Monthly Archives: June 2013

Book: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Beautiful, credible, vivid glimpse of the future.
565 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

2312 is a science fiction story of love, politics, and interplanetary terrorism. While the plot is interesting in itself, the futuristic setting in which the story takes place is definitely the book’s main selling point.

This book is set in the year 2312 at a time when humans have already colonized Mars, Venus, and many asteroids and moons in our solar system. Most of them were terraformed before being settled (terraforming is a process of drastic geoengineering that involves removing entire atmospheres, changing temperatures by hundreds of degrees Kelvin or manipulating collisions with other celestial bodies to import necessary resources). Humans travel in hollowed-out asteroids called ‘terraria’ that spin to simulate gravity on their inside walls. Venus now has a giant sunshield, Mars has people living in underground caves, and the inhabitants of Mercury travel perpetually westwards to keep in line with the temperate crepuscule (and thus avoid deadly extremes of hot and cold). Mercurian ‘sunwalkers’ do this on foot, while Mercurian cities move westward on rails that circumnavigate the entire planet.

Genders are diverse in 2312. Hormone interventions before and after birth give rise to about ten different genders between between ‘male’ and ‘female’. The book implies that these intermediate genders are more advantageous than either of the traditional sexes.

Quantum computing has advanced to the point that people can wear quantum-classical hybrid computers as implants or wristwatches called ‘qubes’. Qubes can listen, speak out loud, analyse vast amounts of information and serve as a perfect memory aid for the wearer. They can’t, however, transmit signals to each other. Qubes are too personal for that—they’re used more as implants than as cellphones. I particularly love how the qubes entertain their wearers by playful use of the English language. I’ve learned about exergasia, synathroesmus, anaphora, pretended dubitation, synchoresis, aporia and many more rhetorical devices from the qubes in this book! Qubes might be inhuman in many ways, but they do have their own sense of humour.

Biomedical advances abound. DNA repair, limb regrowth, telomere extensions and wearable pharmacies (controlled by wearable qubes) have increased lifespan to at least 200 years in space. Regular visits to Earth are still necessary, however, for optimum health and longevity. The reasons for this are unknown.

Earth is devastated in this novel. Countries have been decimated into nearly 500 mini-states (and groups of mini-states with varying levels of authority), while China is the only major power. Earth is overpopulated, plagued with poverty and misery, and most progress is stifled by laws, politics and taboos. My favourite criticisms of Earth are that the gravity is “too high” and “nobody looks at the stars”! Protagonist Swan says that gravity is much more comfortable on Mercury and Mars—both are just 0.38 g.

I loved how China was so powerful in this novel. Best of all, heroic protagonist Swan Er Hong, who is both male and female, and capable of interplanetary travel at over 100 years old, has an unmistakably Chinese name. Venus is inhabited by Chinese descendents and Venusian streets are cluttered with slogans written in Chinese characters. On Earth, China has been strong for “most of history” except for the “brief period of subjugation to Europe” (referring to the period between 1850 and 1949). As a massive fan of Chinese culture, all these subtle details make me proud. Even the title of this book, 2312, makes a subtle reference to China’s power: “GB2312” was the code name for the first official set of Chinese characters used on computer systems worldwide in 1980.

The notion in 2312 that space-dwellers should return to Earth every few years to recuperate (called “Gaian replenishment”) is an ironic one. Reading this, I immediately thought of overseas Chinese who return to China to ‘recuperate’ every so often—despite the crowds, the pollution, and the stress that it causes. The idea of ‘recuperating’ in such a dystopian environment reminded me that just as Earth is an integral part of human nature in 2312, China is an integral part of Chinese people today—however irrational that might seem.

I also loved the mixture of writing styles in this book. The author uses ‘lists’ (descriptive poetry that sets the scene much quicker than prose); ‘extracts’ (snippets of scientific journal abstracts that explain science fiction much quicker than prose); and ‘quantum walks’ (which follow the thought processes of a personal quantum computer called a ‘qube’). In my opinion, these diverse writing styles, which amount to about 10-20% of the book, enrich the story, not distract from it. However, some reviewers disagree. Many of this book’s worst reviews make negative reference to these ‘poetic’ chapters. I love them, though.

The broad range of themes in this book should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers with an appreciation for science fiction and human development may enjoy it more than those without; and readers with the patience and imagination to understand poetry will appreciate the chapters written as ‘lists’, ‘extracts’ or ‘quantum walks’ much more than those without. This is one of few books that I can positively recommend for anyone who enjoys reading. ★★★★★

Finally, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is completely wrong.

Book: Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Comprehensive analysis of ALL American/Chinese differences—starting with sex!
568 pages, ★★★★★

Many books are dedicated to the differences between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ culture. I’ve reviewed The Geography of ThoughtMao’s Last DancerBomb, Book & Compass and many more here on this blog. None of these books are nearly as comprehensive and readable as Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences. This book covers almost every aspect of culture—starting with sex—and makes The Geography of Thought—to which I naïvely gave five stars the first time around—look especially simplistic by comparison.

The book begins with a premise that American life discourages intimacy. The author goes on to say that Americans chase money, material objects and weapons more readily than do their Chinese counterparts because Americans generally lack the tradition of strong social ties—guanxi—that are so prevalent in China.

While The Geography of Thought over-analysed the simplistic thesis that “America is a line; China is a circle”, this book gives us a more intelligent alternative:

U.S. society is individual-centred;
Chinese society is situation-centred.

This book goes describes differences in:

  • Relationships
  • Love (“how does my heart feel?” vs “what will other people say?”)
  • Raising children (bottom-up vs top-down) and how people celebrate children’s birthdays
  • Art and storytelling (briefly)
  • Education (fun vs rigid)
  • Religion, monotheism and the role of God
  • Attitude to animals
  • Sense of security
  • Attitude towards old age
  • Weaknesses and how they are dealt with

In all cases, this book focuses more on the “what” than on the “why”. It’s very lucid, very readable, and is authoritative without being dry. Basically, this book’s perfect!

Best of all, I love the examples and stories that illustrate these differences. In one instance, the author compares the flood story from the Bible with a flood story from Chinese history (~2500 B.C). The author shows how the responses and attitudes towards fate, nature and the common people in these two stories represent their respective cultures. (Noah was a saved, chosen ‘hero’; whereas the Chinese were supposed to stay put and abate the effects of their flood collectively.)

This book makes it easier for westerners to understand Chinese ways. Many books have attempted to do this, and some have succeeded, but this effort outshines the competition by far. For anyone who wants to increase their understanding of Chinese/Western culture, this book is an excellent place to start. I highly recommend this book. ★★★★★

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Book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Life-changing classic about pursuing dreams.
174 pages, ★★★★★

I loved this book but many online critics have given it just one star. Critics say it’s too simple, too cliché, and the moral of the story is either too individualistic or only concerns men. Personally, I give it five stars for all the same reasons. Commercially, The Alchemist has been a huge success (65 million copies have been sold). Fans of this book include Bill Clinton and Will Smith.

Rather than show you my opinion on this book, check out the following video instead. Watch Will Smith talk about The Alchemist at 01:25.

★★★★★

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Book: The Disestablishment of Paradise

Disestablishment-of-Paradise

GORGEOUS sci-fi/fantasy setting, but the storyline’s not rich enough for me.
528 pages, ★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

The Disestablishment of Paradise is set a few hundred years in the future at a time when humans have colonised at least 150 planets. The majority of these planets are located outside our solar system, and a giant “fractal” network allows people, goods and letters to travel between these planets with relative ease. The setting for this story is gorgeous.

The story takes place on a planet called Paradise. Paradise is a relatively hospitable planet—there are no living predators, plant life is everywhere, gravity is at a comfortable level and oxygen is more abundant than on Earth. Early pioneers encountered nothing dangerous at all, but did discover an irrestibly delicious, aphrodesiac fruit called the “Paradise Plum”, which, along with mining, quickly became Paradise’s most important export.

However, Paradise has become plagued by problems since its colonisation by humans: mining company MINADEC causes widespread destruction to the delicate ecosystem; and the Paradise Plums contract a mysterious disease, making them unsuitable for export and causing violent vomiting and nausea in anyone who eats them. By the time this novel begins, Paradise’s two main industries (mining and plums) had already been forced to grind to a halt, and the planet goes into debt.

Disestablishment begins when the Economic Subcommittee makes the sudden announcement that all humans must abandon Paradise because it’s unprofitable—a decision, which, once ratified by Central, has no chance of being revoked. The inhabitants are required to remove or destroy all evidence of human colonisation (the regulations tell them to “leave nothing intact”), then start new lives on another planet with monetary compensation. Most inhabitants are understandably disappointed to leave the planet, but protagonist Hera Melhuish, a leading plant scientist on Paradise, is completely heartbroken. She loves her planet so much that she breaks down upon hearing the news, attempts suicide, and spends ten days recuperating in a safe-haven. The story then follows Hera and her assistant Mack while they stay on Paradise as long as possible, discover one of its hidden treasures, and ultimately become the last people to leave.

The beginning of this story is told from personal, political and scientific perspectives. It’s written in a way that makes readers empathise with the characters as they learn the disappointing news that their planet is to be ‘disestablished’. We learn the political and economic arguments from the other side for doing so, and the interplanetary legal battle to reverse the decision is a compelling one. All the science fiction is explained convincingly in the narrative or in the appendices, and the story makes clever allusions to Genesis and to Greek mythology before page 50. Over thirty characters make themselves known before page 200. I loved this richness and complexity in the first half of this book.

Spoiler alert

This book went downhill for me after page 200 when the “hunch” that leads Mack to fly half-way around the planet unguided by maps to save Hera from danger turns out to be correct. This unexplained act killed my sympathy for both of the main characters. Mack and Hera then wrestle a Dendron (an animal-like plant), a process throughout which, it becomes increasingly obvious that they love each other and will eventually have sex. Disappointingly, they do.

I am disappointed because the politics, science fiction and maturity from the first half of the book don’t continue into the second half. Character complexity and fantasy melt away and the book becomes a simple romance story between Mack and Hera. The author sexualises both characters heavily and makes them dwell on their feelings to the extent that they sound like adolescent, first-time lovers (highly reminiscent of Gale and Katniss from the Hunger Games, actually) even though they’re both fifty years old. This novel’s intense focus on Mack and Hera’s naïve, predictable relationship in the second half didn’t match the complex, political sci-fi/fantasy novel I was expecting after reading the first half of the story.

I would have preferred an alternative storyline. First, I’d have preferred to see Mack transported back to Earth or Mars after his sex with Hera. The book’s ending could be the same, but Hera would then be faced with a big question: does she care more about Mack than about Paradise? Second, I’d have preferred to bring Hemi back into the spotlight in the second half. I’d make Hemi (who has an obvious crush on Hera) work for a demolition team, and thus introduce a new conflict: should he abdicate his duties as a demolition worker to protect Hera and her scientific samples? Unfortunately, such dilemmas were absent from the second half of the book.

End of spoilers

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed the film Avatar. You’ll enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradiseeven more if you’re also familiar with young adult literature, science fiction and the few allegorical references that this novel makes to other stories. Even though the storyline weakens towards the end, the world that the author creates in The Disestablishment of Paradise is a beautiful one. I still enjoyed reading this book as a whole. 

Book: China Since 1911

China Since 1911

Explains 1911 to 1989 in more political detail than you’ll ever need to know!
315 pages, 

China Since 1911 is told from a purely political perspective. This book is a concise, authoritative historical account of the 1911 Nationalist revolution to the anti-reform protests of 1989. This period of history was one of China’s most tumultuous: warlords fought each other in the 1910s, the Nationalist regime collapsed into mini-states in the 1920s, Japan invaded in the 1930s, then World War II broke out in the 1940s. Widespread famine took root in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution uprooted what little progress China had made in the 1960s, Mao’s death in the 1970s left China politically divided and spiritually lost, then anti-corruption protests spread across the nation from west to east in the 1980s, the most famous of which took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Only the last chapter of this book, when the dust starts to settle, does China show any signs of hope!

You’ll learn almost nothing about Chinese culture from this book. It documents the internal political struggles that gave rise to certain (crazy) decisions, but makes almost no comment on the social implications of those decisions. The text is littered with names of medium-level Chinese officials whom I’ll never remember. For a social history, I recommend reading Mao’s Last DancerWild Swans or the soothing 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)(Chinese) instead.

While China Since 1911 is extremely well-researched, there was not enough social emphasis for my liking. This book should be renamed China’s Political Leadership since 1911 instead. 

 

Book: The Future Eaters

The Future Eaters

Australian history in three stages: Geology, Aboriginals, Europeans.
432 pages, ★

The Future Eaters is written in three parts: (1) the geological formation of the Australian continent; (2) the arrival of Aboriginals; and (3) the arrival of Europeans.

Part one is a geological history of the Australian continent. In short, Australia was a unique, vast, climatically stable continent. Australia had no ice ages, little climate change and no human influence, so its plants and animals evolved to be enormous and easy to catch, such as the moa (see picture below). Author Tim Flannery says that Australia’s impressive diversity of animal and plant species can be explained almost entirely by (a) millions of years of climatic stability; and (b) lack of humans.

Moa hunting
Moa (giant birds) prevalent in Australia before the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago.

Parts two and three talk about the Aboriginals and Europeans who arrived 40,000 and 300 years ago, respectively. These two parts are faster-paced and are by far the most interesting to read.

In terms of tone, The Future Eaters is hit-and-miss. Towards ancient Aboriginals, it’s sometimes flattering and sometimes accuses them of ecological recklessness. In some places, it’s wordy and long-winded, while in others, it’s extremely interesting and concise. I’ve summarised the three most interesting parts below.

1. Aboriginals loved fire. They burned forests to such an extent that early European explorers described Australia as the “land of fire”. Women and children started most of the fires. However, the medium-sized Aboriginal fires prevented the massive fires that would have occurred periodically anyway, and researchers predict that the result was no net increase in the annual acreage burned!

2. Australia’s animals have become smaller in the last 40,000 years. Aboriginals hunted the largest animals for food, and put an evolutionary pressure that selected for smaller, faster, and more nimble offspring. Kangaroos, koalas, lizards… everything except the wombat has shrunk considerably in size in the last 40,000 years. Even the Aboriginals themselves have shrunk by 9% since they arrived!

3. Terra nullius was a law that gave all “unused” land to the British. Because the first British settlers couldn’t recognise any “use” of the land (i.e. agriculture), they stole Aboriginal land claiming terra nullius as a justification. (The Aboriginals were of course using the land, but not for agriculture—as it was not required.) This law was only repealed in 1993 in Australia.

Author Tim Flannery is clearly a fan of Jared Diamond—he mentions him four times in this book.

“Jared Diamond is one of the world’s greatest living scientists” — Tim Flannery

I hope that Tim Flannery realises The Future Eaters is almost as information-rich as Collapse by Jared Diamond, which I reviewed two days ago. (Despite the title, I also found The Future Eaters less pessimistic than Collapse, which, taken together, earns these books the same 4 star rating.)

This book was extremely wordy in places but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in natural history, anthropology and Australia—or anyone in Australia who likes Jared Diamond. Keep reading The Future Eaters even when it seems slow. It’s worth it! 

Book: Collapse

Collapse

Highly educational but disappointingly pessimistic.
608 pages, ★★★

Author Jared Diamond is a genius. His books are so crammed with information that one reviewer humorously remarked:

“Jared Diamond” is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.

I like to read his books slowly to catch his every last detail and jot it down. That, plus the university assignments I’ve been writing recently, explain why I’ve been slow to review books in the last month. I only did six in May!

I have more time to review books now, and I’ve even started reviewing fantasy novels on another blog. They’ll all be reposted here, too. The first and second fantasy reviews I wrote are already online on this blog.

Collapse complements Guns, Germs and Steel very well. Guns, Germs and Steel documents the rise of civilisations and explains their strengths. Why did Europe suddenly grow strong? Why did China stop developing? Why did Africa not colonise overseas territories, whereas many European countries did?

For the most part, Collapse discusses the rise, maintenance and fall of the following societies:

  • Montana
  • Easter Island
  • (3 islands)
  • Anasazi
  • Maya
  • Vikings
  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • (3 more islands and Japan)
  • Haiti/Dominican Republic comparison
  • Rwanda (just the ‘fall’ in this case)

Each story is fascinating and full of repeatable facts. Each chapter begins with Jared Diamond arriving on scene by aeroplane, describing his birds-eye view of the landscape and his first impressions of the country. Little emphasis is placed on the collapse of these societies—these chapters are more like comprehensive, condensed histories than a series of tragic endings. I enjoyed reading these chapters.

Chapters 12 and 13 are the most interesting. They attempt to explain the ongoing successes of China and Australia. I’m familiar with both countries and didn’t learn much here, but an outsider would find these chapters valuable resources. Both chapters are extremely fact-dense and concise.

Jared Diamond then describes four factors that spell a civilisation’s demise:

  1. Environmental degradation;
  2. Not being aware of environmental degradation;
  3. Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
  4. Short-term outlook (he calls it, ISEP, which stands for, “it’s someone else’s problem”).

The book becomes increasingly negative from this point on.

The ending to Collapse paints a very grim view of basically all human activity. Take this phrase, for example, from chapter 15, titled, “Roadmap to Failure”: “…we face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, disease outbreaks…”

…He’s wrong! Unhappiness, terrorism, war and disease outbreaks have all declined massively in the last 100 years. Collapse is for the most part a highly scientific book, but he overlooked the statistics at the end and concluded with negative, speculative spin. Chapter 15 sounds like it was written by the anti-consumerist warlord Naomi Klein. (Another book on my reading list, Questioning Collapse, attempts to address this issue.)

Just like the societies it describes, this book rose, maintained itself well, but collapsed tragically at the end. It’s needlessly negative. Read it, but don’t take its conclusions to heart. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading purely to learn

Book: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Comical, surreal, unmistakably British.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages takes ‘normal’ British life and makes it increasingly surreal. The story focuses on office worker Polly and her brother Don (who reminds me of the man who nearly adopted Juno’s baby in the film Juno), whose lives become punctuated by increasingly bizarre episodes. The story is set in modern-day Britain, and British references are glaringly obvious on every page.

Bizarre incidents begin after page 53 when Don’s desk snaps completely in half under the pressure of a brass pencil sharpener. What’s equally strange is that it repairs itself on the same page, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Don in the slightest. The book is very ‘normal’ up to this point so I started to rationalise the desk’s breakage logically—Is it a folding desk? Is is actually a portable picnic table? By the time I realised this book was logically irreconcilable, I was already 30 pages from the end.

More bizarre events include shops, houses and streets that vanish (becoming green fields) overnight, Mr Huos being translocated suddenly up a mountain, the introduction of seemingly irrelevant, disconnected storylines, and a Ford Cortina being driven by a flock of chickens. Characters take notice of these surreal events about halfway through the book and start referring to the “It” and then “magic” influencing their lives. The most obvious piece of “magic” happens when Stan Gogerty meets a real-life CGI gingerbread-man copy of himself—an impossible meeting that gives him great insight into the perpetual “chicken and egg question” that emerges later on.

The most subtle piece of ‘magic’ in this novel is when two characters morph into two of the other characters. This could be easy to miss. On page 152, we meet Mary and Martin, whose relationships with Mr Huos and with each other seem remarkably similar to those of Polly and Don, who we met in the first chapter. Then, between pages 152 and 158, the storyline of Mary and Martin becomes the storyline of Polly and Don! Page 152 uses the former pair of names (just once); page 158 uses the latter set of names (twice), and the pages in the middle use pronouns (he, she and Mr. Huos) to disguise the subtle transition. This happens again later when we learn that Rachel, Polly and “dozens of others” work simultaneously in the same office for Mr Huos; and again when Ed Hopkins, Jack Tedesci and some other characters all discover the houses they bought just yesterday have gone missing.

British humour is found throughout. Most obviously, it’s in the sheer absurdity of the plot (we Brits find that funny in itself). Finding humour in futility is also a remarkably British trait, and the introduction of apparently irrelevant storylines (such as the motorcade of world leaders) and the intermittent discussion of the “chicken and egg question” serves that end very well.

I grew up in Britain, and therefore found such overtly British jokes as “…like what would happen if the Tardis’ navigation system got replaced by the computer that runs baggage handling at Heathrow” and “…like the M25 tailback in ‘92 that became so dense it achieved critical mass and collapsed into a black hole” much funnier than if I’d grown up elsewhere. The more subtle jokes, though, such as, “caught the Tube at Livingstone Square” on page 222, might only be intelligible to people who have lived in London for some time. In fact, some of the jokes in this is novel are so British that I question whether non-Brits would find them funny at all.

There are also many similes and metaphors that use animals—I counted a daddy long-legs, a “goldfish impression”, two elephants, three cats, and dozens of chickens and pigs. The best animal reference of all was, “still looked very sad indeed, like a spaniel whose bone was stolen by an Alsatian”. Animal references made me smile in many places.

I strongly recommend this book for those with an appreciation of British humour. When reading it, challenge yourself by seeing how long you can keep track of the logical inconsistencies in this book. Treat it as a mental exercise. I’ve attached a character map below, to which you can refer if you get stuck. ★★★★★

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Book: Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms

Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms

Tells incompetent teachers in dire classroom settings to “hang in there”.
160 pages, ★★

I’m so happy I’m not in a position where I need this book.

Paul Blum’s hard-hitting, “blunt, truthful account” of the UK’s most troubled schools delves into territory I didn’t know was allowed in the field of education. Contrary to the other books and articles I’ve been reading, he calls students “nutters” and “angels” on page 15. Even more extreme, on page 27, he says, “the really crazy ones will climb out of windows [to avoid detention]”.

He describes some atrocious situations: students who tell teachers to “fuck off”, parents who can’t afford phones, families who live in “poverty and squalor”, and classes with unexplained 20% absence rates. Gangs enter the school premises to attack a student towards the end of this book, and he advises his readers that “the police are probably required immediately”.

Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms is more of a rant than a book. It alarms you to the most extreme scenarios that some teachers dig themselves into, and makes you wonder how they got there. Even though the book blames school chaos on poverty alone, I’m young and optimistic enough to believe that teachers can do something more than tolerate it, or just “hang in there”, as this book tells them to do. I think we can sabotage the fizzy drinks machine, make students more physically active during class, study pop music in English class and make everything active and relevant. We can give kids the respect they don’t get at home—even when they tell us to “fuck off”.

My favourite quote is on page 75, The Don’t’s:

10. Don’t waste too much time preparing copious written lesson plans.

There’s not much I agree with in this book, but on that line, I agree 100%.

The cover really doesn’t match the writing style. On the outside, this book is a $36.00 work of academic literature. On the inside, however, it’s a colloquial, 2-for-$5 self-help book that fails to motivate… and there are no references.

The author might like you to give this book to any teachers you know who are struggling in terrible schools. However, by offering no solutions to turn these schools around, the author’s effectively telling his readers to give up hope. If this book resonates with you, then it’s time to consider a career change. ★★

Book: The Tsunami Countdown

The Tsunami Countdown

Gripping. So full of action and science that there’s no time for character development.
494 pages, ★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Protagonist Kai Tanaka faces a once-in-a-lifetime dilemma when a mega-tsunami heads towards his home state of Hawaii. Kai is both the acting director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Honolulu, and also a father of two typically rebellious and hormonal teenage girls. The Tsunami Countdown tells the story of Kai’s struggle to save both the Hawaiian people and his own family from the wrath of the mega-tsunami.

The thriller is written in two parts: analysis and action. The first, ‘analytical’ part describes the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre’s investigation into some freak data that emerged from meteorological and seismological monitoring stations around the Pacific. Even though the reader knows the outcome (a mega-tsunami is going to hit), the author keeps us addicted to the chase. Suspense builds on every page as new evidence comes to light, culminating in the loss of all contact with nearby Christmas Island—as if the island had disappeared completely. For me, following the protagonist’s train of thought through the scientific and moral dilemma was the most exciting part of this book.

The book becomes a tense, gripping, slightly frustrating action thriller after the “mega-tsunami” alarm is sounded. Very quickly, the reader follows the separate adventures of Kai, Rachel and their children. Rachel is a hotel manager shouldered with the responsibility of evacuating the most difficult group of evacuees imaginable: a congregation of fearless, elderly veterans, many disabled, who speak almost no English at all. On top of that, the guests’ usual reaction to a tsunami (taking refuge above the third floor of a sixth-storey building) would be insufficient when this mega-tsunami hits—only by evacuating to higher elevation inland could they be safe. Rachel’s attempt at a group evacuation is laden with obstacles: many dismiss the mega-tsunami warning as a misjudgment or a ‘prank’, and of those who do take action, many risk their lives by not paying attention to the details. Kai, meanwhile, embarks on an equally-impossible mission to rescue his daughters from the beach, making the occasional ethical decision as he does so.

While this second ‘action-thriller’ half is probably the most gripping story I’ve ever read, it also neglects character development in favour of pure action to the point that I was completely unmoved when key characters die towards the end! The incoming mega-tsunami leaves little time for characterisation and subplots. In the face of the tsunami, most of the characters become similar with the exception of a few obvious clichés (Kai’s daughters and Chuck). Character development is noticeably missing from the ‘dragster-car’ storyline in the second half (fast, straight and narrow).

One thing I did learn from this book is that people don’t always listen to experts. When the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre asked people to evacuate the mega-tsunami on foot, many took to their cars, which slowed everyone’s evacuation. Others didn’t listen to the warning, accepted their fate, or, as in the case of Kai’s teenage daughters, blatantly defied it by going to the beach. For me, “why do people ignore expert advice?” is one of the most interesting questions raised in this book.

I particularly recommend this book for young men such as myself. I enjoyed reading The Tsunami Countdown, and I praise the author for making it not only scientifically plausible, but also crammed with real science.

As a secondary school teacher, I would be happy to teach this book in a geography or science class. I would draw on the following aspects:

  • Earthquakes: Why they occur, types of waves they create
  • Meteors: Origin, structure, impacts, investigate real meteors
  • Waves: How they move, the energy they carry
  • Ethics: Who would you save first? Why do people ignore expert advice?
  • Politics: To what extent should the government help?
  • Modern history: Investigate the Boxing Day tsunami

Finally, the compass on the book’s cover is somewhat misleading. The cover on the American edition (titled Rogue Wave) is much more appropriate for this story. ★★★★