mass expression of anger and frustration at an economic system that provided little for the majority of the population. They cannot be understood without looking at the wider transformations that had taken place in English society over the preceding century or so - the development of capitalism which had transformed rural communities from, effectively peasant societies dominated by collective and communal production, to ones were the selling of wage labour had become the norm.

This transition to a market economy had created a system were it was possible to starve in the midst of plenty, where the pursuit of profits meant that food was taken away from the hungry, who could not afford to pay and sold were profits were possible. In particular, in the context of the Luddites, the introduction of machinery, to expand and accelerate production was creating unemployment and undermining the highly skilled labour of sections of the workforce. In the context of the growth of the factory system, which broke the more traditional relations between master and skilled labourer, and concentrated relatively unskilled workers in massive workplaces, workers could legitimately feel they were being sacrificed in the pursuit of wealth and that their skills which produced high quality products were being discarded. Hence the rebellion, which destroyed machinery and targeted the worst of those capitalists who were seen to drive forward this oppression.

Thomis' book is intended as a general over-view of the rebellion and its causes, and an attempt to understand events. Unfortunately it is a pedestrian read, which I think fails to really grasp the nature of events. Despite arguing that Luddism wasn't simply an economic movement, Thomis ends up suggesting that "Luddism came to an end... not because of the success of the authorities in rounding up its leaders but because of a substantial improvement in the conditions which originally gave rise to Luddism".

This is a somewhat conservative conclusion. Firstly it under-estimates the political crisis that the movement gave rise too. Luddism took place in the context of war with Napoleonic France and raised the terrifying spectre of revolution at home. The assassination of Prime Minster Percival Spencer in the midst of the events was unrelated, but the authorities clearly felt that it was the mark of things to come for the ruling classes. The repression that they unleashed - effectively introducing martial law, and using violent, summary military justice against protesting workers - certainly helped knock back the Luddite movement. Thomis rightly highlights that the Luddites lacked any real national network of organisation that hampered their ability to co-ordinate, and this meant that repression had an immediate effect. Secondly the improvements cannot have been that substantial as unemployment and resistance was to be part and parcel of life for both rural and urban workers over the following decades.

Thomis argues that "the greatest confusion, for both contemporaries and historians, has arisen from the difficulty involved in separating Luddism from the various political reform movements that were going on concurrently". This seems a very mechanical approach. Individual Luddites may not have been members of reform movements, but their frustrations (and their rebellion) was driven by many of the same concerns that would fuel the wider demand for reform in the early 19th century. To separate these issues is to argue that the economic and political are separate, which might fit Thomis' agenda as the author, but not the reality of the times.

Ultimately I found this a disappointing book. It has its uses, not least as a pointer to other material and containing a very useful set of time-lines. But its not the definitive book on Luddism that the author seems to think it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Anatole France - The Gods Will Have Blood

The title of Anatole France's 1912 novel of the French Revolution reflects a common theme for discussion of that historical event. Reading the book in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution its easy to spot some parallels with commentators on 1917. The idea that revolutions devour their children is a common one for those seeking to defend the status quo, and Anatole France was certainly not the first author to use it. But France was unusual in this - he was a supporter of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the French Communist Party.

The problem really is that in this novel France focuses not on the great events of the French Revolution, but on the role of an individual within it. A young, idealistic and extremely naive Evariste Gamelin is the books' central figure. An unquestioning supporter of Marat and Robespierre, Gamelin is swept up within the Revolution. He falls as passionately in love with Elodie Blaise a woman whom he knows through his artistic work, as he does with the ideals of 1792.

The very real threat to Revolutionary France transforms itself into seeing enemies everywhere. As various groups within the new state struggle for power, and to protect the gains of the Revolution, violence becomes a daily occurrence. Gamelin becomes a revolutionary magistrate, tasked with defending France from its enemies and offering justice to those in front of him. His decent into bloodlust is partly a result of the normality of violence, and from a need to appease his peers. Strangely it seems also to create an erotic lust in Elodie. Eventually, and inevitably, Gamelin becomes a victim of the state violence, just as his heroes Marat and Robespierre did before him.

Oddly the novel's story is the least satisfying part. The strength is the individuals portrayed within it. The old, defeated aristocrats hoping for a revival of their fortunes, prepared to comprimise in any way to defend themselves. The corrupt magistrates, prepared to rape the relatives of their victims on the false promise of freedom. The idealistic individuals inspired by the Revolution and depressed by its reality.

What is lacking however, is a sense of the masses who stormed the Bastille and who joined the Revolutionary armies. Here they are a backdrop to the story of naive Gamelin who rose and fell with the revolution. The masses who made the revolution feel thin and shadowy. Perhaps this is why I was left unsatisfied by France's novel, for all the author's talent.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John le Carré - A Small Town in Germany

First published in 1968, John le Carré's novel A Small Town in Germany is one of the tightest spy thrillers I've ever read. Very little happens - most of the action is in the claustrophobic corridors of the British Embassy in Bonn, or in the homes of the diplomats who live in the towns nearby. Bonn is the "Small Town" in Germany of the title, but it's also a small town in that everyone knows everyone's business and, at least in diplomatic circles, is trying to get one over everyone else.

Leo Harting is a minor British embassy official who vanishes. He's managed to worm his way into being almost indispensable to the embassy's work, and suddenly he's gone, along with a host of very secret files. This would be frightening to the establishment at any time, but Germany in le Carré's novel is reaching a crisis point. The political upheaval of 1968 has led to a radical, right-wing politician Klaus Karfeld pushing for power, and he's doing it in the context of tense political negotiations by the British to become part of the Common Market.

Playing on German's concerns about Britain's close-links to the United States and their alleged failure to support Germany's post-war transition, Karfeld is creating such big waves that Britain's entry to the Common Market looks threatened, and a closer alignment with the Eastern bloc is on the cards for Germany.

Alan Turner is sent to Bonn to find Harting. He's crass, quick to anger and will stop at nothing to get the job done. His brisk, working class background and reputation as a bruiser, quickly winds up the Embassy officials who look like they'd rather not have the Harting question fixed. Turner is no James Bond. His style is a bullying interrogation of individuals, regardless of rank, and he is more likely to slap a female witness, rather than seduce them. He's not nice, but neither is anyone else in this world of spies - they are, after all, the tools of the British state.

Le Carre's writing is tight. Not a word is wasted on flowery descriptions, yet the grim, grey streets of post-war Bonn are brilliantly portrayed. The upper-class prejudices and pomposity of the senior embassy staff harks back to an era when Britain was a super-power, yet is now being exposed as a second-rate has-been.

Reading this in Bonn made the novel even better. But reading it at a time when the European Union, the capitalist club that arose from the Common Market, is reeling from political crisis; as right-wing politicians threaten political stability across the continent, gave A Small Town in Germany an extra sharpness. The political establishment had little room for manoeuvre in the fictional Bonn of the 1960s. I'm not sure they are in a much better position today.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

J.L. Hammond & Barbara Hammond - The Village Labourer: 1760-1832

J.L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond's trilogy of books, collectively titled The Labourer looms large over any English historical studies of the period from the mid part of the 18th century to the early years of the 19th century. This was a period of tremendous economic and political change, covering the mass of Parliamentary enclosures, the industrial revolution and the great battles for Reform.

The first volume The Village Labourer, deals with the impact of enclosure on village life and some of the rural resistance that took place. In isolation from the other works it feels like it is missing some parts, so the narrative skips the Luddite rebellion and moves directly to the Machine-Breakers of the 1830s. Confusing, until you realise that Luddism is dealt with in a later book. Much of The Village Labourer deals with the question of enclosure, some detailed appendices list the parliamentary reports and discussions about specific occurrences and are very interesting to read.

This part of the Hammonds' work is possible the part that receives heaviest scrutiny, some of which is dealt with by the authors in an updated introduction, but can be boiled down to the criticism that the Hammonds generalised far too much from a few examples and painted a portrayal of the violent consequences of enclosure that far exceeded reality. I think the authors defend themselves well enough, but should readers want to read more on the debates they might be interested in Michael Turners' Parliamentary Enclosures which summarises the criticisms of the Hammonds and the counter-arguments, and reaches the conclusion that the Hammonds were not too far from the mark as has been suggested, if not for their original reasons.

That said, the Hammonds do describe a reality. At the beginning of the period discussed the rural labourer and farmer were little more than peasants, in no way free to farm their strips of lands as they would like, reliant on a historical right to use the common and waste land that was associated with the farming of strips and suffering under the whim of the lord of the manor. By the end of the period,
The effect on the cottager can best be described by saying that before enclosure the cottager was a labourer with land, after enclosure he was a labourer without land. The economic basis of his independence was destroyed In the first place he lost a great many rights for which he received no compensation...
Cottagers were a slightly better off group of villagers than many, but the consequences were the same. Enclosure of land deprived the community of the rights that enabled them to survive. The Hammonds quote a contemporary in Norfolk who explains
I was informed that a gentleman of Lynn had brought that township and the next adjoining to it: that he had thrown the one into three, and the other into four farms; which before enclosure were in about twenty farms: and upon my further enquiring what was becoming of the farmers who were turned out, the answer was that some of them were dead and the rest were become labourers.
This neatly sums up the main point of the Hammonds argument, that enclosure was a economic process that the wealthy used to consolidate their land and property in the rural areas and the consequences were disastrous for large numbers of people who ended up becoming wage labourers in either rural or urban areas. The lose of rights such as access to common land, the right to collect firewood and gleaning were disastrous. The Hammonds have plenty of tragic stories to move the reader, but consider some of the economic points they make. Gleaning, the right to collect the grains that had been missed during the harvest, could for some families represent six or seven weeks wages. A staggering amount of income that lost that would have meant the difference between life and death to many. In consequence,
the labourer who now lived on wages alone earned wages of a lower purchasing power than the wages which he had formerly supplemented by his own produce... the normal labourer even with constant employment, was no longer solvent.
This obviously created a very real problem of poverty and hunger in the rural areas and two responses to this are dealt with by the Hammonds in the remainder of the book. One of these was the Speenhamland system eventually adopted by the government across the country. This created a minimum scale of wages linked to the price of bread which was supposed to be supplemented by the parish if wages dropped too low. In reality, the new capitalist farmers simply lowered wages and were subsidised by the community. Rather tongue in check, the Hammonds conclude that the
Speenhamland system was a safety value in two ways,. The farmers got cheap labour, and the labourers got a maintenance, and it was hoped thus to reconcile both classes to high rents and the great social splendour of their rulers. There was no encroachment on the surplus profits of agriculture, and landlords and tithe-owners basked in the sunshine of prosperity.
The other response was the resistance of the poor. The authors argue that the first sign of this response was the rioting of 1816, though I think its fair to say that the Luddite machine-breaking of 1811 onwards cannot be separated from the general economic conditions. Even though this was not rural rebellion, it was by workers still very close to rural communities. None the less, the riots and the renewed rebellion of the 1830s were part of a resistance to a system that ended up benefiting only the wealthy. There was also other resistance, as the poor tried to find ways to survive in the workhouse and get more from the parish. But these, by and large, were difficult and painful years for the bulk of the rural population.

The Swing protests of 1831 shook the government, in a period of general agitation for Reform. The putting down of the rebellion and the appalling sentences meted out to those found guilty of protest form the latter part of The Village Labourer. Over a century since the book was written and nearly 200 years since the events themselves, the accounts of teenagers transported to Australia, the execution of men guilty of only protesting to protect their livelihoods and the cruelty of a court system that preached liberty, but prevented the poor having a voice, has the power to shock. Evidence about distress caused by low wages or unemployment was consistently ruled out of order, as though rural riots could be explained without these factors.

The defeat of the Last Labourers Revolt was a turning point for the English economy. But it wasn't the end of resistance to the system, it was, in many ways the beginning. The Hammonds' book deserves reading today, in part because of its excellent approach to history, but in the main because they describe in detail the origins of the modern British economy - the result of a protracted class war that was won by the rich and powerful, who created a new world in their interests.