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Book Review: The Boiling River

By (February 24, 2016) No Comment

The Boiling River: the boiling river

Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon

by Andres Ruzo

Simon & Schuster, 2016

When looking at the cover of Andres Ruzo’s debut book The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon and seeing the prominent label “A TED Original,” and then when seeing the follow-up, “read the book and watch the talk,” any right-thinking person would naturally feel a jolt of slightly revolted alarm. The label of course refers to the sprawling empire of “Technology, Entertainment, Design” stage presentations (calling them “lectures” is quite more than the English language can bear) at which vapid and elite audience members are charged $6000 apiece to listen to vaguely empowering platitudes from speakers who are usually intellectual bantam-weights with grotesquely-simplified ideas to peddle for shock applause. TED talks are profusely numerous (like homicides in America, there’s likely one happening right now) and conceptually pureed effusions of can-do pap dolloped out to over-moneyed morons from California to New York. Having “A TED Original” on the cover of your book is virtually an advertisement for your book’s companionable stupidity.

Ruzo’s book is 117 pamphlet-small pages long, with plenty of pictures. The volume attempts to entice readers with other “TED Originals,” like “Follow Your Gut” or “The Art of Stillness.” Ruzo is PhD candidate in geophysics at Southern Methodist University. He’s pleasant-looking, like all TED talkers (except the ones actually talking about their own deformities), and at the back of his book there’s a picture of him in mid-schtick under the Klieg lights.

If anybody is still reading after all that, it should be pointed out that The Boiling River isn’t quite as stunted and condescending as a TED talk (indeed, how could anything be?). The secret of TED talks isn’t that they roughly simulate the outward appearance of deep thought; it’s that they’re presented to upper-echelon businesspeople who, never having encountered deep thought, can be guaranteed not to know they’re only seeing a simulation. This approach works wonders at parting fools from their money in an auditorium; it stands a greater risk of falling flat on the printed page, and Ruzo, to his credit, seems to know this.

In other words, there’s some substance here to go with the catchy-grippy “big ideas” the TED circuit so loves to talk about. Having grown up hearing folklore in Peru about a river in the Amazon jungle that boils as it flows, Ruzo decides to investigate just how much truth there may be to the legend. He engagingly narrates his various travel-adventures in reaching the remote region where he at last confronts the reality of the thing and can start to describe it:

Its hot waters flow for about four miles, getting more than six feet deep in places, and up to eighty feet wide in others. The river boasts large thermal pools, scalding rapids, steaming waterfalls, and boiling hot springs – and all this, in a non-volcanic geothermal system, over four hundred mils from the nearest active volcanic center.

ruzoHe accompanies these vivid descriptions with as much physical science as his slender narrative can carry, spending a little space writing about the geology of the region, river characteristics, and local wildlife. But his story returns regularly to the kind of you-are-there passages that are the chief attraction for TED audience members, who generally only take time out from their 120-hour work weeks to psychologically abuse their bitterly resentful children (and attend TED talks). No doubt with this audience in mind, Ruzo often lays on the Indiana Jones with real energy:

The heat is intense – almost unbearable – and it feels significantly hotter than any other spot I’ve been to on the river … I have never seen so much thermal water with such a powerful flow rate – and certainly not from such a precarious position. One slip would mean instant third-degree burns, and I’d have no easy way out of the current. Bubbles erupt across the water’s surface and a plume of vapor rises thickly above. There is no room for a misstep, nor the distraction of a needless thought. Instinct fills me with a clear-headedness dominated by a single focus; every breath, every step, every thought is intentional and calculated. There is no room for error.

No room for a misstep, no room for error … don’t think, just rely on instinct. Thinking could get you killed. Thinking is for sub-management. Go with your gut. And the meaning of it all? Not the discovery of a boiling river in the Amazon, not the exploration of local folklore, not even the reconnecting of the author with the stories of his childhood. No, instead the meaning of it all, as befits a “TED Original,” is reduced to a TED conclusion: “There is so much hidden in our world, occulted in the everyday – both in the unknown and in what we think we understand. Be curious.”

Not too curious, mind you. Not, say, 200 pages-worth of curious. But curious enough.