Simon Winchester,
Pacific: Silicon Chips & Surfboards, Coral Reefs & Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, & the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers
(HarperCollins, 2015)

It's no simple task to examine the biography of an ocean, particularly one as broad and varied in nature as the Pacific. But Simon Winchester takes an erudite stab at it on the heels of his previous book which examined the Atlantic, our other dominant sea.

His process in that previous book followed an evolutionary line, following the "birth" of the Atlantic and how it came to link Europe and the Americas. His outlook in Pacific is more future-oriented, rather than lineal historical, the starting point a mere 67 years ago.

Winchester says he chose Jan. 1, 1950, because it was Year Zero in scientific terms, the time when organic matter could no longer be correctly carbon-dated because radioactivity from nuclear testing in the Pacific had corrupted the atmosphere.

And thus the narrative begins with American nuclear testing, how it contaminated islands and their people, the Marshall Islanders who remain displaced gypsies still to find a permanent resettlement. The horrible consequences of those early tests and what they've meant for our future should shake the most blase of readers.

From there he skips to a rather light chapter on Japanese entrepreneurs and the invention of the transistor radio and another on the birth of surfing before hitting us with more depressing examinations of volcanic eruptions, climate change and resulting turbulent weather, the death of coral reefs and the shifting currents of military posturing (particularly evidence of spreading Chinese bases throughout the Pacific). As in Atlantic, he chides us for making a sewer of the ocean.

This is not a comforting read. But it's an intriguing and important one.

book review by
John Lindermuth

8 April 2017

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