Simon Winchester Tackles the History of the Pacific Ocean in New Book

Lee Polevoi

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

Harper

492 pages

 

 

How does someone go about writing a history of the Pacific Ocean? If you’re Simon Winchester, you come to the challenge with one “oceanic biography” already under your belt. In Atlantic (2010), he looked at the ocean from its “birth” more than 500 million years ago on through modern times, an account suffused with broader themes of justice, warfare and pollution. Winchester proved more than equal to the task of addressing such a vast topic.

 

In his new book, Pacific, he takes a different approach, first laying out facts about this “oceanic behemoth of eye-watering complexity,” such as:

 

  • Looking westward from Panama to the eastern coast of Malaysia, “there are more than 10,600 miles of uninterrupted sea.”
  • From north to south, the Pacific encompasses some 9,000 miles, while “the sixty-four million square miles in between” comprise nearly a third of the surface of Earth’s surface.
  • Almost 50 percent of total surface waters are located in this ocean, with “the earth’s deepest trenches” found seven miles down.

 

The narrative strategy Winchester settles on is a look at 10 “singular events” in the history of the Pacific, “each appearing to me to herald some kind of trend.” In this admittedly idiosyncratic structure, the focus in Pacific swerves from the testing of nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands to the invention of the transistor radio and the rise of the Sony Corporation, diverging again for a look at surfing and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

 

 

Along the way Winchester recounts the misadventures of the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Navy intelligence ship captured by North Korea in 1968, and, of more recent note, China’s emergence as the prevailing superpower in Asia. It’s the author’s belief that “the wisdom or otherwise of these choices is what, of course, will determine whether this portrait of the ocean is judged to be fair and right.”

 

As it turns out, these choices are “fair and right,” though readers may differ as to which topics carry more weight than others. (A section on the ouster of Australia’s prime minister in 1975, for example, seems less accessible or representative than a later chapter on the Great Barrier Reef’s tragic decline due to global warming.)

 

Throughout Pacific, Winchester is never less than an engaging guide. Sometimes his sentences lapse into a convoluted patchwork of pacing and length, but the images conjured up are distinctly memorable. Take, for example, this passage, concerning the choice of Bikini as the island site of an atomic bomb test in 1946:

 

“For once the Pacific war was fully over—once the unbearable sounds of battle, and the landing craft and the tanks and the gun emplacements and trenches, had gone away; and once all these things had been replaced by a half-forgotten quietude called peace, and there were lapping blue waters once again, and multicolored fish and white sands and green parrots and thermal-dancing frigate birds and coral reefs and ranks of palm trees leaning into the endless trade winds; once all such things had reestablished themselves as the hallmarks of the South Seas; and once they had particularly done so on tiny, pretty, peaceful, caricaturedly Pacific Bikini—Admiral Blandy and his team devised a plan to end all this, and turn Bikini and all her islands and their lagoon once again into a hellish gyre of ruin and mayhem.”

 

After a far-ranging look at the world’s largest body of water, it’s the vision of “green parrots and thermal-dancing frigate birds” that lingers in the reader’s mind—representing all that’s been lost in that immense region. Here is where Simon Winchester’s willingness to take on the “eye-watering complexity” of the Pacific Ocean is at its most impressive.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of The Moon in Deep Winter.

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