Book Review: Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers by Simon Winchester

This fascinating book with the unwieldy title goes into the modern history of some of the countries surrounding and within the Pacific Ocean area and various aspects of the geology, natural history, and meteorology of the ocean itself.  Although it touches on history in the deeper past, it officially begins with the first thermonuclear weapon testing on a Pacific atoll and moves forward from there.  Winchester isolates what he considers some of the key historic events since 1950 and builds his picture of the Pacific Ocean around them.  He admits that he made no attempt at comprehensiveness and aims rather for a pointillist approach, a scattering of stories that suggests a larger whole.

As I mentioned, he begins with the story of nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, a horror story of neglect of the peoples inhabiting the islands that various superpowers, notably the United States, decided to use to test their weapons, and the environmental degradation caused by radioactive residue.  Winchester next goes into the story of the Sony Corporation and its introduction of transistor radios and other technological innovations that are now ubiquitous.  The third section is a history of surfing, a peculiar and unique sport that got its start among the indigenous Polynesian peoples, particularly in Hawaii.

Each of these sections are carefully researched and written, but Winchester generally makes no effort to thematically link one topic with another, except that they all combine to form a collage of modern history geographically around the Pacific Ocean.

The next troubling section details the dividing of North and South Korea and the forming of the North Korean dictatorship, what Winchester calls a dangerous irritation in the far northwest corner of the Pacific Rim.  This is followed by a piece on the western colonialization of many nations in the Pacific and how the various colonies achieved independence. There is a chapter on Australia, on violent Pacific Ocean weather, on deep ocean thermal vents, and on pollution of the Pacific waters.  Winchester wraps it up with an analysis of American and Chinese naval power in the Pacific and a description of how each nation is vying for territorial supremacy.  An epilog relates how a modern Polynesian sailing crew is taking a traditional ship around the world without the benefit of modern navigational instruments, relying only on ancient skills in reading the stars, water, wind, and wildlife.

I have no complaints about this book.  It is light and entertaining.  It never claims to be more than it is.  It is not the book to read if you want a comprehensive picture of the region.  It rather gives you, as Winchester says it will in the introduction, a bird’s eye view of various aspects of the Pacific situation, aspects which do not really blend into an overall whole but are nevertheless interesting in their own right.  It’s not a scholarly volume.  It’s written as entertainment that incidentally provides interesting facts.  Because it is a relaxing and entertaining read, though, I may seek out more of Winchester’s books.

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