Station Eleven, Empire of Cotton, Wool: Three Intertwined Sort-Of Reviews

I finished reading Station Eleven this weekend. I really enjoyed it. I found the writing to be excellent, and I liked the elegaic tone. (I saw a criticism on Goodreads that, essentially, too much of the world-building was handwaved, or deemed not important enough to think through. That’s a valid point, and if you need the world-building to make extrapolative sense, this novel is Not For You.)

At many points in the novel, characters ponder the ease of things in the pre-apocalypse world. How effortless technology made certain types of production or movement. This made for a fascinating frame of mind when I finished the book and started reading Empire of Cotton.

Empire of Cotton is non-fiction. It is, simply, a global history of cotton manufacture. It covers the last five thousand years, but the majority of the book centers on 1660-1930. It discusses how the growth, harvest, treatment, and manufacture of cotton goods altered the world. And how the needs of the world — SPECIFICALLY the needs of European hegemonic empires (both political and commercial) — altered the production of those cotton goods.

Making cotton cloth used to be done in people’s homes, in their spare moments. It was the putting-out model, in which labor was contracted out to small households in the countryside, and the finished goods were bought by a merchant on contract and sold for a profit, often over extremely long intercontinental trade routes. This was time-consuming and limited. So improvements were made in cotton plants, then in technology, then in trade, and the entire things ended up requiring slavery to work.

The book argues, quite convincingly, that this model — which I was taught was called “mercantile capitalism” — is actually more accurately titled “war capitalism.” It requires exploitation, it requires forced economies, it requires armies.

I also finished reading Wool this weekend. It’s also a post-apocalyptic novel. But, unlike Station Eleven, Wool is ENTIRELY concerned with the means of production. With the costs of labor. With the relationship between workers and managers.

I can’t help thinking about these things, these days. I’m not entirely sure why.

Partially, it’s that I have a growing awareness over the last year that the United States has never stopped being run as a system that exploits a racially-defined caste. And that I benefit from this.

Partially, it’s that I am teaching my kids the mantra that if they can’t figure out how they are buying something on the internet — a fee, or advertising, or a sponsorship — they they are the product being sold.

Partially I am coming to a growing awareness that vast amounts of things in my life are produced far away by people who are treated very poorly and not paid enough and then those things are shipped to me using irreplaceable and polluting fossil fuels — and I don’t know what I want to do about these facts.

Partially it’s that I have learned to cook, and am learning to garden and learning to knit, and these things take TIME. Working out and exercising takes time. Cooking takes time. Knitting takes ohmygod time. Gardening takes time and good weather.

Everything breaks down. Our roof needs new shingles. My filling broke and needed replacing. The check engine light in my car is on. The oak tree might need trimming.

The fragility of things like the global cotton mercantile empire take my breath away. I look at accomplishments like that, like the Mongol mail system, like the building of Stonehenge, and I can’t believe we did it. I can’t believe we made it WORK. Things like that, the odds are so stacked against us. They take so much time, so much effort, they exploit someone, pretty much always, and everything breaks down.

I can’t decide whether my near-tears are due to the majesty of the endeavor, or the destruction such things wreak.

And then I read Wool, and Station Eleven, and I watch Outlander, and I can’t stop thinking about how hard it is to make a single cotton shirt.


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