Review: Why the West Rules ~ for Now

I was given this imposing book by a friend who thought highly of it.  I say ‘imposing’ because it is 645 pages long (including one appendix but not counting 100 pages of notes and index).  I’ve had time to read it because I’m on holiday in Sicily.  Not only is it imposing but it is very interesting and thought-provoking.  The book examines 16,000 years of human history (and other forms of data) to explore why the West has more power than the East, and what is likely to happen in the future.

The author, Ian Morris, was born in 1960; he is currently Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University.  He is an archaeologist as well as an historian, and the interesting aspect of this book is that in relies of archaeological, biological, geological, linguistic, genetic, social as well as historical evidence.  Published in 2010, the book has won many awards and has  been translated into 13 languages.


Ian Morris

The book is a ‘brief’ summary of human history beginning at the end of the last ice age (but with with an exposition of the prior evolution of humanity).  Professor Morris uses four indices of human development to quantify the progress of civilisation in the East and the West.  He provides captivating commentary on why the various indices grew or shrank over time.  His indices are social (the size of the largest city in the region); military (the most powerful military force in the region); technological (who had the technological advantage); and who was making the most use of energy.  There are plenty of brief descriptions of the brilliant (or catastrophically stupid) moves of the movers and shakers – eastern and western -in each age, but he demonstrates that it was not their brilliance or stupidity that really changed history.  Nor was it political or cultural or genetic.  It was geography which finally gave the West a major advantage at the end of he eighteenth century.

Looking ahead, Professor Morris concludes that the East will take over the lead in the twenty-first century: largely based on China surpassing the US in financial terms.  But he also says that it may not matter who ‘rules’, because sometime in this century there is more likely to be one world than an east and west.  Looking still further into the future, he postulates two major scenarios: Singularity where human intelligence becomes so well integrated with computers that all intelligence becomes shared, and humanity becomes something altogether different; and Nightfall where humanity is essentially wiped out by a catastrophe such as nuclear war or environmental disaster.  (There are plenty of other undesirable scenarios suggested.)  At the conclusion, he hopes that Singularity will prevail.

This book is very thought-provoking, interesting reading, calling as it does on a wide range of specific data, and events in human history.  I found it interesting that religion had almost no part to play in human development.  Instead, the steadfast theme of human brutality is omnipresent.  War, it seems, was always the preferred option.  Professor Morris attributes human development to fear, greed or laziness, saying that all human innovation arises from one of those three motivations.  Sadly, I’m afraid he is right  So, in addition to giving the reader a fascinating lesson in human history, Professor Morris provides a rather depressing picture of human character.

I must say that I don’t necessarily agree that the East will – via China – rule the world.  Economic, military or political disaster could overtake China (or the US for that matter).  But I do agree that we are converging on One World rather than East vs West.

This is a brilliant book, worth all the time it takes to consume it all!

Review: The Satanic Verses



I decided to read this novel by Salman Rushdie because I had not read any of his work, because this particular novel is famous, and because of my interest in better understanding Islam.  The novel is famous for the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Rushdie for having committed blasphemy and for mocking the Islamic faith.   There was a bounty of £2.8 million on Rushdie’s head and several failed assassination attempts; others associated with the novel were not as fortunate: Hitoshi Igarashi the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991, and a number of attempts were made on the lives of others.  The novel was published in 1988, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. The fatwa was issued on 14 February 1989.  In the UK, 13 Muslim barristers drafted an indictment for the High Court attempting to justify a charge of blasphemy.  This attempt failed and blasphemy is no longer an offense under English law. For years, Rushdie lived at no fixed abode under Special Branch protection.  In 1998, Iran issued a conciliatory statement and Rushdie declared he would no longer live in hiding.   The Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.

In the context of blasphemy, it is worth a brief description of the origin of the term ‘satanic verses’.  Muhammad was living in Mecca at the time and he was experiencing difficulty persuading powerful Meccans to accept that he was the prophet of God.  There is a theory – repeated in Rushdie’s novel – that, as a concession to these men, he gave brief permission for prayer to three popular idols.  What is certain is that Muhammad originally recited several verses naming the idols, praising them and indicating that they should not be neglected.  Muhammad then inserted three replacement verses which say that the idols are only ‘names’ and that ‘God revealed no authority for them’.  His explanation for the change was that Satan had managed to slip in the verses without him knowing it.

In the novel, Muhammad (called Mahound) comes across as a weak, indecisive individual who uses religion for his own benefit.  But the sequences in the novel involving Mahound are contained in the dreams of the character, Gibreel Farishta, who is mentally ill and who believes that he has become the archangel Gabriel, so these characterisations cannot be said to represent the author’s personal views.

The central plot of the novel is that two Indian Muslim actors fall from the sky over the English Channel when the flight they are on is blown up.  Miraculously, they both survive, and they take on the personalities of the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel Farista) and the devil (Saladin Chamcha).  Each of them has difficulty being accepted in London, each finds to a prior love, and each returns to his previous occupation.  Chamcha seeks revenge on Farista for having deserted him after their fall from the sky, and he stokes Farista’s pathological jealousy, destroying his love relationship.  Farista realises what his colleague has done and he forgives him.  Nonetheless, Farista kills his lover, Alleluia Cone, and commits suicide.  Chamcha returns to India and is reconciled to his dying father.

The novel – at 547 pages – has a great deal beyond this simple plot, including dream sequences involving the prophet Mahound.  There are also sequences involving relationships of the primary characters with lovers, friends and acquaintances.

This is not an easy book to read.  The sentences are long, sometimes complex, and the references to characters, places and things unfamiliar.  There is one sentence 146 words long.  Being somewhat familiar with Islamic history, I recognised some to the dream characters, but I could have benefited from a working knowledge of Indian mythology.  It is also not easy to follow what is going on: is this part of a dream or reality?  Having said that, I did find much of the writing uniquely engaging.

The feelings one encounters in reading the book are doubt bordering on hopelessness with some offsetting glimpses of humour.  The doubt has to do with the purpose of life, religion, acceptance as an individual, and perception vs reality.



Manuscript Editing


Yesterday, I received the edited copy of my seventh novel back from the editor.  For me, the way it works is that I – as the author – am responsible for professional editing of my books.  The publisher will arrange for editing, but the author has to pay for it as a part of the co-operative publishing  deal.  On one occasion, I used the publisher’s editor, but never again.  It was a less expensive fee than my usual editor, but a lot more costly in my time and aggravation.  That editor didn’t understand that her job was just to check the grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax of the manuscript.  She did that (sloppily), and many of the changes she made were incorrect, and had to be reversed.  This made me wonder how competent she was at finding the real errors I made.  But what really irritated me was that she made changes to the text so that the meaning I had intended was lost.  Clearly, she didn’t like the characters or my plot.

Vonda works for a large editing company and she has edited the other six of my novels, including my latest, which is 108,000 words.  (That will work out to be about 250 pages, and her company’s fees were just under $1000.)

To give you a sense of what she wanted me to change:

  • too many commas
  • too many colons
  • English English to American English spellings (my publisher is American)
  • removing the hyphens from compound noun; for example hang-dog becomes hangdog
  • catching instances where two-letter words were wrong; for example: ‘in’ appeared in place of ‘it’ or ‘is’

The above changes were made after I had read through the manuscript at least three times and my wife had read it once!  Sometimes we see only what we think should be there!

And then there were her really useful comments:

  • there were two cases where I misspelt the name of the Egyptian president as ‘Al-Sisi’ when I had previously spelt it correctly as ‘el-Sisi’.
  • Similarly, in later paragraphs, I had misspelt the Anglicized version of an Arabic surname.
  • In one case she questioned the identity of the speaker (it could have been either of two characters).
  • And one case where she questioned my translation of an Arabic word.  (She was right.)

She made the following general comment: “This is somewhat of a departure from your previous works — more philosophical and thought-provoking.  The characters are, as usual, well-drawn, believable and sympathetic, and your descriptions of all the places Kareem visits made me feel as if I were right there with him.”

There is another step of editing: when the manuscript is laid out for printing, there are inevitably new errors – particularly in format – which creep in, and I will have to read it again carefully.

I haven’t told you much about this latest novel, because it hasn’t been formally copyrighted yet, but please ‘stay tuned’!