Monday, October 31, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

1493 by Charles Mann

In 1491, Charles Mann presented a new conception of Pre-Columbian America, one whose environment was intensively shaped and tended by its inhabitants. In 1493, he tells the story of the Post-Columbian world, a New World Columbus didn't discover, but created. Indeed, Mann argues that he inaugurated a whole new geological era: the Homogenocene.

Globalization is economically, culturally, and biologically enriching; it is also ecologically, socially, and economically disruptive, destructive, and even devastating. But though it has only been a buzzword for a decade or two, it is not a new phenomenon. Columbus' voyages set off the first wave of globalization, with plants from Mexico, silver from Bolivia, potatoes from Peru, slaves from Africa, diseases from Europe, and silk from China knitting together the world into one economically and biologically unified whole for the first time since the days of Pangaea. (Of course, humans have been trading goods, mixing ideas, trading *ahem* genes, and shaping ecosystems since they first spread out of Africa, but things like the Silk Road were confined to connected continents, especially Eurasia/Africa. That was more (to coin a very, very ugly phrase) "hemisphericalism," and massively important and influential to the shape of history, but it was not the true globalism of the post-Columbus world.)

Mann's aim is to provide the story (or a story, and, by Mann's own admission, an admittedly incomplete and in some points controversial description) of how the world we live in today came to be. As he states on page 79, "In sum: ecological introductions shaped an economic exchange, which in turn had political consequences that have endured to the present." The malaria introduced to Virginia gave African slavery an advantage over the indentured servitude of Europeans, because Africans were mostly immune, Europeans were partially immune, and Native Americans not immune at all. This contributed to the Southern slave society, and it's continued effects on American history. The over-planting of mulberry trees for silk production for the silver trade in China, along with the introduction of maize, tobacco, and sweet potatoes that allowed population growth and the cultivation of hitherto unarable land, led to mountain deforestation, which increased flooding and destabilized the Qing Dynasty. As part of the broader Agricultural Revolution, the introduction of the potatoes to Northern Europe decreased famine and supported larger populations, upon which was built the Industrial Revolution. It also led to the modern agro-industrial complex, complete with monocultures and pesticides, with all of the successes and disasters therein. The transplant of Amazonian rubber trees to Asian plantations also supported the Industrial Revolution, which was built on steam, steel, and rubber.

The Columbian Exchange did not just involve microbes and plants, of course, but also people. Before Columbus, for the most part Asians lived in Asia, Africans in Africa, Europeans in Europe, and Native Americans in America. After Columbus, the world became (and is still becoming) increasingly mixed. Millions of Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans flocked to and mingled in cosmopolitan cities like Mexico City, Manila, and Yuegang. Fueled by sugarcane and the labor necessary to work its plantations, African slavery exploded. For centuries, African "immigration" outpaced European settlers two or three to one. But, in one of the most interesting, to my mind, sections of the book, Mann shows that, far from being the passive victims of slavery so often portrayed, African slaves and Indian natives created"maroon" communities that directly challenged European hegemony and tyranny. Throughout the history of slavery in the Americas, runaway slaves militarily vexed European empires, and maintained their own autonomy, politically and culturally.

Mann's story isn't just history. We're still grappling with the tensions, contradictions, and opportunities of globalization today. What began within just a few years of Columbus has only accelerated since, and we're still ambivalent about its visible effects, and ignorant of its invisible ones. Never has it been more enriching, more disruptive, more destructive. Looking at its origins and historical effects could help us grapple with more effectively, emphasizing its positives and ameliorating its negatives.

I continue to stand in awe of Mann's powers of synthesis, as well as his ability to translate his wide-ranging research into a coherent and unlugubrious whole, written with style, clarity, and humor. Particularly enjoyable are vignettes of his wide-ranging travels, which provide concrete and engaging illustration of his arguments without falling into the trap of "Oh, look at these absolutely fascinating natives I've found!" or "I'm a better, more enlightened person than you because I backpacked through Angola on a giraffe's back!" that some travel writing about non-Western places falls into.

1491 was one of my favorite reads of the last several years (and I can't believe I didn't write about it, but all investigations say I didn't, apparently), and 1493 is a worthy successor: entertaining, thought-provoking, and challenging. It presents an entirely different way of thinking about both history and the modern world that many, including me, have never really considered. I can't recommend it enough.

Reality 36 by Guy Haley

2129. The world sucks. Climate change, war, disease, refugees: you know, the usual. Artificial intelligences, cyborgs, uplifted simians and whales, and virtual people are citizens.

Zhang Qifang, a prominent synthetic civil rights activist, is murdered. Three times. His lab assistant goes on the run. Human replicant androids, decades ahead of their projected development, are performing assassinations. In one of the protected Realms, virtual worlds created as immersive cyber-playgrounds turned into nature preserve of a sort, something is fraying the very integrity of its simulated universe. Dodging killer code and killer gunmen, German cyborg ex-solider Klein and super-AI Richards, the world's top private detective, have to unravel the increasingly deadly mystery of how these events are connected, what, exactly, is going on, and who is behind it. The fate of more than one world depends on it.

A gripping science fiction thriller, Reality 36 is aggressively readable. At first I was a bit miffed at the dystopic element. I'm just a little burned out with science fiction dystopia. The world sucks enough as it is; reading about it being even worse in the future is depressing. As someone raised on a steady diet of Star Trek, I want some bold, optimistic futures, damnit! But as Reality 36 progressed, I was pleased that, while it definitely sucked, its world was also "normal" in a lot of ways. Just people going along, living their lives. And there's good stuff happening in this future, too, like space elevators and Mars colonization and civil rights struggles, to go along with the wars and ecological devastation.

Intrigue, violence, and technology make this thrilling read. The rather abrupt and inconclusive ending sets up perfectly for the next book in the series, which will be out in March, though perhaps a little more resolution and a little less set-up, would have made for a better ending. But that is a mere quibble.

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