Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

It is by crawling on the face of it that one learns a country; by the problems of transport that its geography becomes a reality and its inhabitants real people…[by describing them one offers one’s reader] a share in the experience of travel, for these checks and hesitations constitute the genuine flavour.
(Ninety-Two Days, page 170)

Waugh had a reason for going to Ethiopia, the subject of his previous travel book, Remote People – to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. The journey described in this book, by contrast, had a much more ramshackle provenance. He chose to go to British Guiana, the colony tucked up on the north coast of South America, north of Brazil, more or less because few other people did. Unlike India or Kenya or Egypt he could find no books on the place and nobody else who’d been there.

By sea to South America

So off he went on a cheap steamer down the English Channel, across the rambunctuous Atlantic, to the fragrant West Indies and so on to dock at Georgetown, capital of British Guiana. Here he is looked after by the Governor and introduced to Mr Bain, the Commissioner for the district, who supervises the purchase of a large number of supplies for his trip and accompanies him by train along the coast to New Amsterdam at the mouth of the River Berbice.

But what exactly is the purpose of his trip? Waugh doesn’t know, even after he’s got back to Blighty, which partly explains why the book opens not with him aboard ship or setting off into the jungle, but domiciled in a nice English house in the country, preparing his desk with nice clean foolscap paper and a pen and ink and then himself wondering… what was that all about?

Quick summary

Well, the basic outline is easily conveyed. From New Amsterdam, Waugh headed by boat up the Berbice River, pausing at various settlements, then leaving the river to trek on foot or horseback through the jungle, crossing the border into Brazil and northern Amazonia, before hiking north along the Ireng River, stopping at isolated ranches and remote settlements, then taking to boat again on the River Essequibo, skirting various waterfalls, including the famous Kaieteur Falls, then a short train east across country to the Demarara River, and so by boat back to Georgetown where the river debouches into the Atlantic.

To Kurupukari

First stop was Kurupukari, 100 miles south. Half the journey is by paddle steamer along the Berbice River (p.33). Then they land and go by horse along a cattle track, These are tracks the vaqueiros use to drive cattle from the savannahs of the interior down to market at the coast. The journey takes six days travelling at 15 miles a day, through rain forest he describes with awe, huge columned trees rearing a hundred feet overhead (p.40).

After talking about it every day of their 6-day hike, Waugh is surprised to find it consists of… a flagpole lying in the grass (it isn’t finished yet and they don’t have a flag) and one bungalow built in a clearing. Not even a jetty, not even native mud huts (p.44). This extreme sparseness of population characterises the entire trip.

Kurupukari is on the Essequibo river and they are awaiting a boat laden with supplies to meet them. Waugh describes the staple foods of the interior which are farine, a tasteless and rather disgusting vegetable product made from the cassava root, and tasso, made from salted wind-dried strips of dead cow.

On this first part of the trip he is accompanied by the talkative Mr Bain and a plan of sorts had evolved, that Waugh proceed in stages along the cattle track, visiting various small settlements along the way, until reaching the larger settlement of Bon Success, from which he could head west to Boa Vista, ‘next to Manaos the most important town in the Amazonas’. Mr Bain paints a picture of a city of inexpressible grandeur, complete with boulevards and opera houses. Sounds great. Waugh adopts the plan. The reader knows with certainty that he is going to be bitterly disappointed.

To Kurupukari and beyond

Bain remains at the primitive government station at Kurupukari. Once the boat with its supplies arrive, they’re unloaded then distributed among several horses, then early the next morning Waugh and his group of 4 servants/natives (Yetto, Price, Sinclair, Jagger) cross the river and set off on horseback. The dominant figure of this section is the egregious Yetto, a black man of surpassing ugliness, but a solid support who he becomes deeply attached to.

There follow 6 days riding along a traditional cattle track, occasionally meeting one or two vaqueiros driving a handful of cattle, sometimes coming across the corpses of cattle, which don’t endure the journey to the coast very well, dying of insect-borne diseases or sometimes attack by large animals. He learns more about his travelling companions.

Jagger is an enigma, a civilised man from a notable family on the coast, he was educated in Scotland. According to Yetto he was ruined in lawsuits with his family and has degenerated into one of the ‘race of tramps who wander the cattle country, there and in Brazil, living indefinitely off the open hospitality of the cattle ranches’ (p.53). He attaches himself to Waugh’s party for a while, then is too ill to keep up the pace and stays behind at one of their temporary camps, never to be heard of again.

He meets half a dozen vaqueiros driving 50 cattle. Next day they meet three Englishmen travelling in the other direction, towards the coast.

On the third day they cross a dry creek and come into a little savannah (i.e. open area of sand and scrubby thorn bushes) named Suranna. There is a native settlement. Waugh explains something about size and scale. A dozen or so mud and thatched huts constitutes a ‘large’ settlement. More than 20 mud huts is exceptional. The largest he ever saw apparently contained 22, though he arrived too late at night to see this vast metropolis. Next day they arrive at Annai which consists of precisely one house (p.58).

In other words the entire region, both the settlements in the savannahs, the so-called ranches, the white ‘settlements’ – all are characterised by emptiness and very sparse population.

After a long hot ride across the parched savannah, he arrives at Christie’s ranch (p.62). Christie is an old black guy who has religious visions and agreeably lunatic ideas. He’s been preaching to the local Indians for thirty years and hasn’t made a single conversion.

Next stop is a ranch owned by Georgetown Chinese named Mr Wong and run by Daguar (p.67). The ranch consists of three wattle and mud huts in a wired enclosure. Primitive, isn’t it? The ranch is on the River Ireng and Waugh is surprised to find this forms an international border. Across the muddy river is Brazil. He describe the pestilential effects of the cabouri fly, whose bite you don’t feel till it’s gorged itself and dropped off, and ticks which burrow into the skin, and bêtes rouges, little red creatures which burrow under your skin and cause unbearable itching.

(Later he tells us the rivers contain stingrays, electric eels and carnivorous fish, p.77. Why were these areas never settled or developed? There’s your answer.)

Next morning’s ride brings him to a village marked on the maps as Pirara but which in fact simply doesn’t exist. The name has been transferred to a ranch five miles away, owned by an American named Hart. This actually amounts to more than one building, with facilities such as a shower room, with very decent meals cooked by the wife, a Creole nanny for the children and – mirabile dictu – a truck, which had been manhandled this far up the trail, didn’t have much petrol and no regular roads to travel.

Waugh explains that South American countries are notorious for going to war over remote bits of territory. Britain nearly went to war with Brazil and Venezuela about different bits of remote savannah. He learns maps are largely invented, and based on rumoured natural features (such as rivers) which often don’t exist. He gives a mocking account of a boundary commission which is meant to be working with Brazilian officials on defining the border (p.71).

Next day’s journey brings them to the ranch of Bon Success owned by Mr Teddy Melville, one of Mrs Hart’s brothers. They drive there in the famous motor van. It is very bumpy (p.73). They have breakfast with Teddy and his charming wife, before driving beside the River Takuru to the missionary settlement of St Ignatius, where Waugh is hosted by the lovely Father Mather. Waugh pays off Price (who’s going on to the station at Bon Success, Yetto and Sinclair (who turn and head back down the trail). Part one of the journey is over.

Again, Waugh remarks on its bareness and lack of people. All over Africa he saw missions, schools and churches packed out with native pupils, congregations, teachers and pupils. Here, almost nobody. A tin and thatch church, and a primitive schoolhouse which holds, at most, a dozen Indian children. The mission building has a second story (first one he’s seen) and, amazingly, a reading lamp. Great relief (p.75).

Most of the scattered ranchers and all the Brazilians across the river are Catholics. Father Mather ministers to them all. There is one shop, the only one for 200 miles in any direction, kept by an affable Portuguese named Mr Figuiredo, who dresses comfortably in pyjamas, treats them to a feast, and charges exorbitant prices for everything (p.79). He is taken to visit local Indians including a charming tattooed witch.

After a delightful restful week, on 1 February he sets off with a guide, David, and his Brazilian brother-in-law Francesco, to cross the river and so the invisible border into Brazil and ride the 3 days to Boa Vista (p.81). They stop for the nights at primitive mud and thatch huts, with a few other travellers kipping in a shack full of hammocks, served weak revolting tasso stew by sleepy womenfolk.

Next day is the longest, hardest, hottest of them all. Waugh is struck by the way the locals carry no water at all, presumably because the land is criss-crossed with streams. Except they’re all dried up and the sun is fierce. Twelve hours without a drink and he hallucinates walking into his club and ordering glass after glass of iced orange juice. At dusk they reach an actual stream and drink mug after mug of freezing water.

Next day they enter the inhabited Rio Branco district and come upon a well organised sugar mill, where they are welcomed and well fed. Teams of workers and passers-though eat in series at a long bench. Next day they reach the Rio Branco opposite which stands the legendary Boa Vista he’s heard so much about.

(It might be worth noting that Boa Vista is simply the Portuguese for ‘Good View’, bom and boa being equivalent to the French bon and bonne i.e. ‘good’, depending on whether the noun is male or female. Rio means river and branco means white. So they arrive at Good View on the White River. Pretty basic, isn’t it?)

Boa Vista

Of course Boa Vista turns out to be nothing like the gaudy fantasies he’s concocted on the tiring journey there. It is a shabby collection of ramshackle buildings laid out on an ambitious grid pattern with a broad muddy high street and cross streets which peter out into bare savannah a few hundred yards in either direction. Population maybe a thousand skinny, scrawny, malnourished, sulky, listless people.

The inhabitants of the entire Brazilian region of the Amazonas were, apparently, descended from convicts sent there as punishment. Waugh found a low, sullen, suspicious atmosphere everywhere. There was an atmosphere of homicide, everyone has guns, there have been well publicised murders. He finds it: ‘a squalid camp of ramshackle cut-throats’ (p.92).

And the population insisting on eating the same monotonous, revolting farine and tasso as everywhere else, despite the achievement of the local nuns in having a very diverse vegetable garden.

Waugh stays at the Benedictine Mission, led by Father Alcuin, and is predictably complimentary about the monks and nuns’ level of quiet, constructive civilisation.

Three things

1. Waugh is easily Bored

According to these books, Waugh had a great capacity for getting very, very bored. He describes sauntering round town to the 4 or 5 people he knows and watching them work, staring at the sky. Attending church is by far the most colourful and interesting thing to do, not only for him but for many of the inhabitants, what with its colour, decorations, smells of incense and singing, no matter how ragged. He gets so bored he reads an edition of Bossuet’s sermons and lives of the saints in French (p.98).

At which point I remembered the almost identical descriptions of his crushing boredom which appear in Remote People. There he gives a comic description of being stuck between trains in the dusty town of Dirre-Dowa, resorting to reading a volume of Alexander Pope’s poems and then, even more desperate, a French dictionary. In his later travelogue, Waugh in Abyssinia, Waugh gets so bored in Addis Ababa waiting for war to actually break out that he buys a baboon!

The point is, Waugh is obviously quickly and easily bored. It would help if he had any hobbies but the issue of boredom highlights two others.

2. Music

He has no ear for music. None at all. He doesn’t enjoy hearing music and, at one point, when he is in a particularly good mood riding among beautiful scenery, he says he’d like to sing, but doesn’t know how. Having no sensitivity at all for music means living in a greatly reduced world of experience.

3. Waugh is no naturalist

Waugh is walking, riding or taking boats through exotic and varied country (savannah and rainforest) and yet his observations of the natural world are rudimentary. He notes the way rainforest consists of enormous tree trunks like columns with all the interesting stuff way at the top. He notes the 3 or 4 super-irritating bugs (the carouba fly et al). He gives detailed notes on all the horses he rents, hires, buys, and that he and his various colleagues ride at various times.

Apart from that – nada. Nothing about the birds or rodents. Occasional general references to blossom but no detail about the flowers, flowering bushes and so on. Maybe the savannah is parched and sandy as he describes, but still.

Pondering these absences makes you realise what is present in his writing. Thinking about what isn’t in the travelogues, made me reflect on what is. Which is people. He’s interested in people, characters, what they look like, how they behave, and really interested in how they talk.

Every single person he meets on a trip like this is foreign, non-English. True, many of them speak a form of English, but generally mangled and contorted, creoles or stumbling phrases. Or they don’t speak English at all and he has to struggle by with his schoolboy French. And then he observes other people who don’t speak each others’ languages struggling to communicate by talking pidgen Portuguese or German to each other (p.96).

What emerges from this little ponder is that Waugh is interested in – and devotes his energies to – people and how they speak. Thus he gives a peremptory description of Boa Vista, but his account only comes to life when he is describing people. People such as Mr Figuiredo who keeps the only decent store for hundreds of miles around, the mysterious German, Herr Steingler (p.95), Father Alcuin who is convinced England is run by freemasons (p.97), the little Brazilian Boundary Commissioner (p.99), Martinez the low-spirited manager of the town’s main story (p.100), Eusebio, a plum native of the Macushi tribe who is striking for not having one belonging in the world (p.117), Mr Hart the kindly middle-aged American with a lovely wife and a Creole nanny who looked like Josephine Baker (p.119).

It is a significant moment right at the end of the book when, assessing what he had learned or seen and done on the trip, he says he has added the religious visionary Mr Christie ‘to my treasury of eccentrics’ (p.168). And:

In Georgetown I met an agreeable character named ‘Professor’ Piles who lived by selling stuffed alligators. (p.168)

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘treasury of eccentrics’. Quite.

And where his ears really prick up is with gossip and the way people are inter-connected. There isn’t that much to say about a man who lives by himself or who you encounter on his own. But a man and his wife are immediately more interesting to gossip and speculate about, and a man and wife and various children, hopefully by different wives, gives you a lovely, juicy subject to explore. Thus, in this account, Waugh comes to life when he discovers that so and so is married to Mr Hart’s sister. Or that Teddy Melville is a legendary man of the area with countless children and grand-children. People are his thing: stories, gossip, the quirks of how they behave and talk. This is what makes his famous diaries so wonderful, a lifetime of observing people and giving little anecdotes.

The turning point

After a week he is desperate to get away from Boa Vista and reckons on taking boat with the Brazilian Boundary Commissioner who is steaming down the River Branco and so will be able to take him to the legendary metropolis of Manaos. Except that, after days of waiting, the Boundary Commissioner refuses to take him (p.99). By now Waugh is quite concerned about catching malaria – everyone he meets has malaria and suffers malarial fever for half the week, starting with his host Father Alcuin who is wretchedly ill during his entire stay.

So  he decides to stop trying to penetrate further south into Brazil, but to turn about and retrace his steps back across the river and into British Guiana. Back to St Ignatius Mission, Bon Success, Pirara and Daguar’s ranch BUT, at that point, instead of completely retracing his route i.e. a long trek through the rainforest back to Takama, turning north-north-west and taking a new route, through forest hugging the border with Brazil and then beside the River Potaro with its many waterfalls, to where it joins the mighty Essequibo river, fifty miles or so along this, and then by train east to join the smaller Demarara River which runs down to the sea at Georgetown.

Highlights of the return journey

After crossing back into Guiana, Waugh gets wildly lost and rides his horse north instead of east, stumbling by chance over the shack of an old Indian who very kindly leads him back to the proper trail and so on to St Ignatius’ Mission. Here he stays with kindly Father Mather for ten days, as he assembles the goods which will be needed for the new route home.

Calling the travel bluff, myths of travel (pages 114 to 116)

Here he includes an amusing digression in which he sets out to debunk some of the myths which surround solitary travelling, such as:

You feel free

On the contrary every single item you want to take becomes an encumbrance which slows you down and there are very often only two possible directions along long lonely trails, forward or back. He often feels trapped by limitations of time, energy, money and distance.

You are untrammeled by convention

On the contrary, Waugh feels he knows a wide range of eccentrics, bohemians who dress and behave in all kinds of florid ways back in England. It’s true that you meet a wide range of people on a trip like this, and some of them are very scruffy, and the native Indians may be almost naked, and so on. But you aren’t. Conventions must be maintained, especially in the Tropics where, if you begin to slip, it’s easy to go completely to pieces.

You have a hearty appetite and sleep the sleep of the blessed

Rubbish. The food is inedible, everywhere they go the monotonous inevitability of farine and tasso nearly drives him mad. Often he can barely eat what villagers offer and prefers to go hungry.

And the ‘beds’ are generally hammocks or, if you’re lucky, lumpy tin beds, or a thin sheet on stony savannah. Either way, the Tropics, specially the rainforest, are filled with noise, the endless racket of hooting wild animals. And then there are the mosquitoes, flies and ticks which mean a moment’s lack of attention can lead to any numbers of bites and then the whole night spent itching and tossing and turning. And then, when you’re at the end of your tether, it starts to rain and you get soaked to the skin (p.141).

River baths

If there was one thing he definitely enjoyed and was unique to the trip, it was bathing in cool river waters, ducking under waterfalls, lying in pools near waterfalls. Nothing in England could match the sheer physical bliss of this experience, particularly after a long day’s horse ride or trek.

Karasabai

The primitive little village of Karasabai which prompts an extended meditation on the character of the Amazonian Indians. He ropes in recent books about the existence of primitive matriarchal societies, and throws in some general cultural speculation about the noble savage, the myths of the garden of Eden and so on. Very run-of-the-mill. What came over for me was the Amazon Indian’s listlessness. Their flat, unemotional, morose affect.

He has an interesting passage explaining that the Indians have no hierarchy at all, no words for sir or servant, no words conveying superior or inferior status. They do things when  they want to, and stop when they don’t and nobody can make force them.

The Indian villagers stare at him but never move, never say anything, never display any real curiosity. He unpacks various marvels from his bag and then goes for a wash and when he comes back the things and the Indians are in the same position.

He compares this with the blacks he met in Africa who all showed far more energy and creativity and inventiveness and would have pinched everything in his bag if he turned his back. The Indian women wear shabby little linen dresses and try to hide in them. He contrasts them with what he calls ‘the swagger and provocation of a Negress’ (p.124). When they take a shallow boat down the river, the two blacks with him enjoy strenuously rowing and showing off their strength. The little Indian family with them have a vague got at it, dangle paddles in the water, uninterested, then give up and huddle together.

The Indians are divided into ‘peoples’ and refuse point blank to cross from the territory of their people into another people’s, or to have anything to do with other peoples. Peoples Waugh meets include the Macushi, Kopinang Indians, the Patamonas. (Wikipedia suggests the correct term is ‘indigenous tribes’ and lists nine residing in Guyana: the Wai Wai, Macushi, Patamona, Lokono, Kalina, Wapishana, Pemon, Akawaio and Warao.)

You could choose to interpret the Indians’ listlessness and incuriosity to a special spiritual understanding of the world, lack of interest in material goods or the white man’s worldview. Waugh doesn’t comment much till the very end when he is driven to deep dislike of the selfish Indian family who share the paddled boat down the river. They can’t be bothered to walk a few hundred yards to see the Kaieteur Falls, one of the wonders of the world, and Waugh bluntly ascribes it to ‘mere stupidity and lack of imagination’ (p.158).

Tipuru

At the village of Tipuru they catch up with the Catholic priest Father Keary who is going his rounds of the villages. After his initial surprise at meeting a posh young English Catholic rider, Keary agrees they can travel on together. This makes everything much easier for Waugh, for Keary understands the people, the language, has his own resources and, of course, can speak English so Waugh will have someone to talk to.

So they set off accompanied by a new servant, Antonio, his wive and four native bearers. A sequence of villages, Shimai with five houses, one hut by itself inhabited by an old black woman, an unnamed village of three huts, Karto with three huts, Kurikabaru a metropolis of thirteen huts on a bleak hilltop, and so on. Sparse and empty country. Isolated Indians who are, however, wonderfully hospitable, laying out supplies of cassiri drink, peppers, cassava bread and sometimes milk. (To this day Guyana remains ‘one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.’)

Mikrapuru

And so via a series of tiny settlements over the watershed which divides Amazonia from the Caribbean rivers and so down out of the rainforest to Mikrapuru, 15 or so miles from the river Essequibo and home to the civilised and hospitable Mr Winter. Waugh had met Winter at a social do back in Georgetown on the coast.

Winter has set up a camp here and employs native Indians to wash for alluvial diamonds in the river Potaro. Waugh describes the ingenious series of filters fed by dammed creek water into which Indians employed for the purpose pour, throughout the day, gravel and mud, in the hope the filters will reveal either river gold or diamonds. Winter had kept his camp for three years. It is very isolated, the few white neighbours who once lived within reasonable reach have all left, and the Indians work for him for a while, to earn simple gewgaws and then, with their own mysterious timing, melt back into the forest. Waugh contrasts the Indians’ wispiness, their ghostliness and general lack of interest, with the bullish enthusiasm of the blacks he sees. Winter’s foreman is black. Coming from the coast they have a better sense of work and discipline.

Journey to the river

After ten days or so, Waugh has exhausted his own provisions and Winter was low on them to start with, so it’s time to leave. He will ride with Winter’s foreman down to the River Potaro to board the first of three boats which will take him the stages between the impassible waterfalls which punctuate the river (being the big one, Kaieteur Falls, then Waratuk Falls and Amatuk Falls).

Haunting description of Holmia which had once been an extensive European plantation, built for the balatá trade (balatá is ‘a hard rubber-like material made by drying the milky juice produced principally by the bully tree). Holmia fell into poverty and ruin, has been abandoned for decades and now largely reclaimed by the jungle.

He describes the 700-foot fall of the waterfall at Kaieteur (p.155). Wikipedia tells me it is ‘the world’s largest single drop waterfall by the volume of water flowing over it’. It is ‘about four and a half times the height of Niagara Falls…and about twice the height of Victoria Falls.’ As you might expect, it prompts Waugh to a burst of lyricism:

I lay on the overhanging ledge watching the light slowly fail, the colour deepen and disappear. The surrounding green was of density and intenseness that can neither be described nor reproduced; a quicksand of colour, of shivering surface and unplumbed depth, which absorbed the vision, sucking it down and submerging it. (p.156)

After they’ve scrambled down the side of Kaieteur Falls, it’s a morning’s boat ride to Waratuk, where they unload the goods and Waugh watches the two blacks lower the boat through gaps in the huge boulders which make up the rapids with astonishing skill, and then 3 hours or so on to Amatuk, where the river is impassible and the boat has to be secured, ready for Winter’s foreman to recover it in 4 or 5 days time after he’s completed the journey to Georgetown to buy stores.

There is something approaching a guesthouse at Amatuk, opened by a Mrs McTurk for tourists who never came, and Waugh pays the old black housekeeper a dollar to sleep in something like a real bed and sit in an armchair and read a book. He is nearly back in civilisation.

There follows a complicated sequence of lorry journeys, two more boat journeys from landing point to landing point, and then the journey east along what I now learn was an abandoned railway from the Essequibo to the Demarara river.

This is a peg for the general point makes which is that the area he was visiting was past its boom years. Twenty years earlier there had been boom times for plantations of ballata, and gold and diamond sieving. But the ballata trees were all used, the gold and diamonds never appeared in sufficient quantities, now Waugh’s journey is through a degraded and stagnating landscape, or a beautiful jungle landscape punctuated with wrecks and ruins. The government is building a proud new road to open up the interior but Waugh gives an impressive list of reasons why this is too little, too late (p.163). If the road fails, then maybe the colony will revert to being just a coastal strip and a couple of coastal towns and the interior will revert to its primitive integrity.

And so by slow boat down the ever-widening Essequibo to Rockstone. This is another settlement which has collapsed, with most of the buildings lying empty and rotten (p.166). It’s the terminus of the railway which runs 50 miles east to Wismar on the Demarara River but it no longer functions as a railway. People walk along it and there is an old tractor which pulls an empty carriage, if anyone can be found to drive it.

He uses all his persuasiveness, and five dollars, to persuade of the boat that brought him and the ‘stationmaster’ to beat the tractor into life and, at midnight, he and other passengers are roused from sleeping on the platform, mount into the open carriage and it shunts off slowly and perilously along the rail line. After a few hours it starts to hiss down and everyone is soaked.

At dawn he arrives at the railway’s terminus at Wismar on the Demarara River where the boat is, mirabile dictu, waiting, and he boards it for a pleasant sail down the river and back to civilisation (of a sort) in Georgetown. Where he looks up friends, buys a ticket and waits to catch the next boat back to England.

The Dickens connection

While staying with Father Mather at the Mission he discovers a passion for reading and discovers that good father has a library of all Charles Dickens’s novels. These make good big chunky reading and Waugh borrows some volumes for the journey to the coast. This, obviously, is the germ of the fate of Tony Last at the grim climax of A Handful of Dust.


Credit

Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh was published by Duckworth in 1934. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Other travel books

The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson (1992)

It is a failing of our species that we ignore and even despise the creatures whose lives sustain our own. (p.294)

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in 1929 and pursued a long career in biology, specialising in myrmecology, the study of ants, about which he came to be considered the world’s leading expert, and about which he published a massive textbook as well as countless research papers.

As well as his specialist scientific writing, Wilson has also published a series of (sometimes controversial) books about human nature, on collaborative species of animal (which led him to conceive the controversial theory of sociobiology), and about ecology and the environment.

(They’re controversial because he considers humans as just another complex life form, whose behaviour is dictated almost entirely by genetics and environment, discounting our ability to learn or change: beliefs which are opposed by liberals and progressives who believe humans can be transformed by education and culture.)

The Diversity of Life was an attempt to give an encyclopedic overview of life on earth – the myriads of life forms which create the dazzlingly complicated webs of life at all levels and in all parts of our planet – and then to inform the reader about the doleful devastation mankind is wreaking everywhere – and ends with some positive suggestions about how to try & save the environment, and the staggering diversity of life forms, before it’s too late.

The book is almost 30 years old but still so packed with information that maybe giving a synopsis of each chapter would be useful.


Part one – Violent nature, resilient life

1. Storm over the Amazon An impressionistic memoir of Wilson camping in the rainforest amid a tropical storm, which leads to musings about the phenomenal diversity of life forms in such places, and beyond, in all parts of the earth, from the Antarctic Ocean to deep sea, thermal vents.

2. Krakatau A vivid description of the eruption of Krakatoa leads into an account of how the sterile smoking stump of island left after the explosion was swiftly repopulated with all kinds of life forms within weeks of the catastrophe and now, 130 years later, is a completely repopulated tropical rainforest. Life survives and endures.

3. The Great Extinctions If the biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history can’t eliminate life, what can? Wilson explains the five big extinction events which the fossil record tells us about, when vast numbers of species were exterminated:

  • Ordovician 440 million years ago
  • Devonian 365 million years ago
  • Permian 245 million years ago
  • Triassic 210 million years ago
  • Cretaceous 66 million years ago

The last of these being the one which – supposedly – wiped out the dinosaurs, although Wilson points out that current knowledge suggests that dinosaur numbers were actually dropping off for millions of years before the actual ‘event’, whatever that was (most scientists think a massive meteor hit earth, a theory originally proposed by Luis Alvarez in 1980).

Anyway, the key thing is that the fossil record suggests that it took between five and 20 million years after each of these catastrophic events for the diversity of life to return to something like its pre-disaster levels.


Part two – Biodiversity rising

4. The Fundamental Unit A journey into evolutionary theory which quickly shows that many of its core concepts are deeply problematic and debated. Wilson clings to the notion of the species as the fundamental unit, because it makes sense of all biology –

A species is a population whose members are able to interbreed freely under natural conditions (p.36)

but concedes that other biologists give precedence to other concepts or levels of evolution, for example the population, the deme, or focus on genetics.

Which one you pick depends on your focus and priorities. The ‘species’ is a tricky concept to define, with the result that many biologists reach for subspecies (pp.58-61).

And that’s before you examine the record chronologically i.e. consider lineages of animals which we know stretch back for millions of years: at what point did one species slip into another? It depends. It depends what aspects you choose to focus on – DNA, or mating rituals, or wing length or diet or location.

The message is that the concepts of biology are precise and well-defined, but the real world is far more messy and complicated than, maybe, any human concepts can really fully capture.

5. New Species Wilson details all the processes by which new species have come about, introducing the concept of ‘intrinsic isolating mechanisms’, but going on to explain that these are endless. Almost any element in an environment, an organisms’s design or DNA might be an ‘isolating mechanism’, in the right circumstances. In other words, life forms are proliferating, mutating and changing constantly, all around us.

The possibility for error has no limit, and so intrinsic isolating mechanisms are endless in their variety. (p.51)

6. The forces of evolution Introduces us to a range of processes, operating at levels from genetics to entire populations, which drive evolutionary change, including:

  • genetic mutation
  • haploidy and diploidy (with an explanation of the cause of sickle-cell anaemia)
  • dominant and recessive genes
  • genotype (an individual’s collection of genes) and phenotype (the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment)
  • allometry (rates of growth of different parts of an organism)
  • microevolution (at the genetic level) and macroevolution (at the level of environment and population)
  • the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (that evolution happens in burst followed by long periods of no-change)
  • species selection

7. Adaptive radiation An explanation of the concepts of adaptive radiation and evolutionary convergence, taking in Hawaiian honeycreepers, Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, the cichlid fish of Lake Victoria, the astonishing diversity of shark species, and the Great American Interchange which followed when the rise of the Panama Isthmus joined previously separated North and South America 2.5 million years ago.

Ecological release = population increase that occurs when a species is freed from limiting factors in its environment.

Ecological constraint = constriction in the presence of a competitor.

8. The unexplored biosphere Describes our astonishing ignorance of how many species there are in the world. Wilson gives the total number of named species as 1.4 million, 751,000 of them insects, but the chapter goes on to explain our complete ignorance of the life forms in the ocean depths, or in the rainforest canopies, and the vast black hole of our ignorance of bacteria.

There could be anything between 10 million and 100 million species on earth – nobody knows.

He explains the hierarchy of toxonomy of living things: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species.

Equitability = the distribution of diversity in a given location.

9. The creation of ecosystems Keystone species hold a system together e.g. sea otters on the California coast (which ate sea urchins thus preventing the sea urchins eating the kelp, so giving rise to forests of kelp which supported numerous life forms including whales who gave birth close to the forests of kelp) or elephants in the savannah (who, by pushing over trees, create diverse habitats).

Elasticity.

The predator paradox – in many systems it’s been shown that removing the top predator decreases diversity).

Character displacement. Symbiosis. The opposite of extinction is species packing.

The latitudinal diversity gradient i.e. there is more diversity in tropical rainforests – 30% of bird species, probably over half of all species, live in the rainforests – various theories why this should be (heat from the sun = energy + prolonged rain).

10. Biodiversity reaches the peak The reasons why biodiversity has steadily increased since the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago, including the four main steps in life on earth:

  1. the origin of life from prebiotic organic molecules 3.9 billion years ago
  2. eukaryotic organisms 1.8 billion years ago
  3. the Cambrian explosion 540 to 500 million years ago
  4. the evolution of the human mind from 1 million to 100,000 years ago.

Why there is more diversity, the smaller the creatures/scale – because, at their scale, there are so many more niches to make a living in.


Part three – The human impact

It’s simple. We are destroying the world’s ecosystems, exterminating untold numbers of species before we can even identify them and any practical benefits they may have.

11. The life and death of species ‘Almost all the species that have ever lived are extinct, and yet more are alive today than at any time in the past (p.204)

How long do species survive? From 1 to 10 million years, depending on size and type. Then again, it’s likely that orchids which make up 8% of all known flowering plants, might speciate, thrive and die out far faster in the innumerable microsites which suit them in mountainous tropics.

The area effect = the rise of biodiversity according to island size (ten times the size, double the number of species). Large body size means smaller population and greater risk of extinction. The metapopulation concept of species existence.

12. Biodiversity threatened Extinctions by their very nature are rarely observed. Wilson devotes some pages to the thesis that wherever prehistoric man spread – in North America 8,000 years ago, in Australia 30,000 years ago, in the Pacific islands between 2,000 and 500 years ago – they exterminated all the large animals.

Obviously, since then Western settlers and colonists have been finishing off the job, and he gives depressing figures about numbers of bird, frog, tree and other species which have been exterminated in the past few hundred years by Western man, by colonists.

And now we are in a new era when exponentially growing populations of Third World countries are ravaging their own landscapes. He gives a list of 18 ‘hotspots’ (New Caledonia, Borneo, Ecuador) where half or more of the original rainforests has been heart-breakingly destroyed.

13. Unmined riches The idea that mankind should place a cash value on rainforests and other areas of diversity (coral reefs) in order to pay locals not to destroy them. Wilson gives the standard list of useful medicines and drugs we have discovered in remote and unexpected plants, wondering how many other useful, maybe life-saving substances are being trashed and destroyed before we ever have the chance to discover them.

But why  should this be? He explains that the millions of existing species have evolved through uncountable trillions of chemical interactions at all levels, in uncountably vast types of locations and settings – and so have been in effect a vast biochemical laboratory of life, infinitely huger, more complex, and going on for billions of years longer than our own feeble human laboratory efforts.

He gives practical examples of natural diversity and human narrowness:

  • the crops we grow are a handful – 20 or so – of the tens of thousands known, many of which are more productive, but just culturally alien
  • same with animals – we still farm the ten of so animals which Bronze Age man domesticated 10,000 years ago when there is a world of more productive animals e.g. the giant Amazon river turtle, the green iguana, which both produce far more meat per hectare and cost than beef cattle
  • why do we still fish wild in the seas, devastating entire ecosystems, when we could produce more fish more efficiently in controlled farms?
  • the absolutely vital importance of maintaining wild stocks and varieties of species we grow for food:
    • when in the 1970s the grassy-stunt virus devastated rice crops it was only the lucky chance that a remote Indian rice species contained genes which granted immunity to the virus and so could be cross-bred with commercial varieties which saved the world’s rice
    • it was only because wild varieties of coffee still grew in Ethiopia that genes could be isolated from them and cross-bred into commercial coffee crops in Latin America which saved them from devastation by ‘coffee rust’
  • wipe out the rainforests and other hotspots of diversity, and there go your fallback species

14. Resolution As ‘the human juggernaut’ staggers on, destroying all in its path, what is to be done? Wilson suggests a list:

  1. Survey the world’s flora and fauna – an epic task, particularly as there are maybe only 1,500 scientists in the whole world qualified to do it
  2. Create biological wealth – via ‘chemical prospecting’ i.e. looking for chemicals produced by organisms which might have practical applications (he gives a list of such discoveries)
  3. Promote sustainable development – for example strip logging to replace slash and burn, with numerous examples
  4. Wilson critiques the arguments for
    • cryogenically freezing species
    • seed banks
    • zoos
  5. They can only save a tiny fraction of species, and then only a handful of samples – but the key factor is that all organisms can only exist in fantastically complicated ecosystems, which no freezing or zoosor seed banks can preserve. There is no alternative to complete preservation of existing wilderness

15. The environmental ethic A final summing up. We are living through the sixth great extinction. Between a tenth and a quarter of all the world’s species will be wiped out in the next 50 years.

Having dispensed with the ad hoc and limited attempts at salvage outlined above, Wilson concludes that the only viable way to maintain even a fraction of the world’s biodiversity is to identify the world’s biodiversity ‘hot spots’ and preserve the entire ecosystems.

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value (p.148)

In the last few pages he makes the ‘deepest’ plea for conservation based on what he calls biophilia – this is that there is all kinds of evidence that humans need nature: we were produced over 2 million years of evolution and are descended from animals which themselves have encoded in the genes for their brains and nervous systems all kinds of interactions with the environment, with sun and moon, and rain and heat, and water and food, with rustling grasses and sheltering trees.

The most basic reason for making heroic efforts to preserve biodiversity is that at a really fundamental level, we need it to carry on feeling human.

On planet, one experiment (p.170)


Conclusion

Obviously, I know human beings are destroying the planet and exterminating other species at an unprecedented rate. Everyone who can read a newspaper or watch TV should know that by now, so the message of his book was over-familiar and sad.

But it was lovely to read again several passages whose imaginative brio had haunted me ever since I first read this book back in 1994:

  • the opening rich and impressionistic description of the rainforest
  • a gripping couple of pages at the start of chapter five where he describes what it would be like to set off at walking pace from the centre of the earth outwards, across the burning core, then into the cooler mantle and so on, suddenly emerging through topsoil into the air and walking through the extraordinary concentration of billions of life forms in a few minutes – we are that thin a layer on the surface of this spinning, hurtling planet
  • the couple of pages about sharks, whose weird diversity still astonishes
  • the brisk, no-nonsense account of how ‘native’ peoples or First Peoples were no tender-hearted environmentalists but hunted to death all the large megafauna wherever they spread
  • the dazzling description of all the organisms which are found in just one pinch of topsoil

As to the message, that we must try and preserve the diversity of life and respect the delicate ecosystems on which our existence ultimately depends – well, that seems to have been soundly ignored more or less everywhere, over the past thirty years since the book was published.

Credit

The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson was published by the Harvard University Press in 1992. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

A short novella, 128 pages in the Gollancz paperback edition, this is a furious satire on the arrogance, ignorance and grotesque violence of colonialism, fired by Le Guin’s anger against American behaviour in the Vietnam War. It is cast in the shape of a science fiction story which slots into the ‘Hainish’ universe and so it set on a planet far away and in the future. But the despicable behaviour of the marauding human colonists clearly reflects media coverage of the American army in Vietnam.

Athshe

Le Guin invents a planet from her ever-expandable range of planets set in the so-called Hainish universe. This one is named Athshe and consists mostly of warm ocean, but has one archipelago of islands covered in rainforest. Hidden away in burrows and primitive villages in the forest live the metre-tall, furry Athsheans, who spend a lot of their lives in ‘dreamtime’.

[As with all the planets in the Hain cycle or universe, the idea is that the humanoid Hain achieved space travels hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years earlier – and colonised or populated a range of habitable planets across the galaxy. These varieties of human have evolved in sometimes striking different directions but are, genetically, all part of one genus. Thus, despite their physical differences, the Athsheans are, at bottom, human and, in their own language, refer to themselves as ‘men’ every bit as much as the humans who arrive on their planet.]

Men, yes, men, because, alas, four years before the story started, colonists from Earth arrived on Athshe (known to Terran explorers as Planet 41 and named by the settlers ‘New Tahiti’). They immediately set up logging camps in all the forests of all the main islands, and proceeded to chop down all the trees, strip & shape them and ship them back to Earth, which is a sterile world of concrete in this (characteristically) dystopian future.

The colonists call the natives ‘creechies’. The natives call the colonists ‘yumans’.

Le Guin makes these human invaders as blunt and gung-ho, Yankee, big-swinging-dick, macho shitheads as she can, led by one Captain Davidson, head of the ‘Smith’ logging camp.

We watch Donaldson beating and berating the little furry Athsheans, getting them to fetch and carry and slave for the white man. In case we don’t get that he’s a prime slab of toxic masculinity, Davidson is shown swaggering around the camp fnah-fnahing with his logger mates about the new consignment of womenfolk who’ve just arrived on a spaceship from earth, prime meat, get it while you can boys, yee hah! And all that’s before we learn that he raped and killed one of the Athshean females.

Attack on camp Smith

Captain Davidson flies to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, for a little R&R but, upon his return, is astonished to find Camp Smith a heap of smouldering ashes. The Athsheans have risen up and wiped out the 200 or so men there and burned everything to the ground.

A couple of them then jump Davidson, take his gun off him and let him loose to go and tell the other men that the Athsheans are having their revenge. Just to rub in what a toxic slab of male cowardice Davidson is, Le Guin has him whining and mewling that it’s not fair that he doesn’t have a gun anymore.

Sometime later he returns in a helicopter from the nearest surviving camp which is, characteristically, equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers, and ravages the entire area, in mad psychopathic anger – a sci-fi equivalent of the ship Marlow sees off the coast of Africa firing its canon into the forest out of blank, hopeless rage and frustration in Heart of Darkness.

Selver and Lyubov

Then the scene cuts to follow the Athshean who confronted Davidson, Selver, making his way through the vast tropical rainforests to the nearest native village. He jumped Davidson alright, but not before the big white man got off a shot on his blaster which badly burned his shoulder.

Selver comes to a native settlement which seems to be made of burrows in the ground. He is greeted by an old man of the dreamtime, who introduces himself as Coro Mena of the Whitethorn. Our guy replies that he is Selver of the Ash – for these people are organised into clans named after species of tree.

From that point we are taken deeper and deeper into Athshean society, culture and customs: the novel is, in other words, another of Le Guin’s anthropological exercises.

Something which is made unmistakable by the way that, as so often, the lead (human) character is an anthropologist – in this case described as a ‘hilfer’, a professional student of Highly Intelligent Life Forms, the only Terran who has made the effort to half-understand the Athsheans and their strange mystical relationship with a) the all-encompassing tropical rainforest and b) the dreamtime.

His name is Raj Lyubov. Before the narrative started he had befriended Selver and learned some of the natives’ language and beliefs from him.

But it’s very characteristic of Le Guin that this fragile understanding and cross-cultural friendship is doomed to be crushed under hard, not to say cruel, events. For now we learn that the trigger for all the events is that, before the story started, Davidson had plucked Selver’s furry little wife from the pen where the ‘yumans’ locked up the creechies every night, and he raped her, and she died during the experience.

At the first opportunity afterwards, Selver tried to kill Davidson by attacking him in the street of Camp Smith. Davidson, at twice Selver’s height, was defending himself, in the centre of a circle of cheering, jeering jock humans, when Lyubov pushed through and pulled Selver free, carrying him back to his house. Here Lyubov washed Selver’s wounds and tended him back to health, the other colonists too ashamed to intervene.

Selver and Lyubov form a friendship of sorts, Selver helping the hilfer understand native language and, above all, the central importance of dreaming, of being able to go off into dream states, to Athshean culture.

But Selver is still driven by bitter anger and it is this, compounded by other horrors which are casually mentioned (for example, we learn that one of the colonists, Benton, likes to castrate ‘uppity’ creechies in front of the others), which lies behind the creechies’ massacre of the settlers at Camp Smith.

The cycle of violence

Just when you thought Davidson couldn’t get any more loathsome, he leads a group of gung-ho soldiers on a retaliatory attack on a totally innocent Athshean village. They napalm the burrows and burn alive the furry little natives as they run out. They stamp on them to break their backs, they shoot them and burn them alive. In a bitterly satirical aside, Le Guin says they didn’t even reserve a few of them to gang rape, they were that consumed with blood lust.

There is a plot of sorts, but I found it hard to read because by this time I was feeling pretty sick. As I commented about City of Illusions, Le Guin can, when she wants, write extended descriptions of the natural world but…rarely a page goes by without it being ruined, spoilt, desecrated, by horror, terror, violence, beatings, killings, rapes and, as in this novel, castrations. The cumulative effect isn’t insightful or evocative, I just find it grim and depressing. Depressing because this is fiction. She could write about anything – but she chooses to write about burning people alive and raping and castrating.

The authorities intervene

Back in the plot, the spaceship from Terra which arrived with the women colonists also carried two humanoid aliens, a Cetian and a Hainish, and the unexpected massacre at Camp Smith compels them to jet down for a conference with the military leaders of the colony.

As it emerges out that the colonists are using the locals for slave labour and raping their women, the two officials are not impressed. The meeting/conference is described in some detail, and especially the role of Raj Lyubov who tries to respectfully disagree with his military masters and make the truth known to the ambassadors, painfully aware of how the soldiers look at him with growing hatred, Davidson in particular.

Now these ambassadors are carrying an example of a new invention, the ansible, which they had been tasked with taking on to another colonised planet. Now they decide to leave it here so that the colonists can be in instantaneous communication with the Administration back home. They point out that in the years since the colonists arrived, the Earth has joined the League of Worlds, and has moderated its rapacious demands on other planets. Now instructions start being conveyed from the home planet Administration via the ansible, live, in real time.

Of course the military, especially numb-nuts Captain Davidson, not only reject this but suspect it is a hoax, a con, the ansible is a fake and the strict new, native-friendly rules being sent through it and imposed on the military are some kind of alien coup cooked up by the pallid Hainish and the hairy little Cetian.

Davidson is painted as such a cowardly, murderous, psychopathic rapist – and the Athsheans such lovable tree-hugging, green furry dreamers – and Raj Lyubov so much the sensitive man-in-the-middle who ends up alienating both sides – that I couldn’t help have a sneaking liking for Davidson. In free indirect speech Le Guin lets us overhear his thoughts and share his worldview, and captures the big swinging dick, macho bullshit of testosterone-overdrive American culture so well. Monsters are often thrilling. That’s one of the most obvious findings or discoveries of literature.

That said, there is a running stream of feminist comments throughout the book, a counterblast to Davidson’s appalling macho mindset.

The Athshean communities are run by headwomen. Casually we are shown female Athsheans being messengers and doers. I was particularly struck by the idea attributed to the thoughtful Lyubov, that what the colonists really needed was not big-breasted dolly birds but more old women. Old women have a special wisdom. Old women speak their minds and (though it isn’t expressed) old women can shame full-grown men into half-decent behaviour.

Lyubov is spurned by the Athsheans

Once the ambassadors or administrators from Terra have moved on, leaving a chastened military leadership reluctantly following its new orders from the home Administration back on Earth via the ansible – Lyubov ventures out to the nearest Athshean village. Here he is shocked to find the headwoman and other elders no longer talk to him or even look at him. He is the most sympathetic and understanding of the yumans but the days of peace are gone. Lyubov encounters Selver, who is recovering from leading the attack on Camp Smith. The other Athsheans look on him now with awe, as a human who can wreak such devastation in the ‘real’ world.

From Lyubov’s memories of rescuing and helping Selver we gather a lot more information about a) the Athsheans’ culture and language and especially about their ability to dream with their eyes open and remember and in some sense live by their dreams, and also b) more of the backstory about how Lyubov rescued Selver from probably being beaten to death by Davidson, nursed him, and in doing so struck up an intense relationship in which they taught each other their languages. But the violence has severed that link. Now Selver can barely talk to him. Devastated, Lyubin returns to the main human settlement, which they call Centralville.

The cycle of violence continues

That night Lyubov wakes from ominous and fateful dreams to discover that Centralville is under ferocious attack from the Athsheans. Later we get the detail of how about 5,000 Athsheans, organised by Selver and others who had been slaves at Camp Smith, launched a carefully planned attack, cutting off the water supplies, surrounding the base, planting a huge pile of dynamite in the central HQ then waiting with flamethrowers (!), some guns and plenty of knives and laces for the terrified yumans to emerge into the night.

Later we learn that the Athsheans knew the human women had been sent for safety from all the remote colonists’ settlements to Centralville and took special care to target the women’s dormitories and – annihilate them – mostly by burning them to death inside their buildings, or as they tried to escape, or slitting their throats or stabbing them with knives or lances.

All this we discover later, but at the time the scene of carnage, explosions, burning and screaming is described through Lyubov’s terrified perceptions, right up to the moment he goes to the help of a screaming woman running out of a building, just as the building topples forward and crushes them both, smashing Lyubov into the mud.

Next day, amid the smouldering ruins, Selver wanders dazed at what they’ve done. All the women, some 500, were massacred, as planned, to prevent the colonists breeding like locusts. The surviving men have been rounded up and placed in a pen, a lager, a camp. Wandering the smouldering streets Selver is dismayed to come across Lyubov’s body, crushed under the beams of the fallen building. He cradles the hilfer’s head but Lyubov can’t move because his back is broken and after a few words he dies. Or, as Selver perceives it, passes into the dreamworld.

See what I mean by hard and unrelenting and callous and cruel? I found it a struggle to finish this short book, not because it reflects the brutality of Vietnam – it doesn’t particularly – for me it felt like a continuation of the callous, heartless violence I’ve experienced in all of Le Guin’s novels. Remember the helicopters hovering over the protest meeting in The Dispossessed and suddenly opening fire with machine guns and massacring hundreds. All seven of the novels I’ve read have been characterised by wilful, hard, unbending, unsentimental, bleak, cruel violence.

The colonists at bay

The surviving men colonists are rounded up and kept in a pen. I kept envisioning this as like the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai. Selver has by now established himself as leader of the Athsheans, who have no central organisation or government or leadership in our sense. We are shown younger creechies watching in awe as he passes by. He is regarded as a ‘god’ because he has brought something from the dreamworld into the real world – namely war and death.

Now he negotiates with the remaining leadership among the colonists.

Cut to Davidson who hadn’t been at Centralville when the big attack took place, he was at a different settlement called New Java. Now he gets radio messages from his superiors inside the camp, telling him they’ve made peace with the Athsheans and he must cease any engagement with them.

The novel really becomes about Davidson now: it emerges as the portrait of a military psychopath because Le Guin takes us inside his head, hearing all his rationalisations and justifications for disobeying military discipline, for ignoring direct instructions to ceasefire. He decides his superiors have gone soft, and leads the more gung-ho elements on a series of helicopter attacks on nearby villages, once again, carpeting them in napalm and bombs, watching entire settlements – of sweet organic burrows mostly buried in the ground amid the roots of the great rainforests – going up in flames and watching the little creechies run around on fire.

Another Athshean attack

As you might expect, after some days of this there is a massive Athshean attack on Davidson’s camp. Amid all the explosions and confusion, Davidson and a few others make it to a helicopter and take off. In the dark night Davidson orders the pilot to return and strafe their own camp.

What I haven’t really brought out is the extent to which Davidson has gone nuts. From a technical point of view, one obvious interest in the narrative is the way Le Guin plots Davidson’s progression from gung-ho soldier, to disobedient officer and then onto crazed killer.

Davidson argues with both the other colonists in the chopper, including the one flying it. He gun-punches one of them, knocking him out and then, in a mad moment, turns out the cabin lights in the chopper – the aim being to see the lights of the flames from the camp so they can return and strafe it.

It’s only for a moment but it’s long enough for the chopper to lose enough height to crash into tress and then topple down through the treecover crashing down to within a few feet of the ground, in a way we’ve all seen in umpteen action movies. Davidson comes round from concussion, falls the few feet to the ground, realises that he’s slithering around in the sticky remains of the pilot’s body (yuk), has all kinds of delusory thoughts about flying back and killing everyone but…

Instead he regains consciousness and is confronted with his nemesis, Selver. Selver says he is mad. (There is a lot of rhetoric about madness and sanity in the book.) And so they’re going to do what they do with natives who go insane – take him to a desert island, in this case, one of the ones the humans have utterly devastated. Dazed Davidson feels a rope noose being lowered over his neck and capitulates.

Coda

The spaceship which dropped off the women colonists at the start? It’s back from its mission to some other planet bringing with it the only two grown-ups in the story, the Hainish and the Cetian representatives of the League of All Worlds.

They apologise to Selver (who has emerged as the leader of the Athsheans) for the behaviour of the colonists, and explain that the entire colony is shutting down. All the humans and all the equipment will be removed. No more humans will arrive or disturb them. Athshe has been made subject of a League Ban, and will be protected.

The last thought is Selver explaining how his culture considers new inventions or discoveries to originate in the dream world and be brought from there into the real world, and how those who bring them about are considered ‘gods’ (in their local language; in fact different from what we consider gods).

Anyway, the last thought is that his people consider him a god because he has brought forth organised fighting on a scale his world has never known. Now, sadly, he thinks his discovery of killing will not go away…

In this excerpt of the novel’s last page, Lepennon is the name of the Hainishman, Lyubov – although dead – continues to haunt Selver’s consciousness and Davidson – as we’ve seen – is alive but isolated on an island for the mad (something Lepennon and all the other Terrans are [ironically] unaware of.)

‘Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’

Lepennon laid his long hand on Selver’s hand, so quickly and gently that Selver accepted the touch as if the hand were not a stranger’s. The green-gold shadows of the ash leaves flickered over them.

‘But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason,’ Lepennon said, his face as anxious and sad as Lyubov’s face. ‘We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever. Then the forests of Athshe will be as they were before.’

Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, ‘I shall be here.’

‘Lyubov will be here,’ Selver said. ‘And Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.’

Conclusion

This book should have thrilled me since a) I am interested in, and have read fairly extensively about, the Vietnam war:

and b) I like science fiction.

But, although it has some elements which showcase Le Guin’s characteristic Deep Thought (the sleep/dream culture which she invents and ascribes to the native species, as well as their cultural tradition of holding singing contests instead of fighting) – nonetheless, I was disgusted and repelled by the unrelenting, sickening violence of the story which simply, for me, had no redeeming feature.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

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