The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is an ambitious project, to offer a new global history that offers The Silk Road (the lines of communication and transit between China and Europe) as the spine of the world, not just in the premodern era, but also going forward. He is largely successful in this dizzying, weighty tome.

The book begins with the formation of the Silk Road in the years before and around 100 BCE and each chapter, usually described as a road with a description (e.g. “The Road to Catastrophe”), moves progressively forward until the book reaches the twenty-first century. Topically, The Silk Roads may be divided into the movement of three things: ideas, goods, and influence, the last in terms of geopolitical jockeying. All three types of movement feature throughout the book, but there is a progression such that the movement of ideas are most prominent in the early portions and the strategic concerns toward the end. At times The Silk Roads can be unbalanced, frequently losing one pole or the other in favor of showing how central Asia remained pivotal for developments that are usually considered to be centered elsewhere.

This imbalance is frustrating, but nevertheless understandable given the enormous and unwieldy scope of the book. Likewise, Frankopan necessarily glosses over some particularly heated scholarly controversies, sign-posting his position and moving on. Again, this is a necessary feature of a book of this scope, but in at least one case the decision was abrupt enough that I was led to ask someone more versed in the period in question about whether the scholar being cited was respected. She confirmed that Frankopan was indeed basing his narrative (in this instance) on a respected scholar even if not everyone agrees with the stance. This is to say Frankopan did his homework, but he also picks his fights, which makes The Silk Roads an entertaining read filled with a bevy of observations and declarations (always with citations if one wishes to know more).

As far as a new “global history,” The Silk Roads admirably demonstrates the interconnected world and shows how the roads influenced developments that had consequences far beyond its own narrow confines. Australia, Africa, and the Americas even make cameo appearances, but one might still quibble that this approach is biased, if necessarily, toward the northern hemisphere and has no time to spend on issues of social history. In fairness, these are not what Frankopan is trying to show and this is one of the best global histories I have yet come across, but they nevertheless remain a limit, particularly in the breathless rush through the twentieth century where much ink is spilt (yet again) on strategic concerns.

In sum, The Silk Roads has much to recommend it, being lively and readable despite its ambitious scope and hefty word count. Some inconsistency could have been ironed out and I would have liked to see more inclusion of India and China in the main narrative, though he showed himself attuned to modern developments initiated by the latter in the conclusion, so I can only assume that it was a deliberate choice to exclude these actors. These quibbles should not detract from the overall success of the book.

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I am now caught up on books I finished last week. Up next is Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, which I am about halfway through.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, but nonetheless elicits controversy and it is easy to see why. On some levels there is very little to this slim book–few rounded characters, almost no plot—and can be seen as a jingoistic pro-military piece of ideologically-infused drivel. On another, there are sentiments about the world and how bootcamp changes a person.

Juan (Johnnie) Rico comes from a wealthy family and his father has determined his life: Harvard business school and then join his company. They don’t get to vote, of course, because that can only happen through military service, but they have money and that is what matters. Then, right after high school, Juan joins the military while trying to show off for a girl. She has the aptitude and intelligence to be a pilot and another friend has the chops to be an engineer. Johnnie is only cut out for the Mobile Infantry—-a grunt in a highly-advanced suit who drops from space sows destruction.

Most of the novel follows Juan’s travails through first bootcamp and early missions, and then officer training school. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, and between grueling exercises the characters touch upon issues of punishment, discipline, responsibility, and violence, but is not uniformly positive or negative on any one position except perhaps on the necessity of citizenship being a right that needs to be earned. It represents issues as genuine problems and for war as an opportunity to make people into the best versions of themselves. And yet Juan is a shining example of this phenomenon, many other characters standing in stark contrast.

I don’t have too many specific observations about this book, in part because I finished it more than a week ago, but while I did appreciate reading it, it did not live up to some of the more well-rounded science fiction I have recently read. Starship Troopers just came across as flatter and more like a philosophical dialogue than a story. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the controversy about the militarism Heinlein infused in the story comes not from the context of its initial publication, but from the experience of Vietnam in the next decade. In particular, one of the plot hooks later in the story comes from a sudden, forced mobilization of the human race to fight off aliens and how Juan’s father comes to be proud of his son rather than becoming resentful.

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I fell a bit behind on reviews, so I’ll soon be posting discussions of Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, a story about the downward spiral of a fired politician told through three relationships, and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history that was quite good. This afternoon I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth Aubrey-Maturin novel.