Book Reviews: Scorched Spaceship, Or Turning Sapiens Into An Oxygen Thief

May 28, 2020

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How To Make A Spaceship by Julian Guthrie

Maestra by LS Hilton

Scorched Earth by Fransjohan Pretorius

Turning And Turning: Exploring The Complexities Of South Africa’s Democracy by Judith February

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Diary Of An Oxygen Thief by Anonymous


Julian Guthrie is a journalist and author who became fascinated by a group of men whose passion it was to achieve flight in space. The leading figure was Peter Diamandis, whose story How To Make A Spaceship is in large measure. He had from childhood wanted to be a spaceman. His family had other plans for him and the United States government was winding down manned space flight. He met his parents’ expectations by qualifying as a medical doctor, but ceaselessly pursued his real dream, drawing into his circle like-minded young men, establishing contact with leading scientific figures of the day, lobbying businessmen and ultimately setting up the $10 million XPRIZE, which would challenge some very special people to design and build rockets and spacecraft. This was entrepreneurship taken to its furthest limits. This book is a brilliant account not only of Peter Diamandis but of test pilots (and their wives), of rocket builders, of unconventional aeronautical engineers and of techno-geeks in every related field. Richard Branson and Elon Musk make their appearances. Dumitru Popescu was a Romanian engineering student who built his rocket in his backyard. Steve Bennett was working as a technician in a toothpaste factory in England. He quit his job, lived off credit cards for three years and built the largest privately created rocket ever to be launched from British soil. They and others entered into the spirit of the competition at huge personal cost, but created new space for themselves. Wound through the whole book is the inspiration of Charles Lindbergh and his pioneering flight across the Atlantic. His grandson, battling with rheumatoid arthritis, is an important part of this book, showing huge courage and giving his support to the enterprise. This a book about the aeronautics of space, the politics of government funding, the whims of sponsors and donors and above all the entrepreneurship, the “can do” attitude of extraordinary men. It is an excited, enthusiastic and hopeful book. – RH


The word Maestra does not appear in my Oxford Dictionary, but I take it that it is feminine for “maestro”, which its protagonist Judith proves to be in all her endeavours. When does a story cross the line from probable into improbable and then into fantasy fiction? That’s the question I asked myself while reading Maestra. But does it matter? Judith, an art connoisseur, takes the reader on a trail through the nightlife of London, Paris and Rome, fraudulent art trading, banking in Geneva and Mediterranean cruises as plot anchors. The story is heavily spiced with explicit sex and a number of merciless killings. Hilton uses a rich vocabulary, showing superb narrative writing skill in entertaining the reader in the playground of the super-rich. This is a thrilling page turner. – DB


How often are we reminded about the atrocities committed by the British in the Anglo-Boer War? They set up concentration camps that resulted in thousands of deaths, and completely destroyed any property belonging to Boers as well as to black people, who also had their homes, cattle and crops destroyed. Scorched Earth gives an in-depth and honest view of the situation in the Anglo-Boer war lasting from 1899 to the conclusion of peace on 31 May 1902. It is beautifully illustrated with numerous photographs, as well as illustrations and cartoons from French and British journals and newspapers. There are poignant descriptions of life in the camps, including several heart-wrenching photographs of families holding their dead children. Some 22 074 children died in concentration camps during the war. All in all, 34 116 white Boer men and women died in the war. Then, at least 21 048 and possibly as many as 25 000 black people died in concentration camps. These atrocities led to bitter memories that haunted Afrikaners and other inhabitants of South Africa for many years after the war. The suffering and deaths in the concentration camps were used with great effect by political leaders in the 20th century to further Afrikaner nationalism. In this newly revised edition a group of eminent historians take a fresh look, with the perspective brought about by a hundred years, at this most controversial aspect of the war. There are 13 contributors to this book. These include Fransjohan Pretorius, a professor emeritus at the University of Pretoria, and JS Mohlamme, a professor from Vista University who subsequently did his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison USA.  He is one of the pioneers among black historians who have done research on the Anglo-Boer War. As someone whose Boer family was personally affected by the war (their dwelling in Carolina was burnt down and my great-grandmother and her five daughters were moved to the concentration camp in Middelburg), I found this book a meaningful tribute to the  Boers and the blacks who suffered the atrocities of this conflict. – MH


Judith February is one of South Africa’s widely acclaimed political analysts. She is well-informed, balanced and perceptive. Her debut as an author is welcome. Although it is autobiographical, Turning And Turning has a focus that is directed at the achievement of the requirement that the funding of political parties should be transparent; the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, which ushered Jacob Zuma into power; the ‘arms deal’ and our present political travails. Her 12 years working for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) stood her in particularly good stead. February has an engaging, fluid style, but I wish she had been bolder in making concrete suggestions as to how problems can be solved and pitfalls avoided. For example, she is rightly proud of the fact that the Constitutional Court has recently directed that there should be reasonable access to information on the private funding of political parties and independent candidates. Transparency in political funding was an issue that IDASA was among the first to raise as one of pressing political importance. The Constitutional Court has, very properly, left it to Parliament to give content to this directive. February touches upon the controversies involved but avoids any serious contribution on how these may be addressed. For example, should the judicial review of tenders not be facilitated where there appears to be a correlation between the award and the tender? Conversely, where a donation has been made by an obviously eligible tenderer to an opposition party and there is no plausible explanation for why the donor was not awarded a tender, should a review not reasonably be able to follow? In all the mature democracies in the world, it is generally not a problem for right-of-centre parties to raise funds. Many businesses, large and small, as well as wealthy individuals, are happy to donate, not in the expectation of any ‘deal’, but for ideological reasons. They prefer parties favouring low taxation and which are averse to regulation, to be in power. For left-of-centre parties, funding either comes from the trade unions or from millions of small, ‘issue-based’ donations. When it comes to donations from trade unions, the ‘quid quo pro’ is often dangerously myopic. Party funding is vital to democratic processes, especially when it comes to maintaining the legitimate debate between centrist parties. Might not tax incentives, generously weighted in favour of small, individual donations not be a fair democratic incentive? Nelson Mandela’s greatness is incontestable.  But it does not contribute to an understanding of politics for commentators to adopt the familiar refrain acknowledging that ‘he was no saint’ – as if this referred merely to his private life or acts as a signal of the writer’s objectivity. No one, least of all Mandela himself, has claimed that he was a saint. The arms deal occurred under Mandela’s presidential watch. Should he not have asked an obvious question: ‘Does South Africa, at this stage, really need to re-arm the Defence Force?’ The thunderous response among ordinary South Africans would have put the issue to bed. The seed of corruption may never have been sown. In my opinion, February circumnavigates the issue. February’s account of the ANC’s 2007 conference in Polokwane is riveting history at its best. But one cannot help wondering how different South Africa’s history would have been if Mandela had deferred less to the ‘islanders’ and the exiles and given greater recognition to those who had waged the struggle against apartheid from within the country. South Africa had changed much and in innumerable, subtle ways in the 30 year period between his loss of freedom and the flight of the exiles in the early 1960’s and the advent of democracy in the early 1990’s. Mandela knew this. Could he not have acted more firmly on the principle that, if you want good government, you need leadership from those who understand the world as it is. February quotes the following approvingly from World Bank South African director Paul Noumba Um: ‘South Africa has a dual economy where on the one hand a small high-skilled, high-productivity economy and on the other hand, a large low-skilled, low–productivity one.’ There must be almost universal recognition that this is precisely South Africa’s problem. But do not mathematics, a slender grasp of successful economics and the solid evidence around the world indicates that there is only one solution to the problem: we must move people from the low-skilled, low-productivity sector to the high-skilled, high-productivity one? We cannot take from the high-productivity sector or scare off its members and yet achieve our goal. We must incentivise to make the solution possible. Education, training, and investment are required. The multiplier effect of private sector investment is the most astonishing engine of transformation that has ever been found. I wish a high-profile political commentator like February had said so. February makes the excellent point that the current problems in countries like the USA, Britain and France indicate that South Africa’s travails derive from an issue that is becoming global: the complexity of holding honest political debate and making wise political decisions in a treacle of information, much of which is false. Here again, some suggestions on how to tackle the problem would be helpful. The cost of deliberately disseminating false information must be raised so that the prize is not worth the candle. The rewards of promoting a political culture based on mutual respect must be made to outweigh the benefits of racial invective and the trashing of political opponents who may have legitimate arguments to put forward. February ends on a positive note. She refers to repeated surveys, including those of the Institute of Race Relations, which confirm the empirical evidence of so many of us: in the shops, offices, factories, banks, on the streets and elsewhere, South Africans, black and white, are getting along much better than most of us dared to hope 25 years ago. There is much grace and a commitment to making our country work. With a bank of assets like this, there is much good reason for hope. – NW


This is a reprint of the original English edition of Sapiens, now in 525 pages and very small type. It makes it a small volume, easy to read in bed with a good light, and it does not cause such a thud on the floor when you doze off. It is a fascinating book for both the right and the wrong reasons. It gives an outline of the history of humankind (sapiens) as we now are but reaches back some two million years to the earliest emergence of what was to become us. Perspective is helpful and good. It brings together a vast amount of research and speculation in many fields and at least excites the reader to think beyond the confines of the present and of our narrowed perspectives: “why?”, “how?” and ”when?”. The great advantage of the book is that we need not read any other volume on the development of human speech, the nature of socialisation, the agricultural evolution, the origins and nature of religion, the rise of capitalism; indeed the list is considerable. He explains it all in one book. Read no further! Yuval Noah Harari is an author who will attract readers like flies: they will buzz around his writings, exclaiming loudly that they now understand everything there is to understand. Seriously, he makes good sense in much of what he writes. His highlighting of the importance of the agrarian revolution is an example: he shows the impact on human life, social structures, law, codification, settlements, property delineation and so forth. With these came more sophisticated religious systems and other ‘control mechanisms’. The loose organisation into tribes was supplanted by land settlements, governance and the concomitant development of writing. So far so good. However, he would have us believe that humans were happier and healthier in the lost past. Just what is “happier” or “healthier”? This is a huge field of study and research. Was life really “nasty, short and brutish” in the new dispensation, as Harari argues it was? His forays into religion are wide-ranging. However there is little recognition that this an area of study that has enjoyed the attention of scholars of every persuasion and continues to be debated by sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers (as well as by the odd zoologist and geneticist). However he makes magisterial statements, when others would offer tentative hypotheses. There is an occasional lapse into modesty: “It would be impossible to survey here the history of all the new modern creeds, especially as there are no clear boundaries between them”. This is not the tenor of the book as a whole. The merit of the book is that it does attempt to show the inter-relatedness of our experiences and observations. We do not live or think in silos. Read the book but do not take it as the last word on anything. – RH


A fictional part-biography, Diary Of An Oxygen Thief is narrated by a young advertising executive whose puffed-up opinion of himself relies on belittling others, particularly women. His misogyny is concentrated and nauseating – more so because he takes great delight in planning his actions and then carrying them out. Life changes, though, and as the narrator goes through some career changes that don’t have the effects on his psyche he’d hoped they would, he discovers that he’s not the only one whose strategy for success may involve hurting others. In terms of approach, if not refinement, there are hints of Salinger and Fitzgerald here, as a flawed protagonist battles his own demons in often everyday ways. What redemption he does experience is undermined by both his own issues and by the flaws in those he encounters, whose intentions are to some degree ignored because of his own fragile self-image. A good read, and an intriguing one, but you won’t be sad the anti-hero doesn’t have it all his own way. – BD[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][us_single_image image=”7966″ onclick=”custom_link” link=”|||”][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]