Book review: Prisoners of Geography

Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. That’s the promise Tim Marshall makes in his bestselling 2015 book. We get ten chapters, each with a map, outlining the opportunities, drawbacks and resulting policies (and often military actions) of each region.

“In different parts of the planet, different geographical features are among the dominant factors in determining what people can and cannot do.”

A mountain range can be a buffer or a hindrance, depending on your point of view. Rivers mean access and access means business, but not all rivers are built for the job. Heights and sea lanes are worth controlling. Access to oceans is part and parcel of becoming a world power. Natural harbours? Yes, please. Trees? Practical for building ships. Indeed, much of the book is about practicality, working around rarely-changing facts of geography. Where you are and what you’ve got to work with will determine who you become.

We start with Russia, buffered by a vast expanse of land yet poor on warm water harbours; then China, insulated by the Himalayas and with three of its great rivers springing from the contested Tibetan plateau; the US, a two-ocean power with an unrivalled global naval presence; Western Europe with its flatland and navigable rivers built for business, Africa with its flush resources but sadly less navigable rivers; the Middle East and its population divides; India and Pakistan; Korea and Japan; Latin America; and finally, the Arctic. The chapter on the Arctic is particularly interesting, as the changing climate renders the frozen north and its resources more and more accessible, and opens sea lanes and access points.

It’s a treasure trove for anyone wanting to understand international politics a little better and get a firmer idea of why some conflicts appear doomed to repeat themselves throughout history. And also a hint as to new ones.

“Water wars are considered to be among the coming conflicts this century and this is one to watch.”

It is also a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi. Want a desert city? There will be practical constraints. That mountain range that looks cool on a Tolkienesque map? It’s going to have some implications for trade. A continent-spanning river for your plucky heroes to navigate? Who controls the source and who needs the water? Figuring that out might tell you who governs, who attacks and who defends.

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Your farmboy’s home country is a peaceful oasis surrounded by aggressive countries waiting for the foretold saviour for centuries? Best make sure it has plenty of natural barriers and/or no values (position, resources etc) to speak of, otherwise the peace might not be so stable after all.

It’s a great read, and if I had to make a criticism, it would be that the book is perhaps a bit thin. I could have consumed more maps, examples and details with ease. Nevertheless, it provides a taste of some of the major features of geopolitics, summarising the historical backdrop, how events repeat themselves over and over again in the face of geographical realities, and how the effect of technology and the warming world changes priorities, opportunities and constraints. Also, maps are cool.

Go read!

(Bonus points for recognising the map)

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2016 in books – a selection

I’m thrilled about by my reading list for 2016. Something old, something new, all of it exciting. These are the novels I particularly can’t wait to read.

2016 releases

The Bands of Mourning / Shadows of Self (Brandon Sanderson). Fantasy western set in the vast cosmere. I’ll be reading both back to back after the Bands of Mourning is released later this month. Having enjoyed the first book, Alloy of Law, immensely, it’s terrific to be having two new ones on my list.  

Fellside (M. R. Carey). Creepy, atmospheric Yorkshire-based story from the author of The Girl With All The Gifts?  Yes, please. April release.

Edit: I’ve just learnt that one of my writer friends on Twitter, Austin Hackney, is releasing the first book, Beyond the Starline, of his steampunk trilogy, Dark Sea. Will definitely be picking that one up too. http://www.thedarksea.com/Beyond the Starline

 

Pre-2016 releases

Find Me (Laura van den Berg). Dystopian novel that has been compared to Never Let Me Go and A Handmaid’s Tale.

The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddharta Mukherjee) – winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. A personal, historical and medical account of cancer.

Star Wars: Aftermath (Chuck Wendig). This one has received mixed reviews, but after seeing the film (twice), it’s definitely high up there on my list.

The City and The City (China Miéville). It’s been on my list forever, and I don’t know why I have not read it yet. Has received accolade upon accolade, and I’m sure I’ll be beating myself up for not reading it sooner.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (Adam Zamoyski). Recommended by a friend, whose opinion I highly value. Excited to delve into a part of history about which I know embarrassingly little.

The Haunting of Hill House / We Have Always Lived In the Castle (Shirley Jackson). Classic horror that I’ve somehow not read yet. I’m utterly thrilled to have them in store.

 

 

Cowardice, publishing and science

The publishing industry breeds cowardice. Apparently. Nobody in publishing dare defy commercial sense. Apparently. Profit is the measuring stick for literature. Apparently. Established authors lose their bravery in the face of sales numbers. Again, apparently.

The example used in the above op-ed is Haruki Murakami and his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I’ve not read yet, but I’ve been told isn’t as good as his other books. That’s a shame if it’s true. And it’s an even bigger shame if it is true that the lacklustre Colorless Tsukuru is a symptom of conformity and cowardice in the business. Yet I doubt it.

I doubt we’re on the eve of rampant cowardice. Thinking that authors somehow morph into robot-legged typewriters chasing sales at the first whiff of success, sheets of purple prose fluttering in the wind, is laughable. Thinking that authors cower under their desks, practically taking dictation from the marketing department, is insulting. But do I believe that authors are under pressure to be profitable? Sure. Do I believe that publishing is sales-focused? Yep. Do I believe that profit is necessary in publishing? Absolutely. And do I think this is a problem? Err.. sort of, maybe-ish.

Let me explain. I am a scientist. Scientists are often ranked according to their H-index (after physicist Jorge E. Hirsch). This index is calculated on the basis of the number of papers the scientist has written and the number of citations each paper has received. The higher the H-index, the ‘better’ the scientist. It can be a crude parallel to literature, where an author’s success can be measured in numbers of books and their respective sales. With me so far?

My point is, the H-index is not without flaws.

Firstly, the H-index is field-dependent. By that, I mean that scientific fields differ in how many papers each scientist typically writes and how many citations per paper are typically allowed. The literary equivalents are ‘field’-dependent differences in number of books (depending on length, topic, research burden, and so on) and size of audience. In science, it is understood that we cannot really compare H-indices across fields, and that the full range of fields, from popular to obscure, all add to our current library of knowledge. The same goes for literature. We’d fare poorly with only the popular branches of each.

Secondly, the H-index can be manipulated or inaccurately measured. Scientists can cite themselves, boosting their index, and the number of citations varies with the tools used to measure it, sometimes by a lot. For something that is intended to be objective, the H-index can be surprisingly unreliable and opaque. In publishing, manipulating sales figures is not unheard of. For example, some may recall how loopholes in the system meant you could buy your way up the Amazon Bestseller List (cite yourself, so to speak). Also, sales figures for books are definitely not transparent.

Finally, the H-index doesn’t take into account the future impact of the scientist. Many are ahead of their time, or misunderstood by their contemporaries. Gregor Mendel, now dubbed the ‘father of genetics’ springs to mind. His ground-breaking work was ignored for 35 years. The parallel to literature is obvious, and we have a long list of authors never truly appreciated in their lifetime (Kafka, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Keats, even Austen). Establishing their value, cultural or financial, based on contemporary sales is ludicrous in the extreme.

In short, while publishing (science) needs to make a profit (progress), counting sales (citations) probably shouldn’t be the only measure of success. To focus simply on immediate profit is akin to staring at the top stone of the Cheops, forgetting the other ~2.3 million blocks below. It goes without saying that you won’t build a great pyramid that way, nor will you build a business that lasts.

typewriter_sell

Goodreads glass half-full

So I signed up to a goodreads challenge a few months ago, at the behest of a friend. “Read 25 books in a year”. I keep track of my reading and know that I average on about 30+ books per year (excluding re-reads), so I thought it shouldn’t be too difficult. But this year, I’ve read less. Much less. In fact, when taking stock I was dismayed to find that I’ve only got 14 under my belt so far in 2015. The ones I’ve read have been pretty good, and some pretty long, but still – 14!? So I mentioned this to my sister, and got the following reply:

“Lucky you, having plenty of books left to read.”

Lesson learnt. The glass is half full. Going to go read now.