James A. Michener had his Tales of the South Pacific. Now comes Simon Winchester—an equally engaging storyteller—with his tales of the vast Pacific, all 64 million square miles of it. To make such a gargantuan subject manageable, he selects specific events which he says symbolize larger cultural, political and scientific truths about the region. One of the most intriguing of these is how Japan’s perfection of pocket-size transistor radios not only gave rise to the Sony consumer electronics empire but also changed how much of the world entertained itself.
Winchester primarily concerns himself with events that occurred after 1950, the year President Truman gave the go-ahead for developing the hydrogen bomb. In the course of testing that dreaded device, the U.S. callously uprooted island-dwellers from their ancient homelands and showered the area with nuclear detritus, evidence of which still abounds. But the tide has been turning against such arrogance, Winchester says. The French and then the Americans were driven out of Vietnam, Britain had to relinquish Hong Kong to China and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 forced the closing of two huge American military bases, thus creating a power vacuum into which the Chinese military has steadily moved. Winchester’s final chapter describes how China is systematically pushing out into the Pacific to lay claim to what were once Western-dominated waters.
Elsewhere, Winchester probes such Pacific-oriented science stories as the discovery of deep-ocean hydrothermal vents, the alarming phenomenon of coral bleaching and the rise of super storms. But he provides lighter fare, as well, as when the 1959 movie Gidget sparked an international enthusiasm for surfing, a sport long established in Hawaii.