Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Patrick Lee

Patrick Lee's first novel, The Breach, hit the world at the beginning of 2010. It was followed by a sequel, Ghost Country, and the final volume of the trilogy, Deep Sky, was released last month. The series tells the story of Travis Chase, a man who finds himself caught up in the chain of events surrounding the world's most violently kept secret.

Recently I asked Lee what he was reading. His reply:
I recently finished Persuader, by Lee Child. Some of my favorite books and films have centered on the idea of a protagonist forced to live out a lie under dangerous circumstances. In Persuader, Child's Jack Reacher takes part in an elaborate, off-the-radar ruse by a group of DEA agents, resulting in his being accepted into the household of a violent criminal mastermind. The bad guys think Reacher is hired muscle they can use for a while; his true goal is to find and rescue a missing woman, and to take revenge against an enemy he'd long believed to be dead.

A false pretense is like an engine that continuously generates conflict and jeopardy. At every turn the lie must be shored up like a failing dam, and every attempt to do so is itself another lie, adding to the pressure. Persuader wrings every bit of danger out of a brilliantly framed situation, forcing Reacher to make increasingly smart--and desperate--moves.

A few months ago I re-read what must be one of the most impactful books I've ever opened: Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. The book is a deep, analytical history of civilization from about thirteen thousand years ago to the present.

I'll use one chapter title as an illustration of the book's overall tone: Chapter 3 - "Collision at Cajamarca - Why the Inca emperor Atahuallpa did not capture King Charles I of Spain."

On the face of it, the implied question seems silly: the Incas didn't invade and conquer Spain because there wasn't the slightest chance they could. They didn't know Spain existed, and couldn't have traveled to it even if they had. They had no capability to construct long-range ships. They had no knowledge of any part of the world beyond their own immediate surroundings. Technologically, the Incas were thousands of years behind European powers of that time. What Diamond is really asking is why that was the case. Why were native societies in the Americas, Australia, and New Guinea, among others, so far behind Europe and parts of Asia?

The answer is complex in its details, but fairly simple at its foundation: societies are shaped by the available resources of the continents on which they emerge. Any civilization does its best with what it has, in terms of plants, animals, and geography. Over thousands of years, people try to cultivate every kind of crop at their disposal, and domesticate every animal in their midst, and the fact is that some regions simply offer far, far better plants and animals than others do.

A good food crop is one that can be easily planted, and whose yield can be stored for a long time after harvesting. Wheat hits all those marks. If your continent happens to have it, and has the right climate for growing it, then lucky you: a fraction of your workforce can manage the farming, freeing up others to learn and advance other trades: architecture, language, metallurgy, weapon design, ship-building and navigation. All the better if you have easily domesticated animals like cows and horses, to take on much of the workload, freeing up still more of your human capital.

And if your continent had less useful crops and animals, thirteen thousand years ago? Well, then your people were going to have to work harder to keep themselves fed. As a percentage, more of them would be food producers and fewer of them would be inventors. Over thousands of years, the difference added up to a lot. Eurasia got very lucky in its plant and animal resources. Other places didn't.

(The book takes a brief look even further back in time, exploring very interesting reasons that some continents were so much richer in plant and animal species than others; I won't go into that here. There are also environments so unfavorable to farming that the local populations never developed agriculture at all. The book covers a huge range of subjects not easily summarized.)

Reading Guns, Germs and Steel is like putting on a pair of prescription glasses to look onto a past you'd previously seen as a blur.
Visit Patrick Lee's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Deep Sky.

The Page 99 Test: Deep Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue