Monday, 16 June 2014

China's flailing birth into modernity in Age of Ambition

From the week of June 9th, 2014

China has forever been a mystery to the West. With a vast cultural history whose longevity is rivaled only by the Egyptians, its philosophers, its artists and even its rulers have enriched the world with their teachings, their creations and their approaches to public works. And yet, for all of this cultural wealth, China has remained an enigma to outsiders, a gem that cannot be valued. For not only have the countless generations endowed its people with a sense of superiority over younger, more ignorant nations, its leaders have often indulged in noteworthy strains of xenophobia that have frequently kept out foreigners.

Western economic advancements in the 20th century, however, have put an end to that isolation. For they, coupled with the disastrous Great Leap Forward, threatened to leave China sprawling amidst history's dust, an impoverished and forgotten nation. No longer. Internal reforms have not only opened China up to the world, they have lifted millions out of abject poverty and started China on the march towards a starring role in the 21st century. And it is of this emerging nation that Mr. Osnos takes his enduring snapshot.

China is at a crossroads. Having emerged from the self-imposed annihilation of the Maoist era, it has undergone a political and economic revolution to become something new in our world, an authoritarian capitalist state that, nonetheless, pretends to hold to its communist beginnings. From the Free Economic Zones in the 1990s to the factory cities of the aughts, it has managed to adopt many western values, consumption, brand identification, and affordable exports, all without relinquishing the one-party system that has governed the country since the 1940s. It has tried, with some success, to incentivize and empower a prosperous business class, to help it compete with the west, without allowing its increasingly wealthy and educated citizens to mire the nation in the democracy's bureaucratic quagmire.

But as much as this streamlined form of capitalism has elevated China into the class of advanced nations, it has lead to widespread sociopolitical problems that will plague it for years to come. For while, to some degree, the tide of the Chinese Miracle has lifted all boats, its blessings have been selfishly accrued by a small class of political and economic elites who have used their wealth to not only isolate themselves from China proper, but also from any repercussions from the Chinese state. This ruling class, combined with a strong sense of pervasive corruption within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has lead many to think that they are but exploited cogs in an unfathomably large machine, unheeded and unheard.

The voice of these voiceless, Age of Ambition is a fascinating glimpse of a society undergoing tumultuous change. Evan Osnos, an American journalist who has recently returned to the west after eight years living and working in China, lays before the reader a cast of individuals, the everyday and the extraordinary, in an attempt to convey not only the existential struggles, but the daily rhythms of Chinese life. In this, his entertaining and eminently readable chronicle oscillates between fixating on political corruption, its ubiquitousness and its exposure, and the lives of the Chinese people who must negotiate two distinct and equally challenging obstacle courses: the trials and tribulations of life in the 21st century and the ever-changing collection of human rights they may or may not be afforded depending upon the whimsy of the all-power state.

Individually, none of Mr. Osnos' idiosyncratic case studies are particularly interesting. Some, like the man who yearns to teach English, activate our empathy while others, like the author turned race-car driver and sometimes political dissident, are engagingly amusing. But none rise above the threshold of simply holding our attention. However, their power, here, comes in the aggregate. The gestalt of all these lives, troubled by the state's fickleness and fears, by a pervasive willingness to exploit their fellows, and by a makeshift, unevenly applied system of justice that evokes memories of the Wild West, leads us to the realization that the CCP has only adopted the convenient aspects of capitalism and not the ethical framework required to sustain it. They have appropriated the engine of economic progress without bothering to assemble the car around it. And given that capitalism is, at the best of times, heartless, adopting only its underpinnings, and not the two centuries of moral customs that developed around it, is bound to start a fire of outrage in the hearts of the Chinese people that will eventually burn away the cynical system that seeks to run their lives.

But while Age of Ambition is both valuable and often powerful, its focus leaves much to be desired. Mr. Osnos, atimes, appears to be writing a polemic against the Chinese state, detailing the various scandals in which it has been captured during his time there. At other times, he chooses, instead, to focus on the struggles of everyday Chinese who have no connection to the government at all. Which leaves this reader with the sense that the author was sufficiently moved by the plights of the men and women he met to include their trials in his chronicle, but he could not find a common thread that would connect them to the broader, political narrative. This is hardly a grievous blow to the work, but one is left wondering if the work would have been improved by deciding to focus on one or the other.

On the whole, an excellent and enlightening journey through a fascinating country that it would take lifetimes to understand. (4/5 Stars)

A century uplifted, a century crushed in The Third Horseman

From the week of June 9th, 2014

Finding truth in history is a difficult and often treacherous pursuit. Empowered by our hunger to understand our ancestors, and to learn from the mistakes they made, we read into the bits and pieces we are able to unearth about them narratives which are invariably distorted by our own values, our own biases. We savage the Catholic church for its backwards treatment of Galileo; we cringe at the murderous zeal of Henry VIII; we sadly shake our heads over the unimaginable loss of life during its wars and famines. And for most of us, this is done without context, without comprehending the deeply entrenched customs that motivated actions that, to us, range from abhorrent to bewildering.

This is why history cannot be reduced to narratives. It is the gestalt of countless lives, across countless generations, making contributions to countless cultural constructs. History is like the weather. It is not moved or shaken by any one disturbance. It is a complex system whose constant shifts require constant re-evaluation. And it is an acknowledgement of this underlying reality that makes this micro-history from William Rosen so captivating.

Popularized by opponents of Climate Change, who deploy it as ammunition against acknowledgement of the Anthropocene, the Medieval Warming Period was a roughly 400-year warming of the European climate that began in the tenth century and ended dramatically in the early years of the 14th. Between, Europe and the British Isles, experienced a significant increase in temperatures which not only expanded the total acreage of cultivatable land, but allowed for the existence of crops in areas that formerly could not support them. Northern England, for instance, possessed fruitful vineyards during this uptick. And as has been true since the dawn of civilization, more available food allows the population to expand, in this case, by tens of millions.

This expanse in the Carrying Capacity of Europe would come to have dire consequences in the 1300s when, with the end of the Medieval Warming Period, widespread flooding in the 1320s destroyed much of the continental harvests. The shrinking of the food supply led to starvation, famine and death. With scientific thought in its infancy, and the ruling powers too preoccupied with their own disputes to engineer solutions, these crippling conditions killed many, in peace and in war and authored more than a century of anguish highlighted by plague and darkness.

A history of both the climate and the people who endured it, The Third Horseman is a gripping examination of the Medieval Warming Period, the systemic forces that likely caused it and the human events that characterized it. From the Norman Invasion of England to the Scottish wars of Independence, from the floods in western Europe to the barley crops in Norway, Mr. Rosen gathers together the disparate, dangling threads of this consequential time and weaves them into an entertaining tapestry that is as enlightening as it is terrifying.

From the perch of modernity, where we possess technologies to literally remake the face of our planet, we rarely think about fundamental elements like food that are necessary for not only human survival but the continuance of human civilization. Today, food is not only bountiful, it is ubiquitous, so much so that some have fetishized its consumption while the rest take its presence for granted. Not so in Medieval Europe where food's cultivation was a difficult and arduous process, requiring a significant percentage of the available human capital to actualize, leaving margins for error razor thin.

But while, thanks to advancements in farming technology in specific and science in general, we have more margin for error, it is swiftly shrinking. Seven-billion humans now walk our planet, a many-fold increase over Medieval Europe. Should harvests fail thanks to our reckless distortion of the climate system, untold millions will die and plunge our civilization into the greatest famine we've ever known. And given that the failure of past civilizations is often caused by the social upheavals that result from the scarcity of basic necessities like food and water, it is not difficult to imagine that such a disruption would be the end of us too.

Mr. Rosen, however, is neither a nag nor a pessimist. The Third Horseman is not a polemic against human wastefulness, nor climate skeptics. It is, rather, the study of the disruption of life during consequential changes in those fundamental things we take for granted. It does not prod us to change our ways, nor does it seek to blame us for our faults. It merely invites us to remember how, despite our science and our liberation, despite our triumphs and our beliefs, we are still, in totality, reliant upon Earth and its climate to sustain us, systems of which our knowledge is laughably incomplete. Whatever step we take as a result of this key insight is ours to execute on our own.

A review of this fine work would be incomplete if it glossed over the author's treatment of the Scottish wars which have a ringing relevance for 2014, the year in which Scotland again faces the prospect of becoming sovereign. Famous historical figures like Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and the Englishmen they faced to gain their freedom are given fine, if unspectacular biographies. The passion, and indeed the enlightenment, comes in how these men were affected by the broader, global systems that they gave not even a passing thought.

An excellent micro-history that leaves no doubt of just how perilous our perch is on our little blue dot... (4/5 Stars)

The war for the ownership of the smartphone in Dogfight

From the week of June 9th, 2014

For humans, competition is a wickedly sharp double-edged sword. It has driven us to rise up out of the muck of subsistence to build a diverse, technological, multifaceted civilization that is forever improving upon itself. And yet, it has also fostered, and empowered, individuals who possessively lay claim to their little contribution to that societal progress, jealously guarding it as though it alone was the key to all else. Wanting credit for one's work is nothing new. After all, in a world where rewards often only flow to those who receive credit, it's hard not to want to promote one's contribution to the whole. But when guarding that contribution grows into wanting to deny it to others unless they pay for the privilege, then we have all, in some sense, lost. This is the difficulty that lies at the hard of Mr. Vogelstein's excellent document of one of Silicon Valley's most recent and consequential wars.

Though modern computing has existed as an industry for the better part of a century, it wasn't until the introduction of the iPhone that computing became a global phenomenon. After decades of clunky desktop towers, underpowered netbooks, battery-sucking laptops and chunky cellphones, the iPhone crammed everything one could reasonably expect from a personal device into a sleek package that apple, its creator, was able to market to brilliant effect. No more expensive infrastructure, no more cluttered desks, no more tangled nest of cables... Just a simple versatile, wireless device that could exist happily in one's pocket.

For this triumph, Apple understandably wanted credit, not only in the social arena but in the technological as well. It filed numerous patents to protect what it considered to be their crowning glory. And yet, there was no individual aspect, or component, of the iPhone that was innovative or new. Rather, Apple's genius was in assembling those various components into an attractive, functional package that put Apple on the road to being the most powerful brand in the world.

Understandably, Apple would disagree with this view. They would argue that, over years of toil, secrecy and countless man-hours, they invented the modern smartphone. And that, for this singular achievement, they should be rewarded. This position has not only set Apple on a path to litigation, against other smartphone makers, it has permanently damaged its relationship with Google, a once-close ally in the creation of a new, post-Microsoft world. Amongst billion-dollar lawsuits and hyperbolic threats of corporate warfare, the world's largest companies busted up over who gets the credit.

This and more Fred Vogelstein argues in his engrossing Dogfight From the Sidekick to the iPhone, from the early days of Apple and Google against the world to the bitter falling out that has seen the companies abandon friendship for rivalry, the author blends opinion with fact to create an entertaining micro-history of the smartphone that takes few prisoners. Though he clearly admires the innovative spirit and entrepreneurial cultures of both companies, Mr. Vogelstein also properly upbraids them for the arrogant attitudes that cause both to believe that the world would be immeasurably worse without them in it. And yet, it's the extent to which these jealousies and insecurities have dictated their actions that the true damage can be found.

For most of the world, the smartphone is synonymous with iPhone. This isn't true because Apple is litigious. Nor is it true because Apple holds patents for various components within the iPhone. It's true because the iPhone was new, innovative and powerful. It's true because people loved it to such a degree that it transformed a luxury item into a household toy. This didn't happen because Apple got its proper credit. It happened because Apple created a good product. And yet, when faced with competition from companies like Sam-sung and Google, Apple, rather than trust in their own success, rather than capitalize on their clear advantage over everyone else to stay ahead, talked about betrayal, of copycatting, of "thermonuclear war," as though theirs was the only touch-enabled hand-held device with wireless radios allowed to exist. But of course, if that were true, then the iPhone would have never existed at all.

And this is Dogfight's central revelation. There is nothing in the technological world that is truly new. Everything that we have now, and will have in the near future, is a refinement of an older, less successful idea. Attempting to take credit for that idea is not only disingenuous, it is a betrayal of the very spirit of competition that these companies claim to treasure. Worst of all, though, it exposes the truth that these companies don't genuinely believe that a better product will win the day. They believe that hobbling their rivals' ability to compete is the path to victory. That is not only cynical, it's depressing.

A delightful and sobering look at the pitfalls of competition and at the extent to which the powerful fool themselves into thinking they are indispensable... (4/5 Stars)

A tortured man in a tormented land in Lawrence In Arabia

From the week of June 9th, 2014

Mythology plays a strange and complex role in the legacies of history's legendary figures. Heroes and villains both find themselves subjected to its whimsical powers, the former elevated out of the mists of obscurity to shine like the essence of virtue, an example to all those who follow, and the latter shrouded in the darkness of devilry, their cruel deeds used to assure present-day citizens that they aren't so barbaric. Without mythology to generationally resurrect the stories of the past, we might never have heard of such figures, let alone learned their lessons. And yet, this historical airbrushing is so deeply rooted in the cultural prejudices that have shaped and carried them that, often, very little of the actual person is left for us to study. Fortunately, for Mr. Anderson, his subject has only suffered a century of such treatment. The rest of the mythological sediment the author himself expertly scrapes away to reveal a character of endless fascination.

Born into less than reputable circumstances, at least by the measure of his Victorian era, T. E. Lawrence rose from the obscurity of a difficult childhood to become arguably the most famous figure of World War I. An archaeologist with a particular fondness for the Arab world, he was initially tapped by the British Government to survey the Middle East which became a battleground in the Great War when the Ottoman Empire refused to side with the Entente powers. Keen to protect its colonial interests in the region, not to mention the vital oil reserves necessary to fuel their ships, Britain needed to understand not only the strategic situation in the region but the cultural one as well.

Lawrence might have remained a historical footnote, nothing more than a consultant on Arabic affairs, were it not for Britain's shambolic defeat at Gallipoli, a foolish engagement that not only swept into the sea the lives of thousands of young men from both Commonwealth and Turkey, but robbed Britain of any territorial advantage. Forced to rely on key figures in the Arab world, Britain turned to Lawrence to liaison with the region's tribal leaders. Not only would Lawrence come to cherish these relationships, they would serve to highlight the faithlessness of his own imperialistic government, truths that would permanently change his view of the western world. Lawrence would persist in his task, however. For he believed in an Arab world for the Arabs. And to achieve that, the ottomans would have to be defeated, the doing of which would make him a legend of history.

A superlative work of non-fiction, Lawrence in Arabia is a thorough, spellbinding account of the man, the myth and the world that spawned him. Scott Anderson, an author and journalist, exhibits, here, prose of the first order that not only drills down into Lawrence and the lives of the regional figures who encountered him, but also more-than-capably withdraws to a more global remove to discuss the political and militaristic maneuverings of the involved powers. His descriptions of Lawrence's labors are so wonderfully enmeshed into the overarching narrative of imperialistic exploitation and notions of smug, European superiority that the reader, made breathless by western perfidy, looks on in wonder at an unfolding tragedy of the first order, horrific events that, though they occurred a hundred years ago, nonetheless maintain sad echoes of the present. That the author so ably and effortlessly evokes such comparisons is a credit to his grasp of the subject.

There are actors here, other than Lawrence himself, that garner attention. William Yale, the prospector for Standard oil; Faisal Ibn Hussein, a warlord and Lawrence's primary ally; and Mark Sykes, an infamous British noble and diplomat whose corrosive whimsy wound up destroying Arab faith in the west. Each man, in his own right, is a creature of fascination and complexity. And yet, none hold a candle to Lawrence whose problematic-unto-abusive childhood drove him to lengths of ascetic self-denial that verged on the fanatical. His capacity to endure suffering is as breathtaking as his transformation from creature of self-contained interests and passions into an individual possessed of both the arrogance and the will to believe that his view of what was just could be imposed upon the western world. That he failed is not surprising. But that he thought he might succeed says more about the man than all his trials combined.

It is impossible to read such books without being enriched by them, not only in the events themselves but in how they characterize the broader tides of history. There's a palpable sense of tragedy that hangs over this work, a perpetual sense that human civilization, for all its brilliant advancements, is heart-breakingly prone to collective acts of senseless violence. From the indescribable idiocy of the Great War itself, down through all the self-interested decisions spawned by it, we come to understand some measure of the cultural disdain and suspicion the Middle East has for the West. It is there, for all to see, in the actions of our fathers and our forefathers, what we are capable of doing so long as our interests appear to demand it. Until we break that habit, until we establish, for all time, the notion that there are simply actions too manipulative, too duplicitous, too heinous, to carry out for the sake of necessity, we will just repeat these mistakes over and over. This is the lesson of the Great War, or it ought to be.

Splendid work. First-rate biographical history... (5/5 Stars)

Monday, 12 May 2014

The long, rich and despotic history of Iran in Empire of The Mind

From The Week of May 1st, 2014
Though pride insists that we have the right to act as we choose, our wills unfettered by the shackles of anyone else's desire, we are, inescapably, beings shaped by history. History is the gestalt of our experiences, the joys and traumas, the victories and the defeats, that, by individually imprinting themselves upon us, collectively influence our futures. We can try to recognize these influences in hopes of minimizing them, or perhaps even with an eye towards completely weeding them out, but how can we mitigate something we can't even measure? How can we extricate the fallout from something that has already happened to us? As much as individuals struggle with answering these questions, nations are equally subject to them. For what is a nation if not the collective will of human beings who share geography, culture, history? What scars the people scars the nation as well and leaves behind marks that take centuries to fade. The experiences of many nations provide evidence of this truth, but few more vividly, or tragically, than Iran. Michael Axworthy elaborates in his piece of narrative history of this consequential country. Home to one of the world's oldest human civilizations, Iran is a nation as fascinating as it is troubled. For millennia, it has produced poets and scholars, theologians and mathematicians, whose insights and revelations have both enriched the world and advance the scope of human knowledge. It has hosted dynasties and religions, groundbreaking universities and defined entire disciplines of science. Without it, the world, and the peoples that populate it, would be exceedingly different. And yet, for all of this glorious history, for all that its culture makes the Ancient Greeks look like Johnny-come-latelies, its recent past has been ravaged by the plagues of corruption, colonialism and conflict, all of which have taken its toll on this proud nation. Made a pawn in the Great Game of the 19th century, in which the British and Russian empires vied for regional dominance, and made a slave to oil interests in the 20th century, during which its politics and its institutions were ruthlessly manipulated by foreign governments and foreign corporations, it has become a suspicious theocracy, one that seeks, through the favor of god, to wrestle back its rightful place, as one of the world's premier nations, the first amongst younger equals. But the world is not what it was when Iran was a center of culture and knowledge. And it may well be that Iran cannot return to the prominence it claimed for so long. An exploration of the long history of a singular nation, Empire of The Mind is a riveting portrait of a country transformed by the insights of science and by the vicissitudes of geography. Mr. Axworthy, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Exeter, transports us back millennia, before the Romans, before even the Greeks, and gradually marches us into the present, introducing, along the way, religions, scientists and kings that have characterized this place of mountains and faith. The reader witnesses the fall of Zoroastrianism and the rise of Islam, the decline of tribalism and the assembly of the nation state, the destruction of pluralism and the elevation of theology. But for all these potent forces, none prove as consequential as colonialism. The world is not short of examples of colonialism's cruelties. It seems, at times, that half the world has suffered beneath its ruinous shadow. And yet, Iran has escaped most of the obvious consequences, instead, bearing up under more subtle and insidious damage. Perhaps, this is owing to the fact that Iran was more of a client state than a colony, its interests, and therefore its policies, torn between the various western powers fighting for dominance in the 19th century. This subservience certainly engendered a sense of humiliation within such a proud culture. And yet, this anger would be but a rehearsal for the outpouring of betrayal and rage that would come later, during the 20th-century's thirst for oil, when Wilsonian promises of self-determination gave way to the ruthless politics of necessity that undermined their governments, manipulated their intellectuals and empowered their dictators. For those of us fortunate enough to have been reared in countries spared the indignity of being subjected to the merciless will and the selfish whimsy of other nations, this shame is difficult to relate to. The West looks at Iran today and sneers at its theocracy and expresses incredulity over the insanity of its nuclear weapons program. But while the convergence of these forces is certainly cause for dismay, they should be properly understood as the consequences of meddling, of manipulation, of exploitation. For in the minds of a people, whose culture has been forgotten and whose sovereignty has been toyed with, what could possibly germinate but distrust? Put in this situation, we would all want the security of knowing that we would never again be someone else's tool. While maintaining an admirable neutrality, Empire of The Mind conveys not just the history of Iran but the powerful ways in which that history has informed the problematic present. This is no mean feat, particularly for a work that strives to be much more than an ideological weapon with which to chastise one's enemies. It is far easier to descend into the language of victimization and or excusemaking. That Mr. Axworthy avoids this while delivering an engaging read on a consequential country makes this one of my more thoughtful reads this year, only marred by the fact that its publishing, coming in 2007, denies the author the opportunity to read Iran's history into the failed Green Revolution and the events of the Arab Spring. Quality work... (4/5 Stars)

The problem of income inequality in Capital in The 21st Century

From The Week of May 1st, 2014
Wealth has become one of society's most enduring obsessions. Its acquisition preoccupies our musicians, its distribution fascinates our economists, and its possession enables our powerbrokers. Perhaps, this is unhealthy. After all, to ascribe so much value to something is to virtually guarantee that it will become a point of serious societal contention. But while some may successfully convince themselves to deny its seductions, wealth, and the money it represents, is much too deeply embedded in human civilization to simply shrug off. For it not just conveys prestige, its pursuit has endowed our greatest minds with the will and the drive to strive against all risk, a truth that has revolutionized our world and brought us wonders our agrarian ancestors couldn't have imagined. But for all of its unimaginable influence, wealth still starts more arguments than it ends. How much is too much? How much should be freely given away? How much should be taxed? How much should be invested? Wealth is hardly a new invention, and yet, even after all these centuries, it remains controversial, a state not at all alleviated when it is examined by the inquisitive regard of Thomas Piketty who attempts to explain wealth, in all its forms, in his dense and sprawling work. For centuries, economists have understood that economic growth comes in two basic varieties: income and capital. The former is any wage that one might receive for services returned, money that one can then spend on wants and needs. The latter, meanwhile, is the equity that one has invested in what one owns, anything from shares in companies to the roof over one's head. Over time, both of these forms of wealth can accumulate value; technological advances can make products cheaper and thus cause one's money to possess more buying power than it once did while land can become more scarce, as the human population expands, increasing its value sometimes overnight. These forms of growth have allowed human civilization to rise beyond subsistence farming and into the rarified air of industry and technological innovation. Traditionally, economists have equally connected the value of capital and the value of income to the health of national economies. After all, it seemed safe to assume that, in the event a national economy fell into recession, the value of a factory would suffer as much as the value of one's wage. Conversely, should a national economy grow at an auspicious rate, the values of both capital and income would grow equally. But on this vital point, Mr. Piketty begs to differ. Drawing upon 300 years of economic data from numerous western nations, he has reached the conclusion that the growth of capital, thanks to its greater durability, its capacity to weather purely financial shocks, and its concentration in the hands of the wealthy, is considerably more than the growth of income which is not only far more destructible, its value is much more subject to the fluctuations of national fortune. Charged with this insight, Capital In The 21st Century becomes more than a 700-page slog through a veritable forest of charts and research. It becomes a work of disturbing intensity that coalesces around a single, compelling argument, that capitalism is fundamentally flawed. Drawing on centuries of data, Mr. Piketty, a decorated French economist, argues that because the value of capital is more stable than the value of income, and because most of the available capital is owned by the rich and not by the many, the wealth of the few is accelerating away from the wealth of everyone else and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In this way, the author has set himself in opposition to prevailing opinion, that the fortunes of capital and income are linked, rising and falling together. This bold stance is no doubt part of the reason for such a lengthy laying out of his case. There's no doubt that Mr. Piketty's argument is intriguing. He contends that economists have been tricked into believing growth of capital and income are linked because of the peculiarities of the 20th century which experienced two colossal world wars which destroyed much of the capital of Western Europe. Additionally, this blood-soaked century also labored through decades of Left-leaning governments whose socialist tendencies caused them to implement steeply progressive income taxes which harnessed the profits of the wealthy, thereby precluding their wealth from racing away from the pack. After Europe recovered from WWII, and once the policies of these governments were rolled back in the 1970s and 1980s, the growth of capital returned to its more typical state, of outstripping income growth two to one. If Mr. Piketty is right, and assuming the 21st century avoids capital-destroying calamities like those experienced by the 20th, then the chasm between the haves and the have nots will only continue to dangerously widen. But however much we may be exercised by his assertions here, there is far less excitement for his proscription, a global tax on wealth, between one and two percent, aimed at redressing the imbalance between capital and income, thereby narrowing income inequality. Only a fool would declare this an impossibility, but neither would anyone but a fool think it probable. The United Nations doesn't even harbor a full complement of the world's nations. And if a body designed to unite the world in a single, diplomatic congress can't even agree on membership, how are we to implement a truly global tax on wealth that would undoubtedly prove even more controversial than a global tax on carbon emissions which are arguably just as consequential to civilization? The hope for such movement seems dim unto darkness. In some respects, it is foolish of me to have penned this review; I am by no means a trained economist. And it is clear, to anyone who reads even a dozen of the pages herein, that no less a figure is required to properly assess Mr. Piketty's case on economic grounds. But as a work of literature, it is profound. Yes, it is difficult, yes, it is stifling, but when one comes to understand the man's contention, the implications elevate the text into something well worth exploring. A fascinating and disturbing slog... (3/5 Stars)

Monday, 28 April 2014

A pleasing romp through a realm of Asian gods in The Eternal Sky

From The Week of April 20th, 2014

Living, as we do, in a world shaped by science and empowered by technology, it is difficult to imagine how society would function without them. Religion would certainly step out from its forced confinement backstage to reclaim its civil authority, but religion is only the dogmatized distillation of a power that runs far deeper, that may well have been with us longer than any other human concept. Mythology... For in a world without systems of logic and procedure, when truthseeking is reduced to hunches and hubris, mythology must be the genesis of both society and its customs, forged by the will of visionaries into a sword of belief that everyone can carry. What would it be like to live in such a world, where such concepts, such gods, are real, their powers shaping the lives of millions? Elizabeth Bear imagines in this engaging and bloody trilogy.

In a world of empires and Jin, warriors of the step and wizards of the tower, a ruthless conspiracy is afoot to bring chaos and war to the known realms. Having worked its corrupting will into the tribalism of the Plains and the politics of the imperial court, it has cleverly warped the existing bonds of family and law that have kept the realms relatively stable, manipulating them until brother besets brother and clan besets clan in a bid for discord and despair that it is uniquely positioned to capitalize on.

Standing in the way of this ruthless powergrab are two unlikely allies. Temur is a warrior of the step, grandson of the great khan who was left for dead on a battlefield that has robbed him of clan and future. Samarkar is a princess, sister to the reigning Emperor who has made a singular sacrifice to attain the powers of a wizard. He is powerless and alone. She is exiled and friendless, but as the conspiracy unfolds, and the land is riven by plague and infighting, they are thrust together by circumstance to try to right a wrong and discover just what is tearing their worlds apart. Joined by friends with their own pasts, their destinies will be written in blood across a changing sky, reconfiguring a world that has tried, and failed, to kill them many times over.

Imaginative fantasy fiction from an author of many literary disciplines, the Eternal Sky is an entertaining romp through a world drenched in myths and consequences. Eschewing the typical proto-European backdrop that characterizes so much of the genre, Ms. Bear has drawn from a more eastern inspiration, chiefly, the customs and politics of Mongolian Asia, when the Khans were at the height of their power. But the author does not simply flirt with this fascinating time in Asian history when the Mongol nations violently clashed with dynastic China and caliphate Islam, briefly creating a vast united empire that was ruled from horseback, she delves deeply into the stories and the traditions of these great powers and conjures from them monsters and mayhem, magic and malignancies that not only buffet her heroes, but drape the world of The Eternal Sky in the cloak of familiarity and authenticity.

Despite its pleasingly atypical setting, The Eternal Sky could have been just another trilogy, the churning out of familiar tropes for the entertainment of audiences wishing to gorge themselves on such familiar fare. But Ms. Bear, who has frequently exhibited a fondness for cutting against the usual grain, has generated a series of winning characters that further set her chronicle apart. Temur is a fearsome warrior who, despite the cruelties he's endures, maintains a core of decency that makes him eminently relatable despite his tribal upbringing. Samarkar is a newly minted mage who, despite her noble blood and her physical charms, rejects the narrowness of a life proscribed to her class and her gender and, instead, becomes a person not afraid to get her hands dirty in a world that desperately needs her. Even Hrahima, the half-woman half-tigress who accompanies them, is animated beyond the typical nonsense of such fantasy breeds to become a fearsome creature with whom the reader can sympathize.

These are not easy accomplishments. That they are so effortlessly achieved is both a credit to the author and a boon to the reader.

However, while the setting and the characters are winners here, the plots leave something to be desired. Ms. Bear has opted for the standard approach of the quest that binds together the brave band of heroes which, without twists, feels tired unto exhaustion. This feeling is not at all abated by repetitive surprise attacks upon the band which, in both style and substance, are tiresomely reminiscent of adventure games spanning the decades. But while these are flaws that hobble the work to some degree, they are in no way fatal blows upon what is otherwise delightful work.

A pleasing creation that gives us a taste of worlds we rarely see and demons we rarely fight... Well worth the time and money... (4/5 Stars)