Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book 116, Marshall Islands: "Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll" by Jonathan M. Weisgall

This book is bloody comprehensive. Every little detail of the events leading up to the 1946 atomic tests at Bikini Atoll laid out in tedious sequence.

Pardon my ennui - the text isn't badly written by any standard, but it dwells so much on political and military history, in particular the machinations between the competing parties of the US Navy and Air Force, that honestly wasn't terribly interested in a lot of chapters. Quite a bit of military drama though - almost like a sequel to Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.

I've learned a lot of new stuff, though - what a sensation those tests were, with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the other Project Manhattan celebrity scientists gone peacenik and speaking out against them, while the press drummed up fears that it might incinerate the atmosphere (or else prove the Navy obsolete, if the bomb drop ended up sinking all the decommissioned warships around the island). Americans had the words "atomic" and "project" on their lips all day, a French designer hijacked the word "bikini" for his explosive new swimsuit (that outdid the scantiness of an earlier competitor, the "atome").

And the sheer folly behind so much of it - people writing letters of complaint about the animals being tested (goats and pigs), wanting to salvage the not-very-old World War II battleships they'd fought on, the way the US government categorically denied the long-term ill effects of radiation, and then later claimed it was "a very pleasant way to die" (in spite of the fact that US physicists had died in agony protecting others from radiation during experiments). And what a bust so many of the tests were, with the inaccuracy of the bomb drops rendering the majority of the cameras and instruments useless, and other results covered up or destroyed, and journalists fooled by the muckup of the first test into thinking that the bomb wasn't very powerful at all...

Weisgall is, by the way, a lawyer representing the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll, who gave up their land willingly to the US for these tests based on the assurance that they'd be well looked after (they haven't been, of course; they starved on their first replacement island), and that they'd be allowed to eventually return. And they did return in 1978, but the radiation from surrounding nuclear tests had poisoned the soil, turning everything that grew on the island radioactive, from the coconuts to the crustaceans, impossible to live their idyllic island lives, so the island remains lush and untouched, a toxic paradise.

Oddly enough, Weisgall doesn't dwell on the Bikini people very much. The accounts of the atomic tests' other victims are better documented: the radioman of the Japanese tuna fishing boat Lucky Dragon, which got caught by unexpected fallout, the American sailor boys who swabbed the decks of the radioactive battleships, often shirtless and in shorts, unable to comprehend the problem of this invisible radiation that they couldn't scrub clean, and now dying in dozens from strange cancers which the Navy says it can't directly trace to the test sites (they do get medical treatment now; but only because veterans' benefits are more comprehensive now than post-World War II).

So yes, lots of stories. And I've learned plenty. Didja know footage of the Bikini tests was used in both Doctor Strangelove and the original Godzilla? But enough for now. Too many facts; would honestly prefer some literature.

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Representative quote: Lore Kessibuki stood on deck for hours until the LST had cleared the Eneu channel and he could no longer see any of Bikini's islands. He then composed a song, both sad and hopeful, which remains the Bikinians' anthem today:

No longer can I stay; it's true.
No longer can I live in peace and harmony
And rest of my sleeping mat and pillow.
No longer can I stay on my island;
I must leave all the things there.
The thought overwhelms me and leaves me helpless.
My spirit has to travel, far away, lost
Until it is caught in a great current.
Only then can I find peace.

Next book: Carl N. McDaniel and John M. Gowdy's Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature, from Nauru.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Is Norfolk Island a country?

Finished another draft of my play today after pulling an all-nighter. Might've got Operation Crossroads finished if I'd stayed up longer, but I can't honestly be arsed. It's more plodding, a little too chock-full of details than I find necessary.

So for today's post (I feel it's necessary to post at least once every eight days), I'm going to ask a question that's been bothering me. Should I cover Norfolk Island separately from Australia?

It's administered by Australia, but it's not that close to the land mass. It's also listed as distinct from Australia and New Zealand under the UN geoscheme. There's also a half-decent book I could read for the purposes: Morgan's Run by Colleen McCullough.

The population's only 2,169 people, though, and I don't think the culture's radically different from Australia. And oddly enough, the UN geoscheme does also list the Pitcairn Islands (administered by UK, population: 67) but not Christmas Island (administered by Australia, formerly administered by Singapore, population: 2,072 mostly consisting of people of Asian descent).

Does it come down to whether people there feel like they're Australians? Whether Australians feel like they're part of them? I dunno. Wouldn't mind some comments.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In Search of Lost Time

Happy Chinese New Year! 恭喜发财,万事如意, 步步高升, 新年快乐,&c, &c.

Have only just finished the prologue of my Marshall Islands book (hey, there was also a foreword and a preface to get through). Truth is, I've been gloriously neglecting my Round the World project in favour of writing my play, looking after my cat, attending my great-aunt's funeral (several times removed: I didn't really know her) and researching the genre of memoir.

I'm teaching creative non-fiction at NTU this semester, so I'm digging through various non-fic works for choice extracts. We've started the semester with Life Writing, which includes autobiography - and damn, it's a pretty fun genre to read. Both the above books are highly recommended.

Not optimistic for finishing Operation Crossroads by next week - it's good so far, but it's 400 freaking pages - big pages, printed with fairly small print. Gimme space.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book 115, Micronesia: "The Island of the Colorblind" by Oliver Sacks

Got an extension on my playwriting project! So I don’t have to feel absolutely guilty about updating here. FYI, we’re now moving into the territory of the subaltern who cannot speak: a region where there are incredibly few internationally available books actually written by citizens/residents of the countries described. 

This, of course, is problematic, but for now I’m going to revel in the opportunity to write about Oliver Sacks, famed neurologist and author of classics such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (I haven’t read any of his other books, mind you – just read about them on Boing Boing. But I’ve watched his TED talk!)

Seems I oughta read his other books. Sacks is one of those effortlessly eloquent British science boffins who’s not only passionate about his field but about life itself, and the words we use to describe it – in his preamble to this account of his neurological research voyages to the Pacific, he details his early love for explorer narratives: Captain Cook, Magellan, Dampier, Melville, even Professor Challenger and Dr Moreau.

There isn’t even that much science stuffed in here, especially in Book I, which involves his trip to the island of Pingelap in Micronesia, where a 19th century tsunami has left an island inbred enough to harbour a significant population of achromotopes (folks who are completely colourblind, not just the common red-green condition. Only rods in their retinae, no cones).

Easy enough to understand – the story therefore focuses on the pleasures (and occasional displeasures) of flying towards and living on this isolated tropical isle of imported spam and phosphorescent algae; also an unofficial anthropological study of what it means to be an achromotope (they call it “maskun”), aided by the experiences of Knut Nordby, a Norwegian psychologist and fellow achromotope who gasps in delight at finally finding his own tribe, as it were: a population of people who grow up understanding the condition of being oversensitive to light yet being mentally acute in every other way, able to spy the dimmest stars and night and tell which bananas are ripe, not from the colour, but from texture and smell.

There’s more science stuff in Book II: Cycad Island, which talks about a separate trip to Guam to investigate a form of quasi-Parkinson’s disease called lytico-bodig, whose cause has not yet been fully determined (though there’s a high chance it’s to do with eating food baked from the seeds of the cycad plants, which grow in abundance). Because of the medical mystery remaining here, there’s lots of explaining to do.

Consequently or nevertheless, it’s Book I: The Island of the Colourblind that’s more joyous to read – after all, it’s about a community of people who’re technically physically disabled but have little trouble rising above this, versus a story of old folks randomly going paralysed or catatonic (don’t worry too much: no-one born after 1962 seems to get lytico-bodig).

Wonderful little segue as well, when Sacks leaves Pingelap for the larger Micronesian island of Pohnpei, where he and his friends explore the thousand-year old ruins of the civilization of Nan Madol, which I only learned about last year from the forum discussion pages of Civilization V, and how it makes him consider:

Never heard of any of these before. How amazing, no, to excavate these obscure histories? Moments like these, the world seems so fantastically big.

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Representative quote: Knut took out the cowrie necklace which Emma Edward had given him on Pingelap and, turning it over and over in his hands, started to reminisce about the trip. “To see an entire community of achromats has changed my entire perspective,” he said. “I am still reeling from all of these experiences. This has been the most exciting and interesting journey I will ever make in my life.”

When I asked him what stayed in his mind above all, he said, “The night fishing in Pingelap… that was fantastic.” And then, in a sort of dreamlike litany, “The cloudscapes on the horizon, the clear sky, the decreasing light and deepening darkness, the early luminous surf at the coral reefs, the spectacular stars and Milky Way, ad the shining flying fishes soaring over the water in the light from the torches.”

Next book: Jonathan M. Weisgall’s Operation Crossroads: the Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll, from the Marshall Islands.