Reviews by Eloquence
James Gleick is widely regarded as a masterful science writer, and for good reason. Through the 526 pages of The Information (2011), Gleick spins an accessible tale about Charles Babbages’s difference engine, about Turing machines and Maxwell’s demon, about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Shannon-Fano coding and Boolean algebra, all in service of illuminating a concept that may seem ineffable: information itself.
Gleick shows how complex computation and signal processing problems led to the development of information theory, which gave us ways to quantify information and to speak about the entropy of a body of text. This in turn touched countless other disciplines, and made the networked world we find ourselves in today possible. Towards the end of the book, Gleick explores the wonders of this world, including Wikipedia.
The book was written before recent debates about fake news, Twitter bot armies, and similar disinformation campaigns, but Gleick anticipated that the burdens of selecting true from false, and forgetting that which should be forgotten, would only increase.
This is a book that aims for breadth (from talking drums to telegrams, from analog computers to digital ones), not depth. If you’re looking for an introduction to information theory, look elsewhere. As a history of ideas, The Information succeeds brilliantly. Page after page, the book places a question in the reader’s mind, then addresses it; it weaves together anecdotes and facts, never overloading the reader with jargon, but not shying away from complexity.
As Gleick points out, without selecting that which matters, we end up with a Library of Babel, conceived by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges as a library that contains all possible books of a certain length. In the libraries of the real world, this book has earned its place to give us a shared history and vocabulary for the conversations to come.
In How to Hide an Empire, historian Daniel Immerwahr argues that we know far too little about the history of United States beyond the contiguous states that make up the “logo map”:
As in the example above, representations of the United States often exclude Hawai’i and Alaska, to say nothing of “territories” like Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, or the Northern Marianas. But the stories of the millions of people who live there deserve to be heard, and Immerwahr does his best to tell them.
To set the stage, Immerwahr describes the expansion of the United States from coast to coast, and the broken promises and systematic removal of native tribes that came with it. Whether tribes sought to assimilate or to fight, their land was taken; projects like the creation of the State of Sequoyah failed. Instead, US states borrowed the names of native tribes whose land was stolen to create them.
The story continues with America’s quest for bird poop—the annexation of island territory to harvest accumulated guano—and culminates in a America’s colonialism binge at the dawn of the 20th century. In the Spanish-American War, America notably “acquired” the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The Philippine-American War that followed—a war in which Filipinos fought for liberation from American colonial rule—caused a civilian death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
The Cancer Man
But the Philippines are not the only country that resisted American colonialism. From the beginning, many Puerto Ricans have favored independence, especially in light of the overt racism they encountered in contact with visitors from the US mainland.
Immerwahr tells the story of Cornelius Rhoads, a US mainland pathologist who visited Puerto Rico as part of an international health effort. Rhoads not only harbored deep racial hatred for the Puerto Ricans, he bragged about murdering them:
They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more.
No evidence of these crimes was ever found (which does not mean that they did not take place), and Rhoads called the letter a joke. He faced no significant consequences for it, and became a celebrated cancer researcher (and an expert in chemical and biological weapons, charged with approving tests on human subjects during the war).
Time Magazine cover featuring Cornelius Rhoads, June 27, 1949. (Credit: Time Magazine. Fair use.)
The Rhoads letter was a major scandal in Puerto Rico that drove many to join its burgeoning independence movement. One of them was Oscar Collazo, who joined with another Puerto Rican nationalist in an attempt to assassinate US President Harry Truman in 1950.
Due to the historical amnesia that characterizes America’s relationship with its “territories”, it was only in 2002 that Rhoads’ name was removed from a prestigious award due to the letter in which he bragged about murdering Puerto Ricans. “And that’s how you hide an empire”, Immerwahr observes.
The Empire of Points
The later part of the book mainly deals with the question why America did not become an empire in the British mold after World War II. Instead, the US relinquished control over one colony (the Philippines, through the Treaty of Manila) and sought to establish no new colonies elsewhere. Military bases around the world—a “pointillist empire”—replaced the conventional model of control over vast swaths of territory.
Immerwahr sees multiple reasons for this change, most notably:
the growing rise of independence movements around the world, which made colonies an increasingly costly proposition;
America’s leadership in synthetics, logistics, and standardization—achieved in significant part through wartime efforts—which enabled it to project military and economic power throughout the world, without being dependent on territorial control;
wartime weariness of US troops, who wanted to go home, not occupy a country like the Philippines they had fought side-by-side with the Filipinos to defend.
Immerwahr concludes by examining the political and cultural impact of US military bases, and the connection between this new form of imperial power and the threat of terrorism organized from many small, well-hidden locations.
Immerwahr is a very talented writer, and How to Hide an Empire is full of facts about the “Greater United States” most readers are unlikely to be familiar with. While this isn’t a funny book, Immerwahr isn’t shy to use humor and the first person intermittently throughout the book, without it seeming out of place.
All of this is a potent combination, and I found the book to be a real page-turner. My only criticism is that the author, in emphasizing the role of territory (from colonies to military bases), ends up spending very little time discussing the many other ways the US has projected imperial power, from overthrowing governments to meddling in elections.
While I don’t believe for a moment that this was the author’s intent, readers unfamiliar with this larger history might come away with the impression that the territorial story is the whole story. A larger analytical frame would have served the book well, but as it is, it remains a very readable and insightful analysis of America’s relations with the people who live in the United States beyond the logo map.
The short stories in this 450 page collection by Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings) span historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. They include:
the story of a woman living in a world in which souls are real, and represented by physical objects we carry around with us (the protagonist’s inconveniently manifests as an ice cube);
the story of an American girl in 1960s Taiwan who befriends a Chinese practitioner of the divination practice known as literomancy, and whose friendship gets caught up in the Cold War;
the story of a couple of who invent a method of witnessing (but not altering) historical events as they occurred, and who use it to produce modern eyewitness accounts of crimes against humanity committed by the notorious Unit 731 in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
Themes that run through many of the stories featured here include the pursuit of personal and historical truth; the balance of self-interest and societal interest; the transmission of culture and tradition through migration and trade.
Liu, who was born in China but whose parents moved the family to the United States when he was 11 years old, has done much to make Chinese speculative fiction available to Western audiences. Most notably, he translated the best-selling The Three-Body Problem into English, and has curated two anthologies of Chinese sci-fi (Invisible Planets and Broken Stars).
Many of his short stories incorporate elements of Chinese history and folklore. This makes them great jumping off points for further exploration. For example, one story about a group of Chinese gold miners coming to a town in 19th century Idaho explores the fascinating mythology surrounding Guan Yu (a general in ancient China).
Above all, I admired Ken Liu’s willingness to confront difficult themes unflinchingly. Many of the stories featured here pack quite an emotional punch, and often expose us to humanity at its worst and and its best in the same story.
While I would rate some individual stories in this volume as low as 3 stars, the best ones (including the title-giving The Paper Menagerie) are so exceptionally good that I would recommend the collection as a whole highly to any fan of speculative fiction.
As usual, I’m late to the party. Gone Home caused quite a stir when it came out in 2013. Many critics and players loved it; some angry gamers hated it, some of that hatred helped fuel the misogyny horror show known as Gamergate. Today, Gone Home is available for Windows, Linux, Mac, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, iOS, and your toaster. It remains a polarizing game, and it’s not hard to see why. You can finish the game in 2-3 hours; it features no conventional “puzzles” or action, and one of its central themes is a lesbian coming-out story.
Gone Home is a first-person exploratory game. It’s the mid-90s, you’re 21-year-old Katie Greenbriar, home from your big European adventure, only to find that your parents and sister are not there. What happened? While a storm rages outside, you walk from room to room of the “psycho house” your family moved into, trying to find clues to their disappearance. The home is littered with paper—handwritten notes, letters, photographs, receipts, books, post-its, and so on. Some notes lead to audio logs that add to the evolving story.
To find out what happened to your sister, you may have to figure out a way into her personal locker. (Credit: Fullbright. Fair use.)
Unlike a point-and-click adventure, where almost every item you encounter has some role to play, here you can interact with countless objects—pens, glasses, knick knacks, etc.—but most of them have no relevance to the plot. You have to sort through the messy home, and the house has a few secrets of its own.
There’s remarkable attention to detail, especially in the riot grrrl aesthetic of your sister’s belongings. In addition to zines and posters, you can even pick up and play cassettes with music featuring bands like Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy.
Gaming is now a bigger tent than it ever was, and just as writing has room for short stories, gaming has room for experiences like this, where your own interpretation of a story takes precedence over puzzles or action.
My biggest criticism is that the sheer abundance of paper clues made the game a bit less atmospheric, more like an artificial world that an author has littered with stuff I’m supposed to find. Someone needs to teach the Greenbriars about recycling.
The game makes up for flaws like this with a layered story that is moving and well-told. If you’re not looking for a 20 hour diversion or a 200 hour addiction, and if exploring a story on your own terms sounds appealing, then I recommend giving Gone Home a spin. I wouldn’t have bought it at the regular price of $15, but at a discounted $6 price on GOG, it was well worth the money.
Ted Chiang’s stories are meticulously crafted thought experiments. Many of them are science fiction; “Story of Your Life“, first published in 1998, became the basis of the 2016 blockbuster movie Arrival. Others defy classification. The 2001 story “Hell Is the Absence of God” imagines a world in which God, angels, heaven and hell are real—and angelic visitations are more like natural disasters, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
Exhalation is the second collection of Chiang stories. It contains nine stories, two of which have never been published before. My favorite one is “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” (the title references an observation by existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard).
The premise is that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. Through laptop-like consumer devices, anyone can create branch universes and communicate with their duplicates—their “paraselves”—in those universes, for a limited time.
The devices are called Prisms, which stands for “Plaga interworld signaling mechanism”. Why “Plaga”? That’s never explained, but some googling reveals a 1995 pre-print by Rainer Plaga titled “Proposal for an experimental test of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics”; the mechanism described in Chiang’s story matches the description in Plaga’s paper. This gives you an idea of the attention to detail in Chiang’s work.
From this premise, Chiang explores how the knowledge of an infinite number of universes—and the ability to speak with the inhabitants of some of them—would impact crime, grief, love, and loss. Through his characters’ experiences, Chiang makes us imagine that we might live in just such a world one day, while conveying a powerful moral lesson for the one we do live in today.
Other ideas Chiang explores in Exhalation include:
What would a world look like in which, instead of discovering ever more irrefutable evidence for the evolution of life on an Earth that’s billions of years old, scientists had discovered irrefutable evidence of a single creation event thousands of years ago? What would the relationship between science and religion be in such a world, and what would shake its faith?
What if we could keep life-long recordings of everything we see, hear and say, and search those recordings through the power of thought alone? How would this technologically mediated perfect memory impact our behavior, our relationships, our sense of self?
What if raising a healthy, capable artificial intelligence was just as time-consuming and difficult as raising a healthy, capable human child? How would such AI children be treated in a world that regards them as “software objects”?
I found “The Great Silence” (originally written to accompany an art exhibit) and “What’s Expected of Us” (inspired by the neuroscience of free will) to be the least captivating, but both are quite brief, and they are still fine stories. The best stories in Exhalation are so good that the entire volume deserves five stars. It’s been 17 years since Chiang’s first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was published, but it was worth the wait.
In Nutshell, Ian McEwan constructed a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn protagonist. The narrator of Machines Like Me, McEwan’s latest novel, is not a fetus, but he still somehow comes across as a less developed human being.
Charlie Friend is an aimless drifter who, after many failed schemes, makes just enough to get by through stock market trades. After stumbling upon an inheritance, Friend decides to purchase one of the first androids with human-like intelligence. Of course, this machine being is called Adam.
The book is set in an alternative version of the 1980s in which the technological visions of tomorrow are the reality of yesterday. There’s no subtlety when Friend explains: “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.“
The compounding differences between this timeline and ours create a path of breadcrumbs through the narrative: America never dropped the nuclear bombs; Alan Turning never committed suicide; JFK was never assassinated, and so on.
The main story revolves around the relationship between Charlie, Adam, and their (mutual) love interest, Charlie’s neighbor Miranda. What could have been a simple love triangle gets a lot more complicated as a secret from Miranda’s past is gradually revealed, and the ethics of both human and AI are put to the test.
Reactions to the book have been mixed. Negative reviews describe McEwan’s alternative history as a gimmick to bring Alan Turing into the narrative. My own impression is that in his later works (inculding Nutshell and The Children Act), McEwan is feeling an increasingly urgent need to voice his political views, and that every part of Machines Like Me serves this larger political purpose
In Nutshell, I found the politics jarring, with the author’s own voice coming through too clearly in the unborn narrator’s observations. In Machines Like Me, the story itself is the instrument of political expression.
In McEwan’s alternative timeline, Britain experiences Brexit-like political polarization and confusion in the 1980s, triggered by an alternative outcome to the Falklands War, and by the unavoidable job losses that come with AI-driven automation. The tribulations of the human protagonists mirror this setting of humanity’s tribalism laid bare. When its political argument turns toward futility, Machines Like Me becomes a lament for humanity.
McEwan is a master storyteller, but while sci-fi is certainly new territory for him, many other talented writers have visited these lands before. In an interview with The Guardian, McEwan gave a save a somewhat disdainful description of sci-fi (“traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots”), and promised a more nuanced take on the “human dilemmas” that sentient AI would bring with it.
In truth, Machines Like Me is not a groundbreaking book by any stretch. It’s an aging liberal’s personal reflection on the future of the world around him, cast into a re-imagined past. I also found it to be an engaging story, not as powerful as the author’s masterpiece (Atonement), but certainly entertaining and thought-provoking.
Towards the end of Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom, author Rob Larson recounts the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh. 1,134 people died in the collapse of the building—a horrifying death toll that was the direct results of workers being ordered back into the building after a temporary evacuation due to the discovery of cracks. Managers threatened to withhold a month’s worth of wages if workers did not return to the death trap.
Imagine for a moment being faced with that choice. You know that there’s a real risk the building will collapse. But you also know that, without your job, you may not be able to feed your family. It’s hard to imagine a less free choice than one which forced workers to return into a doomed building, leading to a death toll that rivals the deadliest terror attacks.
And yet, in the world of free market extremism, this kind of choice is perfectly free. After all, the state did not force workers to enter the factory at gunpoint. And if there’s a problem, the market, over time, will fix it. To regulate the conditions of factories, on the other hand? That’s the road to totalitarianism.
Freedom to suffer
Rob Larson’s 228 page book seeks to debunk this Panglossian view of freedom and power, where everything is fine until the state gets involved. This belief system is exemplified in the writings of prominent free market theorists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.
Larson, a professor of economics at Tacoma Community College in Washington State, calls the writings of Friedman, Hayek et al. “weak-sauce ideology” and describes libertarianism as a sham that has only gained any traction at all because it is being relentlessly promoted by people with power.
To make his case, Larson begins by showing how concentration of corporate power is an unavoidable tendency under capitalism, and then maps the effects of that power on various human choices.
Power narrows other people’s choices, that is the whole point, and concentrated corporate power is just as capable of doing so as the state. When Amazon.com creates an AI that automatically fires workers who take too many breaks, when those same workers pee in bottles to avoid getting fired—that’s a narrowing of human freedom, an Amazon-branded boot stamping on a human face, forever.
But corporate power is not limited to abusive working conditions. The scariest word for any libertarian should be externality, a term in economics which can be used to describe harm inflicted on people by economic activity who are not given a say in the matter. The most obvious example is toxic sludge being dumped in a river.
Climate change is the Mother of All Externalities, and Larson devotes a whole chapter to how climate change and the ongoing destruction of our home planet restrict the freedom not just of people who are alive today, but of future generations.
Larson’s book concludes with a brief history of socialist thought, and a passionate plea for a libertarian/democractic socialism that opposes extreme concentration of power in any form.
Larson’s writing is unvarnished and direct. This positively sets it apart from impenetrable academic writing, although at times it also comes across as needlessly snarky and flippant.
I agree with much of the author’s analysis. If the battle cry “socialism or barbarism” is to resonate again, socialism must reclaim the mantle of freedom, and refute the idea that “free” markets alone will create a society that lives up to our highest aspirations. Capitalism vs. Freedom is an important contribution towards that goal. 3.5 stars, rounded up.
Paradigm is an indie point-and-click adventure game developed by Jacob Janerka and available for Linux, Mac, and Windows. The premise is pretty straightforward: You’re a mutant with a tumor head and a moribund electronic music career, living in an abandoned town in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Soviet Eastern European country; you gradually discover that you are at the center of a conspiracy orchestrated by an anthropomorphic sloth genetically engineered to vomit candy. Okay, maybe not that straightforward.
In spite of the Eastern European-ish setting, most of the game’s cultural influences are Western: classic movies like Star Wars and Rocky, the LucasArts adventure games, Futurama, YouTube series, Australian shows and bands, and so on. The game’s developer, artist and designer, Jacob Janerka, is Australian of Polish origins, and the game is very much a reflection of what’s in his head.
Above all else, Paradigm is a classic adventure game made by someone who clearly loves and respects the genre. The game largely avoids the pitfalls that can make adventure games frustrating: illogical puzzles, deaths, dead ends, or pointless walking around.
When you’re stuck, you can even ask your own tumor for tips. You’re unlikely to need to: The game follows a fairly linear progression with mostly item or dialog-based puzzles. If you feel like it, you can take detours to discover mini-games and various hidden objects.
Mini-games, you say? Yes, but they’re not the usual tic-tac-toe level bullshit. Instead, it’s stuff like:
a post-apocalyptic dating simulator;
the game of Boosting Thugs, styled like a 16-bit beat ‘em up, but instead of fighting your enemies, you give them compliments;
audio cassettes spread throughout the game, containing choice content like a live belly-slapping performance.
In a half-serious adventure game like Broken Age, almost all content you find throughout the game is part of a puzzle. But in Paradigm, much of it is just there for the hell of it—you can ignore it, or have fun with it, making the attention to detail here all the more remarkable.
Paradigm, the main character, spends a fair bit of time in this elevator. Note the rat watching TV and the tiny rat gym, and the reference to Chuck the Plant from Maniac Mansion. (Credit: Jacob Janerka. Fair use.)
The game’s controls are reminiscent of later LucasArts titles like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango: you have a few interaction verbs that you can access through a pop up menu, giving maximum screen real estate to the game’s graphics. At different points in the game, you get access to a map for quick navigation.
Janerka did the much of the work on the title as a one person studio (the music was composed by Jonas Kjellberg) and funded the project’s completion via Kickstarter. Of course, parts of the game lack polish, and a lot of the humor is at the dad joke level and can be a bit cringe-inducing. That said, I laughed out loud a few times, so the batting average isn’t all that bad.
I played Paradigm for a total of about 8 hours, during which I looked at the walkthrough a couple of times. I paid about $5 (discounted price on GOG, currently it’s back up to $15). Even at $15 you’re likely to get good value for your dollar; if you see it at a lower price and enjoy point and click games, I would definitely recommend it.
Lutris is an all-in-one game management tool for Linux. It lets you organize your installed Linux-native games from sources like GOG or Steam, but also integrates various console emulators (from ZX Spectrum to PlayStation 3) and optimized configurations for running various Windows-only title under Linux using Wine.
Lutris is fully open source, community-maintained, and funded via Patreon (as of this writing, about $600 a month—hopefully more by the time you read this). The graphical client integrates nicely with its own game database on the web.
After you install Lutris, you can choose which “runners” you want to enable—e.g., you can choose to turn on the PlayStation 3 “runner”, after which Lutris downloads and installs the required emulator automatically (Lutris maintains its own build infrastructure to create builds of the latest releases). If a game is not in the Lutris database, you can still add it to your collection through the UI.
Through this functionality, Lutris fills an important gap in the Linux gaming ecosystem. To understand why, it’s important to look at the story of Linux gaming so far.
A brief history of Linux gaming
Early efforts to port games to Linux (Loki Entertainment, 1998-2001) or to run Windows games on Linux directly (Cedega, 2004-2009) failed commercially. For a while, it looked like Linux gaming would remain the domain of die hards who are happy with open source games like Battle for Wesnoth, emulators, and the occasional Linux port.
But today, Linux gaming is not just back, it’s thriving. There are several reasons for that:
Cross-platform development is the norm for popular titles, not the exception (porting to/from mobile, to/from consoles, etc.), and common game engines like Unity and Unreal support Linux.
Online stores like Steam, GOG and itch.io treat Linux almost as a first class citizen and have dramatically lowered the cost of distributing Linux versions (compared with putting boxes on shelves, but also with game developers maintaining their own distribution channels).
The stores themselves have a financial interest in seeing games ported to Linux. And while Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS project seems to be going nowhere, the company continues to invest in Linux compatibility through projects like Steam Play.
All of this means, however, that Linux gaming is still heavily dependent on commercial players who tend to favor keeping gamers within their ecosystems, and whose commitment to Linux is either constrained or entirely driven by profit motives.
While Steam is available for Linux, it’s proprietary and employs DRM; GOG’s recently launched “GOG Galaxy” application is also proprietary and, as of this writing, Windows-only. Running emulators for other platforms within the Steam client is possible, but not a first-class feature. And let’s not even talk about the proprietary nature of the metadata and reviews.
A gaming platform fit for Linux
Lutris has the feel of a project that really fits into the Linux ecosystem. Open to all comers, after a few minutes of setup, you may have a gaming library that looks like this, where Linux native games live alongside games run under Wine, DOSBox, or FS-UAE (an Amiga emulator):
The Lutris user interface showing a set of games using different “runners”. (Credit: Lutris developers and various game development studios. Fair use.)
If a game isn’t in the Lutris database and not Linux-native, you may still have to go through a fair bit of trial and error, and it may not work at all. There’s less polish and more of a DIY feel to all of this: Lutris doesn’t protect you from doing things that won’t work, while a platform like Steam does its best to ensure the user always gets what they paid for.
All aspects of Lutris are open to community contributions—you can suggest changes in the game database, submit your own “runners”, or your own install scripts for specific games. And with at least a modest amount of Patreon funding, the project hopefully won’t just disappear (if it does, there’s still Phoenicis, the designated successor to PlayOnLinux).
I’ll keep using Lutris to organize my own Linux games, and I’ve joined the project’s Patreon as well because it feels worth supporting. Whether the project is ultimately successful likely depends on whether it can grow a vibrant community of contributors: not just of runners and installers, but also of game metadata and contributions to the client.
I encountered a few rough edges using Lutris (the experience importing games you’ve installed from GOG is still fairly manual; I ran into a few 404s in the game database; the per-game preference dialogs are a bit nightmarish), but overall it’s already saved me a fair bit of time getting some Windows games to run without futzing around too much. And I’m happy to trust the judgment of the Lutris community to find the best emulator for a certain platform or game.
The database of games on Lutris.net is its own ambitious project, and it might benefit from integration with Wikidata and perhaps even use of the Wikibase software instead of its own custom change management tooling; it also currently doesn’t have a clearly stated license.
As a whole, Lutris is currently the most promising effort of its kind. If you’re a Linux gamer, I recommend taking a look at it, along with more narrowly focused projects like Lakka (a Linux distribution just for retrogaming) and the aforementioned Phoenicis.
Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age is an attempt by American historian Stephen Platt to explain the causes of the First Opium War (1839-1842) between the United Kingdom and China under the Qing dynasty, and to contextualize it in the history of the declining Celestial Empire.
Platt is a gifted storyteller, and the book puts significant focus on individual actors. It begins with the story of British merchant James Flint’s ill-fated 1759 expedition to change the conditions under which British traders operated; it ends with the protagonists of the First Opium War, such as Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, Chinese anti-drug official Lin Zexu, and William Jardine, one of the leading opium smugglers.
Platt also tells us about some of the domestic threats the Chinese empire was facing during this era: on land, the White Lotus Rebellion that combined political grievances with religious fanaticism; at sea, a formidable united pirate fleet known as the “Red Flag Fleet”, commanded by a female leader, Ching Shih. The Qing dynasty’s ineffective response to these threats is symptomatic of the “imperial twilight” of the book’s title.
Stacking room at an opium factory in Patna, India (1850). (Credit: W. S. Sherwill. Public domain.)
Wars for drugs
The foreign opium trade itself had its roots mainly in India, where the East India Company controlled much of its production. Platt explains how the explosion of production and trade turned a luxury drug into a major national health problem for China and drained the domestic economy of silver that was used to pay drug dealers.
After largely unsuccessful efforts to police Chinese traders and users (and a tantalizing flirtation with the idea of legalization), the empire appointed an official named Lin Zexu to a position we might today call a drug czar. Lin cracked down on the the foreign traders who brought opium into the country; he blockaded their ships, seized their opium, and ordered the destruction of more than 1,000 tons of it.
Although no British subjects where physically hurt in this confrontation, the destruction of property—even property whose sale was very much illegal in China—provided a casus belli for the First Opium War, leading to the first of the unequal treaties between China and European powers (and soon, to the Second Opium War).
If you ever wondered why Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997: it was one of the spoils of Britain’s drug wars. These wars forced China to accept the opium trade, and cleared the path to respectability for those who sold the drug. Today, Jardine Matheson, which was originally built on the opium trade, is a $39.5B conglomerate.
Agency and empire
Platt’s central thesis is that the war could have been averted if just a small number of individuals had acted differently: there was significant opposition to the opium trade within Britain; many traders were perfectly happy to play by China’s rules; Lin Zexu overplayed his hand against the British; his British complement, trade superintendent Charles Elliot, made an absurd promise to compensate the opium smugglers that forced the hand of the British government.
It’s a fine hypothesis, but I don’t buy it. The British Empire’s political structure was designed to find accommodations between power factions, with 86% of adult men and 100% of adult women disenfranchised. The legal and illegal traders who wanted to force an opening of China (with preferential treatment for Britain) were an increasingly powerful faction. Britain was aware of China’s inability to defend its coastline.
Sooner or later, a similar combination of means, motive and opportunity would have led to a similar criminal undertaking. This is not an argument against culpability or agency of individuals. But I believe Platt’s view of China is a lot more realistic than his view of the politics of the British Empire.
Platt’s book spends almost no time writing about the First Opium War itself, which was, after all, a war in which around 20,000 people—mainly Chinese—were killed or wounded. He says the bare minimum about the Second Opium War, about the concessions China was forced to make to Western powers, about the consequences for ordinary Chinese people.
Nonetheless, this is an insightful, well-researched and highly captivating book. I especially appreciated the author’s efforts to convey the frequent cultural misunderstandings between British and Chinese diplomats and politicians, which heavily contributed to the failure to find common ground peacefully. The book also contains many beautiful black-and-white illustrations and helpful maps.
Stephen Platt’s book is a piece to the puzzle of a history that seems especially important today. China is re-emerging as a superpower—perhaps the superpower—while nationalist rhetoric is back in fashion in Western democracies. If you’re looking for a definitive or systematic history of the Opium Wars, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a book that will draw you into the world of the traders and smugglers, scholars and fools in which those wars took place, I recommend Imperial Twilight unreservedly.