Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Cixin Liu - The Wandering Earth

Cixin Liu has produced some of the most innovative and entertaining, as well as thought provoking science fiction that I've read in the last couple of years. So I was excited to pick up this volume of his short stories. Like his longer novels these are stimulating and in places unusual, as they subvert many of the established science fiction norms. The majority play around with various threats to Earth and humanity - some of these are natural and others are alien. The titular story considers how humanity might react to an sun that is about to destroy itself and its solar system. The solution, the moving of the Earth, is one that provokes intense debate and discussion. It might be read as a metaphor for the threat from climate change, as many people are swayed by denialism.

I was most struck by the rather poignant story Sun of China which follows Shui Wah on his journey from a tiny unremarkable, and extremely poor village into space. It is very much a story of modern China as Wah travels away from home trying to find work and make his fortune. His eventual employment as a window cleaner on one of Shanghai's numerous steel and glass tower blocks leads him into space. While the story is one purely of Wah's success and personal achievement its wider context is the conquering of space for ordinary working class people - the people who end up doing the maintenance and support for China's space enterprises. Cixin Liu cleverly links the ambitions and successes of Wah, together with the needs of space based economy. How do the capitalists make space travel cheap enough that they can get their labour into orbit?

Taking Care of God explores the return of the "Gods" from space. Gods in this context though are super-beings who firstly seeded Earth and now return seemingly to retire. As with all of Cixin Liu's stories it is multilayered, but raises real questions about how ageing societies, even ones that have conquered interstellar travel, can continue in the face of limited resources.

Several of the stories explore themes that will be known to readers of Cixin Liu's novels, particularly the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. The idea of "bubble universes" and time travel through hibernation are explored in different ways to the trilogy, but make for entertaining plot premises in themselves. The last two stories in the book are slightly linked, but very different tales. The penultimate one is unashamedly sentimental, and discusses the age old theme of an explorer isolated as an individual but still in contact with the rest of humanity.

The only story I didn't particularly like was Devourer which deals with a external threat to Earth as an alien spacecraft approaches intent on destroying Earth for its resources. There are very strong similarities to Cixin Liu's classic Three Body Problem especially in the high level human discussions about how to fight the aliens. If Three Body Problem followed Devourer, then I'm glad that the author used the short story to work through his ideas, as it doesn't quite come together here. Its treatment in that excellent novel is far superior.

All in all this is a strong collection that fans of Cixin Liu's other work will undoubtedly get a lot out of. I would recommend his novels as a starting point though.

Related Reviews

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

Cixin Liu - Death's End

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Rivers Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts

***Contains Spoilers***

It is rare to find a genuinely original science fiction novel, but Rivers Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts deserves that label. It is set on a generation starship, the Matilda, though the reader is never clear entirely why the ship left its home planet and where it is going. It is entirely possible that none of those on-board know either. The ship's destination is a "promised land" and this is the first clue to the nature of the society on the Matilda.

Whether it began like this or it somehow evolved/degenerated, the people on Matilda live in a society rigidly split by race and class. Those on the lower decks, like the central character in the book Aster, do the majority of the work and are all dark-skinned. The majority of those at the top of the ship's pecking order are white and live lives of extreme luxury. Aster has medical skills and she uses these to help those one her deck and on others. This doesn't mean that she can escape the mind-numbing work producing food for the thousands of people on-board Matilda though, and it is through Aster's eyes that we see how society maintains itself.

Despite the enclosed spaceship, this is not a vessel of shortages. The ruling elite live lives of luxury, with plenty of food, drink and, notably, space. The slaves at the bottom are crowded into communal living, working hard in fields and short of medicines, food and comforts. Despite the overwhelming numbers of slave workers the system is maintained through brutal violence and terror. Physical beatings are common, for the smallest of transgressions, rape and other abuse is common and, because this is a space ship, those at the top of the order even reduce the temperature of the lower decks to ensure cooperation. This results in tragedy. One of the poignant early scenes is when Aster has to remove a young person's foot as a result of frostbite.

Solomon uses the spaceship scenario brilliantly to make sure this isn't simply the antebellum South transposed into space. As Aster moves around the ship we find out that different levels have different languages, histories and beliefs. The author plays around with the use of gendered language and we see how the oppressed develop ways of communicating to get around their "masters".

Gradually Aster learns that her mother left her a secret before her death, one that might open up Matilda's mysteries, but one that puts Aster's in immense danger. That story is well told, but I'll admit that what I mostly enjoyed was the world that the author builds up. Slaves working in a generation spaceship growing food for their masters shouldn't work, but Solomon makes it real.

Like slavery the novel isn't pleasant. Solomon rightly doesn't duck the reality of violence - Aster makes her own medical paste to put on herself to numb the pain of being raped. An event that is common enough that they need to prepare for it. Some of the scenes of violence are painful, but they also serve to contextualise the latter rebellion against the system - one of the more satisfying scenes that I've read in science fiction for a long time.

Reading An Unkindness of Ghosts I was reminded of the story of the Haitian Revolution that was brilliantly retold in a book I reviewed recently. That's not to say that Rivers Solomon has written a work of history (though their own history weighs heavily on the characters in the novel). If anything this is a book about Earth today - with #BlackLivesMatter movements and other anti-racist campaigns fighting bigotry and racism today. With its discussions of class, race and gender it is a book that uses real history and a fictional future to illuminate the world today. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Ng - Under the Pendulum Sun
Robinson - Aurora
Tidhar - Central Station
Strutgatsky - Hard to be a God
Mandel - Station 11

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Julius Caesar - The Conquest of Gaul

Julius Caesar's personal account of his time as military commander (58-50 BCE) in central and north-west Europe is a fascinating read. Caesar has responsibility for an area that mostly covers modern France, Switzerland and parts of Germany and the low countries. Today, his account is often remembered as it contains the first written accounts of Britain and the Britons. But it should also be read for its insights into the reality of the Roman Army.

Rome's imperialism allowed it to gather booty and slaves, essential for the functioning of its economy. But the subduing of huge areas of the continent also allowed it to create areas with which trade was possible. Caesar was mostly concerned with making sure that the local tribes could not damage Rome's economic interests. So some of the book is accounts of Caesar's attempts to create alliances between Rome and various French and Germany tribes. It's fascinating to see how divide and rule is used to undermine the power of the united tribes.

But most of the book is a military account. In places it's breathless as thousands of Roman soldiers and their mercenary allies (often German cavalry) smashes the numerically superior tribes. Sections of the book contain detailed accounts of contemporary warfare. The description of the Siege of Alesia, where the Roman area besieged a town held by the Arveni tribe under the leadership of Vercingetorix. The Roman's completely surrounded the town and held off a huge relief force before winning a military victory that is probably still looked at in academies today.

But what really struck me about reading this book is how it exposes Roman occupation and military action as essentially terror. Hostages are demanded, villages and towns are razed. People are killed in huge numbers when they aren't captured into slavery. Crops are despoiled or stolen to keep the legions marching and the enemies aren't simply defeated, they are smashed.
Setting out once more to harass the Eburones, Caesar sent out in all directions a large force of cavalry that he had collected from the neighbouring tribes. Every village and every building they saw was set on fire; all over the country the cattle were either slaughtered or driven off as booty; and the crops, a part of which had already been laid flat by the autumnal rains, were consumed by the great numbers of horses and men. It seemed certain, therefore, that even if some of the inhabitants had escaped for the moment by hiding, they must die of starvation after the retirement of the troops.
Caesar here is writing about himself in the third person, so this is his own account of events. This sort of mass terror is repeated time and again by the Romans and their allies. What is also remarkable about these descriptions is that they were intended to be read as a celebration and justification of Caesar's actions. In other words, they were read and accepted by the Roman population, who presumably didn't object - or if they did we have no record of it. Certainly Caesar saw no problem in putting his mass oppression in print.

For those interested in military history this is a great read. For those who want to understand the reality of Imperial rule there's also much in it. Sadly the parallel with more recent imperial behaviour is all too clear.

Related Reviews

Harper - The Fate of Rome
Beard - SPQR
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Tacitus - The Annals of Imperial Rome
Plutarch - The Fall of the Roman Republic
Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Monday, January 15, 2018

Kyle Harper - The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire

I have to admit that I began by disliking Kyle Harper's Fate of Rome. The initial prejudice was because of Harper's use of Malthusian ideas as the intellectual framework for his discussion of Ancient Rome. Reading a book published in 2017 I was surprised to find big chunky quotes from "Parson Malthus" not least because his ideas have repeatedly been challenged and shown wanting.

Persevering with the book however I began to find much of interest. Harper does not abandon his Malthusian positions, but his study of the impact of environmental change and disease on the Roman Empire has much of interest. Harper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was the "single greatest regression, in all of human history". This was, he says, the result of the contradictions of the Empire coming together with a period of climate change and disease which repeatedly undermined the Empire's rulers' ability to maintain the system.

There are several interlinked contributing factors. The first of these is the environmental context. Harper argues that the Roman Empire arose in a particularly benevolent environmental era - the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO). The RCO is:
poorly defined in time and nature. The chronological boundaries proposed here, ca. 200 BC - AD 150, are a coarse abstraction imposed on a range of evidence, but not arbitrarily. They allow us to describe a phase of late Holocene climate defined by global forcing patterns and a range of proxies displaying some coherence. Buoyed by high levels of insolation and weak volcanic activity, the RCO was a period of warm, wet and stable climate across much of the vast Roman Empire. 
In other words, the RCO allowed big surpluses of food to be grown, agriculture to expand and there were reduced natural disasters to threaten the early Empire.

However the urban nature of the Roman Empire created disease ecologies. The concentration of large numbers of people, in towns and cities that often overwhelmed the sewage systems provided opportunities for disease to flourish. Without any understanding of how disease spread or germ theory, there was little the Romans could do once disease took hold. The results could be devastating. During the Antonine Plague, a disease that was probably small pox, around seven million people died.

The relationship between climate and disease "is not neat and linear". Harper gives us a few examples of how climate change fed the growth and virulence of disease. But his main thesis is that the Roman Empire had little or no protection against disease when it came, and because it was constantly pushing against a Malthusian limit, the results were always catastrophic. While the Empire saw a series of deadly plagues and outbreaks of disease, it seems that the final nail in the coffin was a series of outbreaks in the 500s. In 544 the plague lead to an "unprecedented fiscal-military crisis". The Roman Empire, hitherto reliant on its massive army was unable to mobilise the troops it needed. The repeated outbreaks of plague undermined the viability of the state itself:
The violence of the initial wave reversed two centuries of demographic expansion int he blink of an eye. Then the persistence of plague for two centuries strangled hopes of recovery. If we imagine... a normal growth rate of 0.1 percent per annum leading into the first wave, 50 percent total mortality in an eastern Roman population of 30,000,000, and thereafter a combination of quick recover rates (0.2 percent per annum) and smaller mortality events (10 percent mortality events every 15 years...), the power of the subsequent amplifications to maintain the population at low levels is apparent.
It is difficult to argue against this scenario. But I want to suggest that things were a little more complicated. One thing that is missing from Harper's book is any real discussion about the limitations of Roman society itself. This was a slave economy - the wealth of the Empire was built, in large part, from the labour of slaves. This was a very real limitation on the ability of the Empire to keep expanding, and caused major internal contradictions. The particular nature of Roman society - its highly urban character - arose from the nature of its productive base. The huge populations mentioned are there because there are lots of slaves in the economy. There is nothing here about the interaction between the different classes - the tensions in the cities that meant Emperors had to constantly think about appeasing the mob, the slave revolts, or the condition of the peasantry. One of the strengths of Mary Beard's recent history of Rome is that she points out that the vast majority of the Roman population worked all their lives until they died. Tensions between those at the bottom of society and the one percent were a constant concern for the ruling classes - yet the nature of Roman society is minimised in the face of the external threat from climate and disease. While it would be wrong to ignore these factors, to reduce the rise and fall of a civilisation simply to them is inadequate. Writing about the barbarian attacks on Rome Harper writes:
We need not go in for monocausal explanations. The coming of the Huns did not, by itself, spell the doom of the western empire. In the end the Huns conquered very little, and the effect of their entrance onto the scene must be measured within the particular circumstance that they encountered.
What is true of the Huns is also true of climate and disease. Their impact must be measured against the nature of Roman society that made it vulnerable. In this Harper's book proves inadequate. The reason for this inadequacy is that Harper's starting point is Malthusian - that every human society faces a brick wall against which it constantly presses, and mass hunger (or ecological crisis) is just around the corner. Karl Marx pointed out that the problem with Malthus was that he ignored the economic and social context. As Marx wrote:
overpopulation is... a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by limits posited rather by specific conditions of production. As well as restricted numerically. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!
Despite my disagreement with his thesis, I found much of interest in Harper's book. After finishing it, I read Caesars account of the Conquest of Gaul and I was pleased to note a bit when Caesar complains that the barbarians constantly mock the Romans for their short stature. Harper explains that Roman society was inherently unhealthy. Statistical studies of bones show that the coming of the Empire led to smaller stature. People were taller before and after the Empire, but while it ruled their region they were less healthy and were thus shorter. Such details and Harper's detailed studies of the impact of disease on the Roman Empire are fascinating. But the book is undermined by a weak theoretical framework.

Related Reviews

Beard - SPQR
Beard - The Roman Triumph
Everitt - The First Emperor
Syme - The Roman Revolution
McAnany & Yoffee - Questioning Collapse

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Jeannette Ng - Under the Pendulum Sun

What would happen if Victorian England, in all its colonial glory, discovered fairy land? This is the intriguing basis for Jeannette Ng's new novel Under the Pendulum Sun. Catherine Helston is a classic example of her class. A young woman born into a middle class family, the daughter of a minister. Her beloved elder brother, Laon, follows their father into the church and becomes a missionary in the country of Arcadia - the land of the Fae.

Left behind in England, Catherine has little to do. Her upbringing has prepared her for a life of sewing, embroidery and tea parties. However when Laon's letters end she begins to fear for him, and eventually receives a letter from the missionary organisation asking her to try and find him. Once in Arcadia Catherine finds herself in a world that is both mysterious and constantly changing. Arcadia isn't simply another part of Earth, it's a place that can only be visited by getting lost (which is why Captain Cook found his way there on one of his voyages). It's a world that is utterly alien - the novel's title refers to the Pendulum Sun of Arcadia, that swings back and forth across the land.

Ng describes the world well. Inhabited by very strange characters and creatures, Catherine has to battle to escape being trapped in a pastiche of her life in England - stuck in a bizarre castle with a few strange characters, one of whom wants to discuss the finer points of Christian doctrine and the other who would mostly not tell Catherine any details of life, but instead take tea and sew.

Eventually Laon does return and Catherine and him find themselves in the midst of rather a complicated situation whereby the Queen of the Fae appears to be setting either a test, or a trap. There's a couple of twists to keep the reader hooked, though I thought the main plot turn was fairly expected. Ng portrays well the stifling nature of Victorian society for the female sex, and the simmering repressed sexuality for the middle classes.

More interestingly I was struck by a number of themes here. One of which is the neat way that Ng upends the dominant colonial mindset of Victorian England. During that period, the sun never set on the British Empire, and the British establishment want to extend that rule to Arcadia. Others are also interested - I loved the idea that Germany was building a railway to Arcadia consisting of a clockwork system to randomly move trains along points so they became lost.

The central ideology of the British Empire was that the English were the most superior race and everyone else was subsurvient. Yet in Arcadia their rules and methods don't work. Here Christianity makes no sense (despite the desperate attempts by Catherine and Laon to find the Fae in the Bible). Here military might is foiled by magic, and while there is much material to trade, it seems that Arcadia gets as much out of the exchange as the human world.

In the end Catherine and Laon find that they have no power in Arcadia. They have become living proof that British rule cannot extend into the lands of magic. But the nature of their Fall also means that they cannot ever return to their old lives. Under the Pendulum Sun is thus more than a simple novel of the Fae (to quote it's subtitle) but instead is quite a rather clever morality tale that shows what can happen to those who believe their culture is far superior to everyone else's. It's a great novel and despite a few errors that should have been caught in editing I enjoyed it alot.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Stephen Mosley - The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian & Edwardian Manchester

Stephen Mosley's The Chimney of the World is a fascinating book about one of the earliest environmental problems for a major industrial city, but for today's activists concerned about climate change and air pollution in the 21st century it will stimulate many thoughts about how we meet the environmental challenges we face. I read this book for two reasons. Firstly I live in Manchester today and before that lived in Salford for many years. Secondly I am an environmental and socialist activist and one of the key campaigns I'm involved in is against the extension of fossil fuel use through fracking. Thus Mosley's book resonates on several levels for me.

In 1898 there were 1,200 factory chimneys in Manchester and about 760 in next door Salford. To people living here today the figures sound incredible. In addition to these, every home had at least one chimney which was also producing smoke, and there were hundreds more in the towns that today make up Greater Manchester, many of these like Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport, themselves centres of industry. All these factories were belching smoke because they burnt coal to provide energy, and the homes used it for heating and cooking. The pollution was staggering.

In 1888 someone living in Ancoats, Manchester's main industrial area wrote:
The atmosphere in this neighbourhood is so dense with smoke that it is impossible to see any object at a distance of a few hundred years; and, as for sunshine, I have lived here ten years and never seen what could be called 'brilliant sunshine'.
In 1901 another observer wrote:
Deadly suburban fields form the most extensive element of the background; but what rivet the eye are the scores, and scores again, of mill chimneys, tall, straight, and lank, belching forth volumes of black, dense smoke straight at the rocks on which we stand! [Blackstone Edge] Rochdale, Littleborough, Bacup, Burnley, Nelson, Colne - each contributes its quota... and the great smoke drift from South an East Lancashire [can] be seen crossing over the Pennine Range of moorlands and then mingling with the West Riding smoke.
Smoke and fogs on this scale had an enormous impact on the health of the people living in Greater Manchester and beyond. The economic impacts were also huge. What we now call acid rain destroyed buildings in the area and much further afield - in fact the pH of acid was much lower than that experienced in Europe in more modern times. Nothing was clean for more than a few hours, and Mosley documents a couple of cases of women driven mentally ill by constant cleaning - a never ending battle. The Victorians put great emphasis on the need for nature and clean air to prevent ill health, but the parks that they built in Manchester were constantly destroyed by the acid rain, the lack of sunlight and the chemical pollution. Even the council's attempts to put planted trees around municipal buildings relied on the constant ability to cycle the plants into the countryside were they could recover after a few months.

But it was the human impact that is most shocking. By the 1870s Mosley reports, bronchitis had become the most common form of death in "England's factory towns, consistently killing between 50,000 and 70,000 people per annum". In Salford an 1881 report said that 598 out of 100,000 people die annually from lung complaints, compared to 334 in Mid-Cheshire only a few miles away. The contrast between health in industrial towns and rural areas was well know. In addition, sunlight killed TB and "rickets... [was] brought about by the combination of a dietary deficiency of vitamin D and sunlight deprivation".

But despite this, Mosley explains, there was no popular mass movement against smoke and pollution. The reasons, he argues, having nothing to do with lack of awareness of smoke or anger against it. People, including working people, clearly disliked the pollution. The reasons that anti-smoke and clean air campaigns never attracted mass support were mostly linked to economic reasons.

Firstly, Mosley provides ample evidence, that working people in particular associated smoke with prosperity. Chimney's without smoke meant economic down time, unemployment and poverty. As one visitor to Lancashire wrote in 1842:
Thank God, smoke is rising from the lofty chimneys of most of the! for I have not travelled thus far without learning, by many a painful illustration, that the absence of smoke from the factory-chimney indicates the quenching of the fire on many a domestic hearth, want of employment to many a willing labourer, and want of bread to many an honest family.
Smoke meant industry and well-being. This was something played upon by the manufacturers who tried to block attempts to encourage them to use smoke reducing technology by emphasising the economic impact. Indeed the manufacturers did manage to get their workers to protest and picket anti-smoke meetings and activists were attacked on occasion.

In terms of domestic pollution from home fires, another factor played a role. This was the close association in the Victorian mind of the benefits of a warm, open fire in the house as a centre for family life, and as a way of drawing clean air into the house. Tackling the home fires would mean a drastic alteration to behaviour.

To get around these issues, the anti-smoke campaigns tried to play the factory owners on their own territory. One of their main arguments was that smoke represented waste energy - inefficiently burnt coal - and that reducing smoke could save costs. But they found it extremely difficult to prove that the savings were worth the cost of installing specialist equipment and, they had to challenge the industrialists wealth and political power. Without a mass campaign the campaigners lacked political and social weight, and if anything the workers were on the side of the bosses. Despite firm evidence of the toll of the pollution on lives, as late as 1897 some doctors could confidently say that the smoke was not unhealthy.

But there was growing pressure on politicians for action. The Boer War found the working class so unhealthy that it was difficult to find able-bodied men to fight. Of eleven thousand Mancunions who volunteered to fight, 8,000 were rejected because of ill health and of the 3,000 who did join up, only 1,200 were found "moderately fit". But the anti-pollution measures that were introduced were ineffective and the fines so small, and the crimes so difficult to prove, that manufacturers didn't change their behaviour. In fact it wasn't until the 20th century that governments finally acted seriously to stop smoke, in particular as a result of the "Great Smog" of December 1952 that killed 3,000 people in London.

What can we learn for today? Firstly note some parallels. The Victorians had an optimistic belief in technological development to solve their pollution problems and while there were inventions that would reduce smoke considerably, as well as changes to working practises, the manufacturers resisted their introduction in order to maximise their profits. There are many similarities with modern pollution and companies refusing to innovate or introduce technologies because of costs.

Secondly, environmental activists often come up against the question of the economy. President Trump, for instance, frequently plays up the cost to the US economy of action on global warming when compared against China. He plays the jobs versus the environment card. In Victorian and Edwardian Manchester big-business was able to bring workers onto their side, because there wasn't an alternative narrative that attracted workers. Today when we argue against fossil fuels we have to provide an alternative that doesn't alienate workers but makes them feel they have an interest in opposition to the industries that might be providing work. In the UK, one example of this is the Million Climate Jobs Campaign. Finally, there are parallels with the cultural practises of in the 19th century around home fires and today's use of cars. Stephen Mosley makes this point when he argues that car-owners don't want to give up their vehicles in the same way as their predecessors clung on to coal fires  - "the extraordinary affection that the nation once held for the smoky domestic hearth... is rivalled by the contemporary attachment to the... automobile".

Stephen Mosley poses all these questions for us through the prism of historical campaigns to end pollution. If it only did this it would still be a valuable book, but his work is also fascinating, readable and entertaining. It ought to be read by a new generation of political activists and social historians.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capital
Nikiforuk - Tar Sands
Heinberg - Snake Oil
Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England
Roberts - The Classic Slum
Roberts - A Ragged Schooling

Monday, January 01, 2018

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Children of Time

This is an unusual and sometimes strange novel. It follows two attempts by humanity to colonise and terraform far distant worlds. The first of this is abruptly terminated when human civilisation collapses, but not before colonists have seeded a planet with earth creatures and a virus intended to allow the apes they've left to evolve rapidly into humans.

The second expedition follows the second colonisation attempt by a new human civilisation that has grown up on the ruins of the old. These are fleeing an Earth that can no longer support human society and have the old world's star charts to follow. When they arrive at the seeded planet they find things have not gone as the original mission intended.

The novel's chapters alternate between what takes place in space, mostly on humanities ship, and what's taking place on the planetary surface. I won't describe the latter as its too much of a spoiler, and frankly, part of the fun is in watching this develop through the book. But I should say there are some interesting discussions about gender and society as a result of Adrian Tchaikovsky's very alien civilisation.

On board the ship we follow the lives of a number of "key crew" who, because they are in suspended animation through the centuries long journey, get to experience all the major events in the story. It's a useful plot device and the main character, who is a academic expert on the old human civilisation, gives a nicely cynical view of events.

This is the first Adrian Tchaikovsky novel I've read and it is certainly different. It's not particularly subtle, but it has a genuinely original set of ideas at its heart and fans of science fiction should enjoy it.