, the author of The Map That Changed the World
and The Professor and the Madman
focuses his considerable research powers on one of the most cataclysmic events of modern history: the volcanic eruption, in 1883, of the Southeast Asian island of Krakatoa, which resulted in the deaths of 36,000 people and sent shock-waves around the world. But what at the time was a mysterious, almost supernatural phenomenon has become, under the precepts of the contemporary science of plate tectonics, explicable if no less tragic. Winchester veers between eyewitness accounts by survivors and the limited scientific measurements of the time in an attempt to describe the indescribable. The event "is still said to be the most violent explosion ever recorded and experienced by modern man," he writes. "Six cubic miles of rock had been blasted out of existence, had been turned into pumice and ash and uncountable billions of particles of dust." Yet words and numbers can barely hint at the scale of the calamity, which resulted in tsunamis that washed whole villages into the ocean and forever changed the very topography of the area. The author also explores the social and cultural topography, noting, "Orthodox Islam, its revival in part triggered by tragic events such as the great cataclysm, was totally transformed in Java during the nineteenth century, with fundamentalism, militancy, and profound hostility to non-Muslims its watchwords." At times Winchester seems to overstate his case, and the link he finds between Krakatoa and the rise of anti-Western sentiment in the Islamic world isnt especially convincing. But, by weaving together the disaster with science, communications, politics, religion, and economics, he has come up with a comprehensive and often fascinating glimpse into the way the world, and our perception of it, can change in an instant. --Shawn Conner
From Publishers Weekly
An erudite, fascinating account by one of the foremost purveyors of contemporary nonfiction, this book chronicles the underlying causes, utter devastation and lasting effects of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of the volcano island Krakatoa in what is now Indonesia. Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; The Map That Changed the World) once again demonstrates a keen knack for balancing rich and often rigorous historical detail with dramatic tension and storytelling. Rather than start with brimstone images of the fateful event itself, Winchester takes a broader approach, beginning with his own viewing of the now peaceful remains of the mountain for a second time in a span of 25 years-and being awed by how much it had grown in that time. This nod to the earth's ceaseless rejuvenation informs the entire project, and Winchester uses the first half of the text to carefully explain the discovery and methods of such geological theories as continental drift and plate tectonics. In this way, the vivid descriptions of Krakatoa's destruction that follow will resonate more completely with readers, who will come to appreciate the awesome powers that were churning beneath the surface before it gave way. And while Winchester graphically illustrates, through eyewitness reports and extant data, the human tragedy and captivating scientific aftershocks of the explosion, he is also clearly intrigued with how it was "a demonstration of the utterly confident way that the world, however badly it has been wounded, picks itself up, continues to unfold its magic and its marvels, and sets itself back on its endless trail of evolutionary progress yet again." His investigations have produced a work that is relevant to scholars and intriguing to others, who will relish it footnotes and all.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.