Non-Fiction Roundup

Shattered Sword
Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully
The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson
Andrew Blum

A steady trickle of non-fiction makes its way into my reading, despite the tidal wave of science fiction that threatens to overwhelm all. Some of these books are, while not science fiction, tangentially related to science fictional topics or inform one or another aspect of the genre. In many cases, I would consider them aids to world building or broader context for the stories we read. (Some are just about baseball. We all have to take breaks.) When enough of these sorts pile up, I will write an infrequent column introducing them, just in case someone else out there is curious.

Shattered Sword
This is a revisionist look at the Battle of Midway, one of the turning points of the Pacific half of World War II. Parshall and Tully write primarily from the Japanese point of view, making use of original research and previously untranslated accounts to correct what they see as inaccuracies in the historical record. I haven’t read much of the Midway canon, so I can’t say much about conflicts between the old guard and the young whippersnappers, but they felt right on the money to me. Sword is primarily of interest to me because of the focus on Japan; the authors are sympathetic to my adopted home, without absolving them of responsibility. (WWII blame in the Pacific is a much murkier issue than in Europe. Hitler was clearly in charge and evil, but in Japan, there was no central leader. Further, the Japanese had many valid grievances with the international system, even though they dealt with them in exactly the wrong way.)

As for science fictional relevance, WWII seems a model for numerous SF campaigns. For example, Tony Daniel’s tragically unfinished series that starts with Metaplanetary is pretty much the European Front moved to outer space. Gamers of a certain age will remember the Wing Commander series – its developer clearly stated that the Pacific War was his model. I am fairly certain that David Weber’s The Stars at War is also indebted to the same campaign. On the Japanese side, Nazi-like elements appear in Mobile Suit Gundam, while the Space Battleship Yamato series is a redemption tale where WWII goes differently. There are many more, but these are taken from my most recent Goodreads pages. For me, at least, knowing more about WWII informs the context for a lot of space opera.

As far as recommendations go, I wouldn’t hand this book to someone who had never read about WWII before. It is pretty clearly targeted towards military historians, though the authors make a few nods toward general readability. They don’t dumb anything down, but do candidly admit that twenty pages of military doctrine review is not spine tingling. More than this though, Midway doesn’t make nearly as much sense when stripped of historical context. The curious should probably start with an overview of the Pacific War before digging into individual battles. That said, I found the narrative engaging from start to finish and give this high marks all around. Anyone interested in WWII in general and the Japanese experience in particular should definitely check out Shattered Sword.

The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson’s book is subtitled “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” That’s pretty ambitious, especially for being just 299 pages (minus notes, index, etc.). The title refers to a map made of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic, an outbreak that marked a major turning point in the battle to make Western big cities something other than complete death traps. And by turning point, I mean “the stunning realization that people really shouldn’t drink their own poop.” Good job, Anglo-Saxons. No wonder we ruled the world for awhile.

In the first half, Johnson traces the mindset changes that prompted a few people to look at cholera (and disease, and demographics) in a different way, one that allowed The Authorities to finally get a handle on one of the most mysterious and sinister killers of the era. We follow the paths of these investigators and get to see how wildly inaccurate but deeply embedded opinions get overthrown (cholera comes from tainted drinking water, not noxious smells), while another Victorian relic somehow carries on (the deserving poor and our justifications for letting them suffer). Prominent heroes include statistics, population mapping, public sewer construction, and the beginnings of discovering germs.

Once cholera is defeated, John turns his eye to the ways this enabled urbanism and crises that may threaten it in the same way now. This part is less interesting than the first, as it mostly wanders into speculation, though I suppose it would be the more applicable half for SF fans. The first though, shows the development of the scientific mindset and the changes a society undergoes when that happens. It also, in a way, is a portrait of London as it approaches a singularity. Not The Singularity, of course, but a singularity caused by the rapid changes inherent in the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, this is worth the read, especially for the first 100 pages or so.

Tubes is Andrew Blum’s attempt to map out the physical internet: the cables, data centers, hubs, and buildings that answer the question of just where things come from when we pull them up on browsers. He builds a fascinating portrait of the new – fiber-optic cable, data – and the old – trans-oceanic cables, ancient phone centers converted to network hubs – that comprise the internet in the real world. This should be required reading for any prospective cyberpunk author and has probably already seeded numerous techno thriller plots. (Want to know which building terrorists could hit to wipe out the US internet? It’s in here.)

The book is less effective when Blum’s English degree gets the better of him. He’s obviously tormented by the desire to turn this into some sort of personal journey, because every once in awhile, FEELINGS crash the stage. Uncovering the sort of information that everyone probably wonders about should be enough excitement, but we still have to muse upon the human condition. Oh well. Get past this and Tubes is a geographical eye-opener.

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