Brian O'Neill on Submergence

Editor's Note: I recently read and subsequently tweeted about Submergence, the new novel by J.M. Ledgard.  Then I asked one of the smartest people I know - Brian O'Neill - if he would review the book for Waq al-waq.  His review is below and it is my hope that he'll continue to review books for us in the future.  Stay tuned.


Submergence: A Review - Brian O'Neill

Since his debut with Badlands, reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick has created movies that are more and more abstract, less plot-centered, with flitting, almost formless dialogue and voiceovers. 

His movies are a mediation of man’s role in life, of nature’s impact on man, of the search for the spiritual, for a sense of the eternal in our short and often painful and increasingly distant from natured lives.   His films are less movies than a sensory immersion into a series of unanswerable questions.

Reading J.M. Ledgard’s new Submergence, published in America this month, I often got the feeling that one gets watching latter-day Malick.   Submergence is an exploration of the present, past, and future, of how we live, and how life lives around us, unconcerned with our relatively new and parasitic species.  It is a book that is of the immediate present, but one that illuminates the yawning past from which we’ve barely dragged ourselves and also shines a shaky light on a dim and unknowable future.

This seems like a massive undertaking, but the book clocks in at a scant 200 pages, broken into dozens and dozens of short sections set in areas as disparate as a snowed-in French hotel overlooking a December-chilled Atlantic, the cruel and barren wastes of a hunger-stalked Somalia, and the bottom of a soundless sea, teeming with unimaginable life. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around two characters.  One is James More, a descendent of Thomas, a former British paratrooper and current spy, posing as a water expert in scorching Africa.  The other is Danielle “Danny” Flinders, of no particularly noble descent, but a child of French, Australian and Martinique heritage, a brilliant scientist, sexual tigress, child of the world, and connoisseur of the finer things in life. 

Submergence opens with More in a dark jihadi hole in Somalia, obsessing over light and dark and the bugs and stench of his hole and his own body, which is increasingly becoming a stranger.  There is no indication of how long he has been in the fetid, boiling cell, only that it is several moon cycles, at least.  His memory keeps going back to meeting Danny at that French hotel. 

We see the meeting from both their points of view, interrupted as these flashbacks are to More’s horrid present.  They fall in love, her effusive about her work, he quiet about his.   They have to part soon, but not before realizing that they are in love, and always will be. 

The action continues, as More’s captivity shifts to flight with the jihadis, over the baking wastes of Somalia.  He converses with them, is often beaten, and wanders through a world of outlandish cruelty, both by nature and by man.  I do not want to give away plot, though there is not much of it. 

Danny, meanwhile, is on a scientific expedition to the deeps of the Atlantic, where she is studying the creatures of the far deep, the teeming microbial life that creates itself and gathers and dies around ancient chimneys, heating the water from the earth’s magma, life that until recently we thought was impossible.  She, we are told, is going to make a discovery, publish papers, that will forever change our meager and photocentric view of life.

And that is it, and that is its subtle brilliance.  Through these disparate elements, Ledgard gives us a view of the world in a way that we rarely see.   He makes the tiny chemosynthetic creatures at the bottom of a poisonous sea as important as the jihadists who dominate our headlines.  It is tricky to make the phrase or the idea “we’re all connected” not sound like “we’re all connected, man”, but Ledgard pulls it off.

Nature wins.  This isn’t a spoiler, but nature is going to win.   Everyone is aware of that.  In their conversations and private thoughts, Danny and More talk about man as the great despoiler, but, more sobering, as a blip, and nuisance for the planet, which will keep spinning long after we are forgotten.  This echoes the dreams of the Somali jihadis, who dream of conquering the globe, but can barely navigate their barren land, who can’t collect enough rain to keep themselves alive, and who are plagued by hunger and bugs and the sun and their own superstitions. 

Superstition plays a large role.  Our heroes, as rational as they are, are haunted by the echo of legends and ancient fear.   The Orpheus myth is hinted at several times, with the ocean substituting for hell.  The jihadis are terrified of jinns, shadows of a pre-hominid time, fallen angels or devilswho trap and trick man and have turned their back on Allah. 

The jinn, the reader comes to realize, are not terribly different than Flinder’s submerged microbial life, which were here before us and will be here until the sun explodes, and who live with without sun, thriving on poison, in ways we thought impossible.  In one gripping scene, More is taken into a cave by the one captor who talks with him, a dark cave where the other fighters refuse to enter. 

He is led to a deep, seemingly bottomless pit, which a terrified Saif explains is where the jinns live.  More doesn’t believe in this, but, like all of us looking into an unknowable vastness, is equally scared.  Saif, the fundamentalist, is scared by what he thinks he knows about the pit.  More, the rationalist, by what he knows he doesn’t.  

The unknown plays a part in one of the main themes, if man will keep existing or not.  It is pretty goddamn certain that we have to change, or we will be just a moment.  In one of my favorite passages, Danny reflects that “Homo Sapiens was either at the beginning of a very long journey, or close to the end of a short one.   If it was to be an odyssey, the history that had passed since Sumer would come to seem priceless and savage.  If it was to be a short venture, man’s mark would be the rubbish he had left in the ground.”

If the book has flaws, it is that you don’t get to really know the characters, which seems like a major flaw, but given the nature of the task, is not much of a problem.  Danny, especially, seems a collection of successes, of enemies vanquished and challenges met.  She comes off a little too perfect, as even her flaws- her lack of commitment and ability to dominate sexually- are admirable.  If she weren’t a good and interesting person, she’d tilt into the kind of one-dimensional heroine that makes Ayn Rand novels so unreadable. 

The other writer one is reminded of is Aldous Huxley, especially with Danny and More are in conversation- they are so eloquent and intelligent that they seem to be created and vessels for the writer to pour his philosophy.  But when the philosophy is so rich and exciting, such complaints are little more than small beer.

Admitting bias, here- this book hits several sweet spots for me.  Of course I have written a lot on Islamism and on jihad, and his description of the mental atmosphere rings true, if ungenerous (but that is also the POV of More, in death-haunted captivity).  And I have always been deeply fascinated by the far deep, with its unholy creatures of bioluminescent wonders and terrors, of jagged-toothed angler-fish, of giant squid, and of creatures stranger than that, amorphous, unknown, impossible.  Ledgard captures that in all its dark glory.

 It is a strange book, both impossibly current and timeless.  The death of bin Laden plays a background role, given his relationship to jihadists and his burial ground at the bottom of the sea (a convergence of themes which his publisher called “one of the great literary coincidences of recent times).  There was a brief discussion, on Danny’s diving ship, of how a dead whale falls to fathomless depths and is devoured.  One thinks of bin Laden, a man whose charisma and malevolence dominated the 21st century, drifting to the muck at the bottom, consumed by dumb starfish and hovering eels and trillions of microbes.

But, you know, we all will be, on sea or on land.  We all submerge back into the earth, into the sea, recycling our atoms.  Maybe there is reincarnation, maybe we’ll engineer our way into longer lives, maybe we can make permanent our consciousness, but in the end the body will die.  It will turn to dust and ash and find its way into other creatures.  If there is one theme that Ledgard hits, it is that we are not just on borrowed time, but we are atoms rented from the past and on loan from the future, with only a small sphere of nature-battered self-awareness to call our own.   It makes me think of the last stanza in the madman poem of Humbert Humbert (a man who knew not a little about the agonies of time and flesh), in Lolita.  This could be a fitting epigram for this small but important book.

And my car is limping, Dolores Haze

And this last long lap is the hardest

And I shall be dumped where the weeds decay

And the rest is rust, and stardust.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.