27 September 2013

Cacique novels of F. Sionil José

He who owns the land holds power. That, in a nutshell, is the basic principle of caciquism. In the countryside, the ruling class is usually made up of landowners and land grabbers. The political economy of the Philippines is closely tied to land acquisition and the transfer of properties, from one colonial master to the next, from the hacendero to the heirs of the hacendero. Land is the very stage of lifeways and cultures. It is also, ultimately, the modern space of class conflict. Finite and limited, the parcels of vacant land are running out. Those enterprising individuals who invested in land are the prime movers of that space. They maneuver in their hands the social, political, and economic spaces of the nation.

Among novel writers in the Philippines, F. Sionil José is one of those who closely documented in his fiction the historical conflicts and interplay between the landed and the landless. As a journalist, his reportage on the post-war national agrarian problem are influential in the crafting of land reform policies. His famous novels – the widely translated five-part epic called the "Rosales novels" (1962-1984) and Ermita (1988) – coincided closely with the rise of the cacique in Philippine society.

Origins of cacique

The political theorist Benedict Anderson charted in his country study "Cacique Democracy in the Philippines" [1] the emergence and ascendance of cacique/landlords from late 19th century colonial Philippines to the immediate aftermath of 1986 People Power Revolution. This is the same period which Sionil José sporadically mapped in his novels dealing with relations between the landlord and the common mass. His fiction was colored by nationalist calls for social justice, equity, and rights-based governance.

Anderson traced the origins of the cacique to "Chinese mestizos who bloomed economically under the Spanish colonial regime and consolidated their wealth with political power under the Americans". The "-co" suffix in the surnames (Cojuangco, Cuenco, Tanjuatco, etc.) of prominent Filipino-Chinese oligarchs at present was apparently derived "from the Hokkienese k'o, a term of respect for older males". The Manila galleon trade (1564-1815) was an opportunity for long-term economic exchange with Chinese merchants. The Church's indoctrination of Christian faith would eventually target these merchants (sangleys). The Chinese would sire "Chinese mestizos" [2], and the Church will be successful in converting them. When the sangleys were expelled from the Philippines after they aided the British in occupying Manila in 1762, the mestizos took over and later came to dominate local trade and even acquired lands.

The expulsion of the Chinese was lifted in 1834 when Manila was once again opened to international trade after the final galleon sailed in 1811. The Chinese, through their hard work and legendary work ethic [3], once again captured the market. The mestizos were driven to the countryside where they were able to capitalize on fertile lands for cultivation. They became hacendados. In the course of the Spanish rule, the religious orders were also able to parcel out vast tracts of land among themselves, what became known as "friar lands".

The filthy rich mestizos, now "provincial caciques", were able to send their children abroad for education. In 1880s these students came to be known as ilustrados, an anticlerical intelligentsia who started to acquire nationalist sentiments and, by the end of 19th century, to call themselves "Filipino", a term originally designated for Spanish creoles. The intermarriage within this emerging class consolidated power and property among themselves. The ilustrados and mestizos would play significant (ideological) roles in the outbreak of Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896 and in the ensuing Philippine-American War. At the turn of the 20th century, the new colonial masters, the Americans, would eventually seize the friar lands and award them to some Chinese mestizos.

Po-on (1984), or Dusk, was the first chronological volume of Sionil José's Rosales saga. It was also the last to be written to close his five-novel cycle. The focus is on the extended Salvador family who was displaced from their ancestral lands by the Spanish authorities after Ba-ac, the maimed patriarch of the Salvador clan, killed a Spanish priest after the priest – the same one who ordered the torture that led to Ba-ac's disability – ridiculed and hit him. The hardships and persecution encountered by the family as they fled the Spanish guards was almost biblical in tone. They came face to face not only with the cruelty of the authorities but with cruel forces of nature. By the second half of the novel, the Salvador family (who later changed their name to Samson to avoid detection) finally came to the large plains of Rosales which were owned by several mestizos. It was a place where they can finally settle in after a very long journey.

It was one of those new towns carved out of cogonal wastes and forests by settlers like them. Like most of the new towns that lined the road to the Valley, its leading citizens were mestizos [4] who were the favorites of the friars. Some took advantage of the recent opening of the colleges in Manila for Indios and went to the University of Santo Tomas to study law and medicine, and be infected, too, with the ideas of liberalism, that deadly contagion which the friars detested and ranted against. Large tracts of land toward the east, all the way to that prosperous village of Balungaw to the very foothills of Mount Balungaw, were claimed by the first Spanish settler in this part of the country, but there was also equally large areas titled to the principalia—the educated men like Don Jacinto.

The locals advised the Samsons, now led by Istak, to seek the help of the wealthy landowner Don Jacinto, a cacique positively depicted here as a good Samaritan. Don Jacinto is presented as a typical ilustrado class whose progressive, anti-colonial leanings are evident when he gave refuge to Apolinario Mabini, a historical figure and crippled intellectual and known as "Brains of the Revolution". He also secretly treasured the two subversive novels of José Rizal. (The richest of the landowners in the area were the Asperris, the focus of the next two volumes of the novel.)

Istak accepted the landlord's offer for them to cultivate the land for him in exchange for seed rice and a place to stay. So began the Samson family's new life as farm workers under a landlord.

Being essentially about the emergence of national identity as offshoot of colonialism exacted by the Spanish and Americans, Po-on was not what can be properly called a "cacique novel" since caciquism was only slightly touched upon in the end and served only to bridge it with the rest of the novels in the saga. Its concerns were nonetheless significant in re-imagining the shared identity of a community, consistent to the template on nationalism given by Anderson.

It was interesting how in the second Rosales novel, Tree (1978), the narrative voice was entirely given over to the young son of an overseer (encargador) of land for the absentee landlord Don Vicente Asperri. The overseer appeared to be a descendant of Don Jacinto. We know this only from the big, old balete tree in front of Don Jacinto's house – the titular tree that was a marker and also symbol for time who was the enduring witness to all the blood and tears of the tenant farmers working for Don Vicente. How the overseer came to work for the Spanish Don Asperri was categorically explained.

Father took the job because Don Vicente trusted him and, more than that, it gave Father a sense of power such as he would never have known if he tended no more than the land and properties under his name. Once, I heard him say to a tenant, “Don’t you know that I can drive you all away from your homes today, right now, if I wanted to? Where will you live? Don Vicente’s word is law and I am that law!”

Don Vicente now wielded such naked power because his landholdings were more expansive than ever – "It’s common knowledge [Don Vicente] grabbed these lands because the farmers didn’t know anything about cadastral surveys and Torrens titles." It's possible he came to acquire some of the lands of Don Jacinto. (One can surmise that the Americans confiscated some of Don Jacinto's lands for his involvement in the Philippine Revolution and awarded the same to his neighboring rival.)

The reliable voice of the unnamed young narrator of Tree provided an intimate look at rural life in the Philippines during the first half of the 20th century from American rule up to the 1935 Commonwealth period and the Japanese invasion in the second world war. An heir to an upper middle class landowner, the boy reminisced about his childhood and his relations with the characters (his family's servants, laborers, and farm workers, all below his class standing) [5] that left indelible memories to his young mind. As various character portraits began to accumulate, we came to know more and more not only about the narrator but about the life of his father as a broker for the landlord Don Vicente. The local conflict between the landlord and the landless was set against the larger backdrop of colonial history and yet the weight of history and politics was balanced by the moving personal stories of the working class characters. It also proposed a "personal form of ethics"

I continue, for instance, to hope that there is reward in virtue, that those who pursue it should do so because it pleases them. This then becomes a very personal form of ethics, or belief, premised on pleasure. It would require no high sounding motivation, no philosophical explanation for the self, and its desires are animal, basic—the desire for food, for fornication.

This ethical vision will not be realized until the appearance of Pepe Samson, the protagonist in the final Rosales novel whose independent, individualistic spirit contrasted with the fatalistic attitudes of his forebears.

Political entrenchment

Anderson explained how the cacique consolidated power during the American occupation of the Philippines. The political and economic systems introduced by the new colonizers were conducive to the hacendados. In the first place, the lands expropriated from the Spanish religious orders were auctioned off to affluent mestizos. The "Congress-style bicameral legislature" introduced by the Americans wherein elective positions were contested in insulated bailiwicks were also favorable to them. Political power was easily attained by the influential few. This, Anderson noted, expanded the role of caciques from local landlords to elite members of the national oligarchy. This, in effect, also contributed to the rise of political dynasties in the country.

But Congress, which thus offered them guaranteed access to national-level political power, also brought them together in the capital on a regular basis. There more than at any previous time, they got to know one another well in a civilized "ring" sternly refereed by the Americans. They might dislike one another, but they went to the same receptions, attended the same churches, lived in the same residential areas, shopped in the same fashionable streets, had affairs with each other's wives, and arranged marriages between each other's children. They were for the first time forming a self-conscious ruling class.

In the third Rosales novel My Brother, My Executioner, the charismatic figure of Don Vicente Asperri, the missing and yet omniscient landlord in Tree, finally appeared and fulfilled the role of the cruel hacendado. The novel introduced a philosophical conflict between two brothers: the poet and journalist Luis (Don Vicente's son) and his half-brother Victor who joined the Hukbalahap rebels. As with Tree, Sionil José privileged the voice of the privileged. It was a self-critical voice, aware of the chameleon-like character of the cacique in times of war and peace.

Look around you and whom do you see? It's the scum who are getting the largest part of the cake—the thieves, the grafters—and we know it. The traitors, those who collaborated with the Japanese—and it's only five years after the war—it is they who are now in power and they even call themselves patriots.

Luis was a character study in inconsistency, flawed character for a flawed human being. He was heir to Don Vicente's huge fortune yet he identified with his mother and with Victor because he grew up poor with them before his father claimed him and brought him to the Asperri mansion.

The story was filled with emotional conflict and dramatic action (there was a mass killing scene that was as relevant as yesterday's news). However, My Brother, My Executioner failed in terms of plot and style. The narrative this time felt contrived and didactic and, by relying too much on Luis's emotive reflections and less on Victor's fiery views, overtly sentimental and precious.

In contrast, the "cacique novels" in the vernacular language covering the same postwar period—Lazaro Francisco's Maganda pa ang Daigdig and its sequel Daluyong, and Amado V. Hernandez's Luha ng Buwaya—contained more than a powerful exposition of land tenure system as a deadly disease of society. The tenants in these fine novels took center stage as they actively resisted the caciques and fought their way out of their predicament, whereas Sionil José here, though he provided some emotional contexts about the tenancy problem, complicated the plot too much.

The bottom line, however, was similar to these novels. Luis, in his unsent letter to his brother, recognized that the activist is the true artist, the architect of revolution, shaper of destinies—"It is you then, my fearsome executioner, who is the artist, the rebel and creator, for it is you who will make beauty out of the ugliness which pervades our lives, out of the dungheap that surrounds us". Rebels and revolutionaries are the "ultimate modernizers", for they will execute the cacique figures in society. The true poet has literal blood in his hands. Sionil José was pointing to the method of ridding the country of evil, the same method Pepe Samson espoused in Mass.


[1] Anderson, B. 2004. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (Ateneo de Manila University Press), pp. 192–226, originally published by Verso in 1998. The essay first appeared in New Left Review, 169 (May–June 1988).

[2] The term "mestizos", Anderson noted, came to mean the children of Chinese and local women, and not of Spaniards and "natives".

[3] For a description of the nature of Chinese merchants as incomparably enterprising individuals in 16th century Philippines, see "Taipan Origins in 1590" by Ambeth Ocampo in his Looking Back 6: Chulalongkorn's Elephants: The Philippines in Asian History (Anvil, 2011), pp. 48–51.

[4] Sionil José's usage of "mestizo" refer to the offspring of Spaniards and local women. Ambeth R. Ocampo explains the term mestizo as a half-breed, in "1896 Philippines: Racial context of the revolution", Bones of Contention: The Andres Bonifacio Lectures (Anvil, 2001), pp. 103–104:

The term "mestizo" (from the Latin mixticius) meant the children of parents of different races, particularly a mix of indio and foreign blood. More often than not, however, mestizo meant Chinese half-breedsmestizos de sangleyes or mestizos chinos—of either Spanish-Chinese or Chinese-indio mixtures. The equally prominent, but numerically small Spanish mestizos posed a bit of a problem: in the first centuries of the Spanish period, officially, a Spanish[-indio] mestizo could not exist.

[5] Chapter 13 of Tree contained a portrait of the narrator's uncle Tio Doro, a man devoted to politics and at odds with the Chinese rice merchant Mon Luk whom he detested for controlling the retail trade and to whom many people owed money. Mon Luk suffered during the Japanese occupation and became a pauper overnight when his rice mill was razed to the ground. Later, Mon Luk became friends with Tio Doro and even "borrowed a little capital from [Tio Doro] to start business anew." Another Chinese entrepreneur, Chan Hai, also seemed to recover his business after the war.

17 September 2013

The atoll in the mind

One, Tilting Leaves by Edith L. Tiempo (Giraffe Books, 1995)

1 Giraffe on the shelf

The backlist of Giraffe Books has recently been lining up the shelves of the popular bargain store Booksale. I'm not sure if the publisher already closed shop or they were just downsizing volumes from their cluttered warehouses. But one could do worse than acquire some of the musty but must-have titles by eminent Filipino writers like Edith L. Tiempo (poems and novels), Antonio Enriquez (fiction), Linda Ty-Casper (fiction), Leonard Casper (literary criticism), Edilberto K. Tiempo (short story collection), and Eileen Tabios (poetry).

2 One, tilting leaves

The deceptive title of Edith L. Tiempo's 1995 novel, seemingly ungrammatical, was taken from the poem "The Atoll in the Mind" (1955) by Alex Comfort. The last stanza appeared as the novel's epigraph.

... the mind's stone tree, the honeycomb,
the plump brain coral breaking the pool's mirror,
the ebony antler, the cold sugared fan.

All these strange trees stand upward through the water,
the mind's grey candied points tend to the surface,
the greater part is out of sight below.

But when on the island's whaleback spring green blades
new land over water wavers, birds bring seeds
and tides plant slender trunks by the lagoon

I find the image of the mind's two trees, cast downward,
one tilting leaves to catch the sun's bright pennies,
one dark as water, rooted among the bones.

The poet at first compares the mind (brain) to varieties of corals ("stone tree") in the reef, including tabulate coral ("honeycomb"), branching black coral ("ebony antler"), and massive or brain coral. A couple more lines and the poet finally settled on another image, possibly that of a mangrove tree that colonized the sandy substrate. The canopies of coral and mangrove conjured the two hemispheres of the brain, pointing toward a duality or divided nature of the self: "two trees ... / one tilting leaves ... / one dark as water". Two contending qualities in a person: light and darkness, good and evil, civilized and savage.

For her novel, Tiempo transplanted the image of the submerged, rooted trees from underwater to land. She used the characters of twins as literal representation of duality. And the trees were made literal trees for the story surprisingly traced an ecological theme of forest loss and environmental degradation. Perhaps it was not that surprising since Tiempo, in her illustrious literary career, had been carefully mapping in her works the search for kindly habitat and habitation, a secure and peaceful dwelling place for humans.

The story centered on Primo Gutierrez, chairman of the Biology Department in a Christian college in a mountainous region in northern Philippines. Primo had an identical twin brother, Pascual, who was shot to death while doing research in a forest area in Mindanao three years before the present story. Pascual was a sociologist studying the mythical epics of the Manobo tribe. He was searching for an old chanter whose version of the Creation myth was "distinctly pagan, [with] no Christian influence". He wandered into a logged over area and most likely came into contact with illegal logging operators who may be responsible for his death.

The story's background of a new statewide policy banning commercial logging of natural forests was a significant national issue. In the early 1990s, the popular sentiment in the country was the stoppage of all forms of logging. The clamor reached a high pitch in 1993 when the Supreme Court handed a famous decision that practically terminated all permits issued to timber companies. The Court found that there was no impairment of contract on the part of the companies since the continued logging operations posed a threat to public interest and ran against the constitutional provision on the public's right to a "balanced and healthful ecology". It was a victorious moment for environmentalists as the Court established a precedent in defining the legal basis for protecting "human welfare" in the face of activities that can lead to depletion of natural resources. Just last year the President signed an executive order that prescribes a moratorium on logging of natural forests.

3 Twins, trees

At the start of the story, a high-ranking environmental officer visited Primo's town to have a dialogue with university officials, businessmen, and the locals about the new government regulations and how the logging ban will be implemented. Conflict ensued between logging concessionaires and a populace who were sympathetic to the environmental cause and who believed that forests need immediate protection. Meanwhile, a fellow scientist and friend of Primo asked if he can capture a local species of a river snake to be displayed in a museum. (Legend has it that one of these snakes went on shore from time to time to meet its human twin.) Despite the unusual request, Primo consented to grant his friend's request.

There's not a lack of clues in the novel pertaining to the metaphors of twins and trees. The river snake, finally caught and caged and taken away from its natural habitat, would acquire a symbolic meaning in the story. Image association (of trees and twins, habitat and shadows) was deliberate.

Just now she was looking up at the two acacias standing together, at the intermingling branches where the lights were softened by the thick foliage.... "They remind me of that Classical myth. The old devoted couple turned by one of the gods into two big trees, and their branches still embracing and twining together."

The novelist's pursuit of poetic imagery jived well with the way the mind could be seduced by a novel idea. It certainly mirrored Primo's obsession with finding out the truth behind his brother's murder. What happened to Pascual three years ago was consuming the living twin. It was like an itching in Primo's being, a worm wriggling inside him. An atoll colonizing and taking root in the mind.

He was shaking his head, "you don't know what I feel about it. I will retrace the events that ended in the Manago forest. I can't as you say, let it lie. The way I feel, it's as if I've left my cut-off arm somewhere and I must find it before it festers beyond helping and I'm lost."

The story was driven by this obsession with uncovering the identity of Pascual's killer. Its pace and momentum, however, was broken in several directions whenever the story digressed into the situations of other characters. It was rather jarring how undue attention was given to minor characters who were dealing with their own dark secrets. It was as if these characters also began to take root in the story too and it was now hard to uproot them, their identities now a resilient part of the novel's ecosystem.

There was a logger who could not forget an incident in the second world war when he fought as a guerrilla. There was a sideways focus on a teenage son of one of Primo's co-teachers. Baffling scenes and moments intruding on the plot. It was narrative diffusion, stretching taut the novel's boundaries. On the plus side the various concerns made for a dynamic story. The thread of the patchwork vision frayed in unpredictable directions. Moreover, each intrusion was distinguished by a display of small compassionate gestures, small acts of generosity and kindness of the characters.

It was as if in certain places the shafts of light ("the sun's bright pennies") were allowed to penetrate the thick canopy of leaves. The shifted story trained a revealing light on the novel's dark recesses, and the patchwork vision was nevertheless a vision whole and intact. Tiempo's other signature works were similarly built on the rough edges of haphazard plot and imagery, similarly compensated for by the pervading mystery and unpredictable texture of the narrative.

In her late novel The Builder (2004), Tiempo unravelled a murder underpinned by motives to displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral domains. The reluctant detective was a physics professor who was in the middle of building a house for his growing family. Tiempo's characters were often adrift in an exiled or homeless state, as if some meaning was wrenched out from their existence and they were trying to locate or build a traditional home where they can rest their weary, sinful humanities. The image of the house was also conspicuous in her first book The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems (1966). The collection contained a sequence of five sonnets called "Five Homes"; the first of which was called "The Mason":

Down in the pit, the sanctum, the mason's eyes
Lift to the quarry wall as he taps at the wedge.
From the crumbly blocks jut slowly the edge
Of the sweet sharpness he knows as muscle throes.
Yet it is purpose, too, the astuteness of a rite,
To wield the rod by which a dry stone flows,
To cut his wedge-forms on the towering white,
To pile the bricks of passion and surmise.

Men's rages, his own, he would understand,
A craftsman, he confines them by his hand.
But fashioning his schemes, picking at the stone,
Gouging truth's niches into the echoing walls,
He sees something long since carved: his house of bone,
Where daily his breaths wheeze in the dust-choked halls.

The "house of bone" that harbored "men's rages" was resurrected in "Banhaus", in Marginal Annotations and Other Poems (2001).

Before the furnishings composed the rooms:
Before the bed and the couch conceived
A soft, a warm for the skin and bones,
Before the oven and the freezer cooked up
The hot and the cold
Before the pulled drape let the stray beam
Splatter the shapes and colors,
Would the house then really be?
Old Time, with bell unclappered, may not
Toll old Saxon's house of bone; but
Can never divine it while
The house defines, defiles,
While it confines us.

As with these poems, the novel One, Tilting Leaves was concerned with the teasing out of a metaphor. This project the novelist carried out with the obstinacy of a poet, her single-minded pursuit of organic meaning in the understory of possibilities. The reader is presented an image, deconstructed through several image associations. He is left to ponder the narrative, to see it through (like a craftsman "gouging truth's niches").

In using the image of twins and intertwined trees in the same breath, the writer was guilty of mixing metaphors. Comfort's poem on the split in the mind was also a mixed metaphor of corals and trees. It was in some ways a poem about mixed metaphors (i.e., the divided self). Investigating how the metaphors can hold together or cohere was somehow an act of  reading into, or making sense of, narrative estrangements. The builder of words creates spaces in the text, allowing the reader to recognize the forest from the trees. Perhaps the very reason the other half of the title was withheld was to let us decipher the hidden face of the other.

"Every creature alive is the product of a unique history"—the words of a great naturalist who honored every individual creations.... At what point in my evolution did my twin-nature merged into one? ... Who ... had expunged the secret sharer? In our yoked complexity what was there in us to bring each one to the truth? The spiritual element?—Wasn't this a softened shadow now, the shadow of the old heritage? Risk and harshness and the hungers and drives of the human's evolution. Why else would a man kill, why else could he kill? ... The genetic engineers, should they unscramble the solid intermix to say, This figment is me, this blot is my twin?

Tiempo had defined her ecological ethic from Loren Eiseley. The turn toward evolutionary history as the basis of the animal nature to kill added dimension to the idea of duality. The novelist also hinted at one other habitat from which the characters—all humans, in fact—cannot escape from. The house of memory which either gave man ("the house of bone") the strength to move on with his life or imprisoned him in its insane embrace.

The right metaphor has an insidious way of seizing broken minds. The mind selfishly seizes ideas and owns them. Processed by memory, the mediated images have now a hard time of being erased. Tiempo took upon the task of finding ways to dramatize the force of poetry in a novel. She produced a work which coiled around precise natural images and cultivated the tension between homegrown civilization and primate savagery.

4 Postscript: Black pitcher

When, in 2010, a team of scientists first saw the black pitcher plant in Shumkak Peak in the mountain range of Victoria-Annepahan, they were easily convinced it was a new record species. Spectacular and unique, it evolved for years no human memory can recall; only the genetic memory of plants and animals passed on through the generations could explain it. It nestled in the upper reaches of the mountain, in the central portion of the island shaped like a folded umbrella. Its pitcher was uncommonly black, but its soul, no less innocent, was colorless. It harbored the guilt of existence and the hermetic value of its evolution. For its own sake it curled up to catch the rainwater. Whatever extraordinary medicinal powers its juice possesses, nobody knew for now. Yet it was a novelty ware, occupier of an ecological niche in the news. At another time it will be a desiccated museum piece, or a minor attraction in herbaria and botanical gardens. (Whether it will succumb to future calamities masterminded by Cain’s tribe, nobody could say.) The enlarged vessel was a threat to insects and other small animals. Once they slipped down the cavity, it will only be a matter of sunsets for their components to dissolve and be consumed by the plant. Doubtless, it was guilty of preying on unsuspecting organisms, entrapping and incarcerating them down the food chain.

The name of the black pitcher plant was leonardoi, in honor of the botanist who was killed three days after it was found. While doing field work in the forests of Leyte, Leonardo was allegedly trapped in a crossfire between government troops and leftist rebels. Perhaps it was destiny that led his fellow scientists to encounter this carnivorous pitcher in the mountains. The black deed could not taint the blood of killers but their political hearts were impaled in the color of this plant. The human courts may hold tilted scales, but in the courts of nature there lie the balance of poetry. The always objective systematics of ecological memory.

08 September 2013

Prophet of fear

State of Fear by Michael Crichton (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004)

A few months ago I bought a copy of The Global Warming Reader, edited by Bill McKibben. I was surprised to see Michael Crichton is included in the anthology—via a very short excerpt from his novel State of Fear—as one of the dissenting voices in the global warming theory. I've been reading Crichton intermittently in my college days. Seven novels in all, my Goodreads shelf tells me. I enjoyed the guy's escapist fiction. Crichton's high profile and influence must have been the reason for his piece to be included to "balance out" the important essays on a hot science topic. I resolved to investigate further and read the entire novel.

In State of Fear, Crichton tells about how a lawyer and a pair of scientists (the good guys) tried to thwart a series of catastrophic disasters engineered by eco-terrorists. The eco-terrorists are hardline climate change believers hiding behind supposedly committed environmental organizations and corporations. They are intent on demonstrating the incredible impacts of "abrupt climate change" and on sowing fear among the world citizens.

There are indications that State of Fear is Crichton's most personal and most political book, the book where he poured all his "expertise" as a mainstream writer to inform readers of the invalidity of anthropogenic climate change and the systematic politicization of climate science to promote the global warming theory. Crichton emphasizes that global warming is only a "theory" and there's a lot of room for doubts.

This is supposed to be a very technical book and Crichton is good at summarizing his main points and of backing up his "reading" of scientific data and researches published in peer-reviewed journals. Crichton took the trouble of adding references to these publications and journals in footnotes and in a comprehensive bibliography with annotations. This attention to science and the fact that the book clocks in at more than 700 pages demonstrate the writer's intellectual investment to the topic. It is unfortunate, however, that the book often relies on speculative science to carry the plot along.

As Kenner explained it, the rockets were intended to do something called "charge amplification" of the storm. It was an idea from the last ten years, when people first began to study lightning in the field, in actual storms. The old idea was that each lightning strike decreased the storm's intensity, because it reduced the difference in electrical charge between the clouds and the ground. But some researchers had concluded that lightning strikes had the opposite effect—they increased the power of storms dramatically. The mechanism for this was not known, but was presumed to be related to the sudden heat of the lightning bolt, or the shock-wave it created, adding turbulence to the already turbulent storm center. In any case, there was now a theory that if you could make more lightning, the storm would get worse. [emphases added]

Of course a fiction—whether or not it is hard science fiction—is entitled to use existing scientific theories in a fictional manner. But for a novel supposedly intent on debunking the "theory of global warming", the enterprise becomes suspect if the author himself relies on new theories to further his ends. In the scene described above, the scientist Kenner is bent on preventing a "hypothetical" intensified storm that will be brought about by multiple lightnings released into the sky by eco-terrorists. The prevention of this "theoretical event" from happening will presumably stop the evil environmental organizations from claiming that the super storm is caused by climate change, which Crichton repeatedly reminds us is just a theoretical construct. Here's another geoengineering measure that the scientists in the book are also concerned about (emphasis added):

Sanjong said, "It's pretty clear they're going to disseminate AOB, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, in large quantities. And perhaps more hydrophilic nanoparticles as well."

"To do what?"

"Control the path of a storm," Kenner said. "There's some evidence that disseminated AOB at altitude can shift a hurricane or cyclone track. Hydrophilic nanoparticles potentiate the effect. At least in theory. I don't know if it's been tried on a large system."

"They're going to control a hurricane?"

"They're going to try."

By relying on theories to further a story that will supposedly question a theory, the writer is contradicting the spirit of disproof. If the science of climate is so little understood, why fan the flames of uncertainty?

Anyone with a strong opinion about climate change and global warming will be exercised by this book's rhetoric and argumentation. It is fairly obvious that the book is not balanced. In fact, it is unapologetic in its stance against the consensus of the world's scientists about the strong possibility of climate change. The 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is alarming in its conclusion that climate change is unequivocally caused by man's emissions. A leaked draft IPCC report says that man's contribution to climate change is "virtually certain".

Crichton's position is the opposite. He portrays the science of global warming as built upon erroneous or misguided interpretation of temperature data. To prove his point he takes the trouble of reproducing in the novel many graphs showing local surface temperature variations which show that in some places temperatures hardly register any change at all while in others it is in fact cooling. That is hardly a big discovery since we're talking here of "local" variations and not "global" temperature change.

Crichton's message is that the world is currently in the grip of fear brought about by news of impending global catastrophes. This fear is manufactured by the irresponsible system of politics, law, and the media. Hardcore environmental organizations and their PR machines foment fear presumably to promote their alarmist worldview and to secure more research funding. Crichton sees conspiracy among scientists rather than consensus. He believes that the conclusions of many scientists and their press releases are based on shaky, dubious, fuzzy science. And one sees no irony when this pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical stance is announced by a foaming-in-the-mouth mad-scientist type in the book. Crichton probably wants to lighten the mood and/or soften the gloom-and-doom scenario he painted, but really, the lynchpin of his argument is almost the same as blatant greenwashing. In a mad scientist, he has found a perfect representation of a yammering fearmonger he seeks to denounce.

Based on his annotations of bibliography, though, it is evident that Crichton is not concerned about presenting an airtight case against the scientific basis of climate change but on shaking things up. He not only sermonizes against what he thinks are clueless advocacy groups trying to address global warming issues, he demonizes that brand of environmentalism. He is provocative partly because his arguments often fly in the face of sound science and sound logic. The politicization of climate change, according to him, is comparable to the supposedly strong political support in the US and Germany on eugenics research (which Crichton points out is directly related to "overt racism") in the 1920s and 30s.

I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions on the side of global warming, which, I argue, they have no business doing. Under the circumstances, any scientist who has doubts understands clearly that they will be wise to mute their expression.

There is something tasteless about that argument. It is quite understandable to be skeptical about climate change. For all we know, we might wake up tomorrow being threatened by a new ice age. But still the majority of scientists believe at the moment that there is a large chance of a continuing warming underway. The complex climate system cannot give definitive predictions but only probabilities based on global climate models. For an appreciation of these probabilities the global citizen may need to harbor a "healthy dose" of skepticism. Too much skepticism and its opposite—too much climate change fundamentalism—can equally give rise to a state of unsolicited fear. We may yet adapt to any global warming eventuality if we err on the side of precaution.

State of Fear has flashes of entertaining action sequences but one has to critically parse the message as the scientific basis is essentially unfounded. The rhetoric is not to be taken seriously; it often lapses into dumbness. If one does not relish reading about poorly developed, paper-thin characters in a contrived, didactic plot for more than 500 pages, one needs only to read the transcript of Crichton's three speeches on climate change (found here—pdf) to understand the author's "sui generis" position. It's disheartening.

For a more balanced, more nuanced, and more scientifically grounded views on climate change and global warming phenomena, nonfiction titles offer credible narratives. I recommend The Discovery of Global Warming (2003. rev. 2008) by Spencer R. Weart and Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (2004, rev. 2008) by Mark Maslin.

01 September 2013

Adventures of a Child of War (Lin Acacio-Flores)

Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores (Cacho Publishing House, 2002)

A novel for young readers, Adventures of a Child of War has as its historical backdrop the Second World War in the Philippines from 1941-45. The child of the title is Eduardo Aguilar who was from a middle class family in San Juan, Manila, and who in the course of the novel was exposed to brutal acts and circumstances of war – aerial bombings, hunger, ground fighting.

In 1942, after succumbing to the Japanese forces which ran over the strategic American military bases in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur of the American Army fled the country, with a promise to come back soon to liberate the Philippines. His return took all of three years – tatlong taong walang diyos (three godless years), as a Filipino film about the period portrayed it. During all that time, Eduardo came of age and graduated from playing child's games to war adventures no child should participate in at all.

The novelist Lin Acacio-Flores steered the narrative away from sentimentality and managed to depict a realistic war-torn community trying to surviving the reign of the Japanese Imperial Army. Eduardo's childhood adventures took on a new turn when he befriended Captain Abe, a Japanese officer, who took a liking to the boy and taught him to ride the captain's horse. The unlikely friendship of the two was one of the many ethical dilemmas of wartime life that troubled Eduardo's young mind. Is friendship with the enemy ever appropriate? Is that not a manifestation of "collaboration" with the conquerors?

The book's tone is often whimsical, derived as it is from young Eduardo's point of view. The serious episodes are sometimes tinged with comic relief. There was a scene for example when, faced by the threat of dying from hunger, Eduardo and his father had to steal sacks of rice which the Japanese confiscated from people and hoarded in a warehouse. One sack of rice had a hole in it and left a trail of rice grains in the road leading to Eduardo's house.

Must erase it! I thought. I looked around wildly for something like a giant blackboard eraser. None. Then I saw Mama's walis tingting [bamboo broom] leaning against the fence where she had left it.

I grabbed it, raced out into the street, swept the line from side to side up to where it wandered into the middle where people's feet had erased it. Mama followed me with another broom, a walis tingting fastened to a long stick. She swept away the rice other people had spilled in front of our house.

Back into the house we ran, she like a bony witch in her loose dark nightgown, dragging her broom. I had this crazy thought that if the Japanese came after her, she'd fly away on that broom. Gasping, she shut the door after the three of us. Papa locked it and leaned against it for a moment.

There is pathos in the fact that Eduardo's mother had become a "bony witch" in his eyes. People at that time had to eat less and less as the scarce food had to be rationed in small amounts.

One other noteworthy aspect of the book is it is one of those fiction embedded with real photographs. The photographs are taken from Shin Seiki (Bagong Araw ~ New Era), a wartime propaganda magazine published by the Japanese. The author explained her use of this device in a preface.

The decision to use photographs, instead of illustrations, came from a belief that more and more, the younger generations have forgotten the last great world war to reach our own shores, changing the history of our country – for good or ill – forever.

Indeed as time passes, the collective memory of the war becomes fainter and fainter in the consciousness of a new generation of Filipinos. I myself do not remember studying about the Japanese episode in my secondary schooling in the 1990s. My impression is that, save for some sporadic period movies, the second world war is seldom a topic of popular culture, let alone children's literature.

Actual photographs may lead young readers to ask questions about the truth behind fictional events. It can contribute to an understanding of historical situations they can hardly visualize. Photographs and diagrams such as the ones reproduced in the book – "Common Types of Air-Raid Shelters" and "Recommended Layouts of Open-Trench Air-Raid Shelters" – can facilitate understanding and critical perception of young readers.

The 1945 Battle of Manila (not directly presented in the novel), for example, is a significant event whose magnitude is now lost in the minds of the people. Texts and photographs (like the ones pictured at this link) may serve to add to the narratives of war and to national memory.

The novel ended with a climactic episode perpetuating a famous myth associated with the end of the war: the lost Yamashita treasure (popularized in the 2001 movie Yamashita: The Tiger's Treasure). True or not, the myth has come to exemplify the nature of war as built on the fortunes and tears of people. The discovery of the treasure, together with the possibility of owning riches beyond one's imagination, becomes another essential aspect of the story concerned about ethical choices in times of war, in a young readers' novel at that.