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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: Pacific - Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs...

Pacific (with ginormously long subtitle) is Simon Winchester's history of the Pacific from 1950 onwards. It's a tour de force with surprisingly interesting insights and history, and well worth your time.

The book starts with the use of Bikini and various other islands for atomic bomb testing. This stuff will have you angry and (if you're liberal) you might understand why many Americans have an inherent distrust of government:
had the islanders been Caucasians, then official inquiries would have been instantly convened, congressional committees would have been revved into high gear, presidential apologies offered, compensation packages showered like rain. But these were not Caucasians—they were mere Marshallese people, colored natives, members of a subject citizenry, a population now to be firmly contained and kept simply fed, watered, and, above all, docile. So there was never to be any inquiry of substance or value. The victims had worth not as members of any society, but as specimens—of importance principally to science. They might as well have been cadavers handed over to anatomists. They might as well have been branded with the term used by Japanese in their notorious human vivisection experiments—their human victims they called maruta, “logs of wood,” a deliberately dehumanizing description, given to lessen the crime. These innocents from Rongelap were America’s maruta, people rendered up as logs of wood. They were to become no more than the accidental subjects, serendipitously offered up to a group of faraway radiation scientists, of a detached, unemotional, and top-secret clinical study, a project of supposed significance for all in the ever more radioactive postnuclear world. And for a while it seemed this project would remain top secret—except that an army corporal named Don Whitaker glimpsed a group of the evidently very sick islanders in their hastily built camp on Kwajalein and wrote to tell his relatives in Cincinnati, who were sufficiently horrified by his letter to pass it to the local paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer. (Kind Loc 1507)
Then there's the history of North Korea, and how Korea came to be divided in half. (The history of how that line was divided will surprise you!) There's a brief history of Australia, and how it resisted immigration from brown people for a long time, illustrating that America's not unique:
 The Labour Party, purportedly the champion of the working man, turned out to be the most vocal in keeping Australia as pure as pure could be. “Two Wongs don’t make a White,” said a Labour Party immigration minister in 1947. Under the strictly enforced rules, no madmen could come in, no one afflicted by an illness “of loathsome or dangerous character,” no prostitutes, no criminals; nor could any “Asiatics” or any “coloureds” enter, either; and for good measure, no one who failed a written dictation test, an examination that could be given to an unwary applicant at a moment’s notice, and in the language (not necessarily English) of the immigration officer’s spontaneous choice. Sometimes the officer would, for his own amusement, choose to have his applicant write out the test in Gaelic, to be quite certain of a ban. (Kindle Loc 4559)
There's a history of the Sony corporation, and how it came to develop the transistor radio. It's a great history and well worth your time. I'd encourage you to read it. And finally, the book ends with a celebration of the return of traditional Polynesian sea navigation skills, and how the American Bi-Centennial celebration actually helped preserve that dying skill.

The book covers an amazing range of topics (some of which, like the history of surfing, I haven't even touched on in this review), in an amazingly short space, none of which felt like padding, all of which was interesting and well written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially if you're from any of the Pacific-rim states, and if you have any amount of curiosity at all. It's easily available from the local library, being more than a few years old, and I will go looking for more Simon Winchester books to read and review!

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