Three book recommendations for 2019

Three fascinating books leapt to the top of the pile at Christmas. While in different genres, they all shed some light on some of the issues facing us all in 2019.

In the novel The Great Believers Rebecca Makkai brings the world of the mid-1980s Chicago gay community vividly to life. While protagonist Yale Tishman watches helplessly as his friends die from AIDS, a parallel story unfolds in Paris in 2015 in which a middle-aged American woman, Fiona, seeks to track down her wayward daughter. At the denouement the plot lines coincide.

In The Fifth Risk the inimitable Michael Lewis, author of such great non-fiction exposés as Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short,and Flash Boys, examines the trouble brewing thanks to the deliberate understaffing of the US Government under President Trump.

In Chernobyl, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, an American citizen born in Russia and brought up in Ukraine, shows how, for citizens of the Soviet Union (and Ukraine in particular), the flaws in the failing communist system crystallised in the explosion of the nuclear reactor in 1986. He argues convincingly that this tragedy sheds light on how and why the Soviet Union imploded only 5 years after the Chernobyl explosion. Plokhy’s Chernobyl won the Bailey Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018.

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In The Fifth Risk Michael Lewis charges the Trump administration with compete dereliction of duty. Although Lewis’ sometimes falls into the polemical trap that Trump lays for all liberal commentators, he succeeds in skewering his subject very effectively.

The first half of The Fifth Risk is brilliant. In the prologue Lewis shows that Trump and his team totally failed to engage with a possible transition to power. After the 2008 and 2012 elections a key concern emerged: that the incoming President might be hampered by not understanding the way government operates. Congress therefore passed a Federal law which allowed both candidates to establish a transition team in the six months before the election and guaranteed them Washington office space. Candidates thus could liaise with government departments prior to the election and understand the inner workings of the US system. Trump initially objected to the idea but eventually agreed to set up a team. When he then discovered the cost he was furious. They’re stealing my fucking money! he screamed at Bannon and Chris Christie (the New Jersey Republican governor who ran against Trump and was subsequently was made head of the transition team). In fact the money came not from his own pocket but from official campaign funds but he never saw that particular distinction. Lewis concedes that Trump’s initial failure to engage with transition planning was partly because he did not truly believe he was going to win. But even after he had won he deliberately left many posts unfilled. Many remain vacant today, a symbol of Trump’s ideological aversion to government spending.

Lewis’s book is an exploration of the consequences of one unmanned government, the Department of Energy. The first chapter begins on 9 November 2016. Officials waited in vain for the expected arrival of the Trump transition team. No-one turned up. Even eight months later 80% of the appointee roles remained unfilled. Intrigued, Lewis explores what the Department of Energy actually does. It turns out the answer is more than you would think, including running the Office of Science (that’s all the science in the U.S.A, not just Energy Science).

Soon Lewis encounters John MacWilliams, a Harvard and Stanford educated ex-Goldmans banker who had been hired by the Department of Energy in 2014 to assess the main risks within the department. Top of the list, unsurprisingly, is the risk of an accident with nuclear weapons. (The other four risks demonstrate the breadth of the DoE’s remit: a potential attack from North Korea, Iran acquiring a Nuclear bomb, an attack on the Electricity Grid and – the eponymous Fifth Risk – failing Project Management within the Department, particularly with respect to Nuclear Energy). Lewis’s purpose, at which he succeeds, is to demonstrate that much of the work that the DoE does is unseen. You don’t hear about the accidents that don’t happen: the “Broken Arrows”, the military term for nuclear accidents that don’t lead to a nuclear war like the one in 1961 when two 4-megaton bombs accidentally fell off a B52 over North Carolina. That particular “Broken Arrow” was only declassified in 2013. There are sure to be others since 1961 that we don’t yet know about.

Neither, Lewis points out, do we think much about the decommissioning cost of dealing with a site like Hanford, the town on the Columbia river that was used to create plutonium between 1943 and 1987. Every year, Lewis tells us, ‘the Department of Energy wires 10 per cent of its budget, or $3bn, into this tiny place’ in an effort to clean it up. Although Lewis doesn’t provide any evidence that Trump has actually reduced (or is planning to reduce) the sums going to Hanford, his point is more subtle. In the long run the deliberate understaffing of the DoE and other U.S. government departments is bound to have a significant effect. When a tunnel collapsed in Hanford in May 2017 creating a potential contamination risk, one local man tells Lewis it was the result of “too many goddamn shortcuts.” This is Lewis main thesis: Trump is storing long term problems which cannot fail get worse given his desire to “preserve a certain worldview [that] actually helps to gut the science. [His] budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire – to remain ignorant.”

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Shortcuts are also a theme in Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl. His narrative opens on 25 February 1986 at the twenty-seventh Communist Party Congress in Moscow. The directive in Mikhail Gorbachev’s six-hour speech is a simple one: the Soviet Union needs uskorenie (acceleration) to compete with the world, particularly in its approach to Atomic Energy. One after another senior Communists responsible for Atomic Energy production rose to boast to the Congress of what they could achieve. Perhaps the most extraordinary claim was that the cycle for building new nuclear reactors could be cut from an already ambitious seven years to five years by running design and construction concurrently. Any project manager knows the inherent risk in such an approach.

Time and again Plokhy shows how the desperate desire to please within the Soviet system laid the groundwork for later serious problems. Almost every country adopting Atomic Energy in the 1950s went for water-cooled VVER reactors. Only the Soviets went for RBMK reactors. They pleased the bosses because they could be constructed from pre-fabricated materials. They also used (tragically as it turned out) graphite rods as a coolant rather than water. Pressures to build fast also led to critical mistakes such as using concrete with pebbles that were too large, creating gaps in the material. On 25 April 1986, the day of the explosion itself, a test programme had overrun by a day. None of those in control of the test had the courage to call it off, knowing that it would delay production further.

The most damning section of the book concerns the period in the days after the explosion. Even as the scale of the tragedy emerged, no-one was willing to tell the full truth to their superiors for fear of being sent to the Gulag or worse. When senior government representatives did eventually turn up the pernicious effects of this fearful atmosphere on behaviour became even clearer. There was a collective sigh of relief from those who had been at the reactor since the explosion. “The arrival of the higher-ups removed responsibility for the future from their shoulders. [Those who had been immediately involved in the explosion] were now only responsible for the past.”

Plokhy shows that the way Ukraine was treated (the people and their politicians) by Moscow in the aftermath and recovery period led directly to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukrainian journalists and politicians probed deep inside the Soviet machine, eventually discarding it in favour of a national project of Ukrainian revival. He ends by pulling the strands of the story forward to the events in Crimea in 2014. It’s a brilliant account and is a timely reminder of the depth and importance of this tragedy.

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Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers is set in a parallel time period, beginning in late 1985. While the problems of Chernobyl were brewing in the Soviet Union HIV was spreading rapidly through the gay communities in America’s cities including Chicago where the novel is set. Makkai, born in 1976, acknowledges the challenges she faced in trying to portray what it was like to live through such a specific and personal period. Despite this she creates an astonishingly credible world and believable sympathetic characters: young men seeking to get the most out of their lives, many of which (no spoiler alert) are cut short. The story runs in two time periods. The first runs from 1985 through 1986 and beyond. Yale is a young museum and art administrator trying to make his name by acquiring a collection from an old woman in Wisconsin. Makkai introduces us to the lives and loves of Yale, his friends and acquaintances and the unfolding tragedy around them. In the second story line, Fiona, the sister of one of those who died in the 1980s, searches for her estranged daughter in Paris in 2015. The suspense of how these two stories will connect runs right up to the last page.

The US political response to the emerging AIDS crisis is an important backdrop to the all-too-human story of Yale and his friends in 1980s Chicago. Astonishingly, the Reagan administration tried to deal with the emergence of AIDS (then known as GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency) with humour. (You can read the exchanges between journalist Lester Kinsolving and Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes on Vox). Even in 1985 the US administration was wilfully dismissing the problem. The association of the disease with the Gay community led the Reagan administration to make a clear distinction between “innocent” and “guilty” victims. This was compounded by Reagan’s ideological commitment to personal responsibility for health. He hated the idea of socialised support for those struck with the disease. Voluntary groups formed support networks to plug the gap, something which Makkai portrays with great pathos. The political mobilisation of the community culminated in the formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Their demonstrations were met with serious state violence.

The response in the UK (I grew up in Edinburgh) was slightly different. The press took the lead in calling disease a “gay plague” and, as in the US, initially volunteer groups like the Terence Higgins Trust took a lead in pastoral care provision funding research into a cure.  Edinburgh was considered the AIDS capital of Europe. There the crisis was as much one of intravenous drug users (of whom there were many in Scotland) as of the gay community. By 1985 Health Secretary Norman Fowler knew he had to act. He commissioned advertising agency TBWA to create the infamous “AIDS: Don’t Die Of Ignorance” ads. As a 14-year-old schoolboy I remember the first airings with their use of tombstones to scare the daylights out of people. TBWA’s aim had been to focus on the disease rather than demonise the victims. Nevertheless Mrs Thatcher tried to stop the campaign on the basis that she felt the whole idea of risky or promiscuous sex (let alone anal sex) should not be brought to the public’s attention. She lost that argument and the ad, while highly controversial, is widely regarded as having been successful in highlighting the gravity of the disease and the situation.

Read The Great Believers – it’s a great story with great characters. And you will learn something too.

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All three books deal with government’s attitude to risk. Political rulers have two main functions: creating a vision of the future to win power, and managing events (often unexpected) once in power.

Plokhy’s Chernobyl and Makkai’s The Great Believers give two examples of how the conflict between these two functions played out in the latter days of the Cold War. Plokhy shows unequivocally that the one dimensional vision and unrealistic expectations from Soviet leaders led to pressures on the nuclear power industry that greatly heightened the risk of a catastrophic disaster. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster a culture of fear within the monolithic bureaucracy exacerbated the problem. The Reagan administration’s offer of assistance was extended in the full knowledge that it would show up the Soviet leadership. In doing so it contributed, just a few years later, to the downfall of the USSR. After 1991 the Russian and Ukrainian governments did face up to the magnitude of the problem. But the consequences of the systemic failure to admit fault and error still live with us today.

The realisation that the USA faced similar issues in dealing with AIDS. Reagan’s ideological purity prevented him from recognising AIDS as a major public health challenge. The reaction to the crisis through the late 1980s (even after his friend Rock Hudson’s death in October 1985) was just as inadequate, in its own way, as the Soviet response to Chernobyl.

The details given in The Fifth Risk of the chronic underfunding of the Department of Energy (which is most directly involved in Nuclear safety) should give serious pause for thought. There can be little doubt that Trump’s ideological desire to demonstrate that “government is bad and costly” is significantly increasing risk in that area.

All three books are worth reading. There is a reason why Plokhy’s book won the Baillie Gifford Prize for 2018 and that’s the one I’d recommend most highly.

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