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