Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

Season of the Witch by David Talbot

season of the witchI.

Every sunday during football season, I walk to an Irish bar to watch the game. The Blarney Stone. It’s one of many Irish bars in the neighborhood, indeed one of even more in the city. They’re all over.

This is what I think of when I think of the Irish-ness of San Francisco. It’s there. I wouldn’t call it an Irish city though. I grew up near Boston. That is an irish city. Walk around and you’re immersed in a goofy ass tribal pride. Nearly everyone claims to be part Irish. I visited Dublin for the first last year and while I had a great time, I couldn’t help feeling like but I’ve already been to Boston. San Francisco conjures none of these feelings.

So, as the first portion of Season of the Witch opens with the tale of working-class Irish-catholic San Francisco, of how the city was completely controlled by Irish immigrants and Irish-americans for the first half of the 20th century, of how the counterculture movements of the 70s and explosion of alternative lifestyles was as much a rebellion against the still-hanging-on Irish establishment as much as it was against the conservative mien of America at large, it required a confrontation with a San Francisco that barely exists anymore.

It’s not the kind of history that’s embraced. Possibly because everyone’s glad it’s gone. It stands as a stark contrast to the identity San Francisco cultivated and embraced in the past fifty years.

 

II.

I can walk to the Haight, though it’s a much further distance than the Blarney Stone and best saved for weekends. It’s a fun neighborhood. A good bookstore, a better record store. Good food, good drinks. Bad drinks at fun bars. There’s often some kind of spectacle — last time we strolled through, a woman caring for a wagon full of week old pitbulls was hanging out outside the bar we were at. A man strolled by with a goat on a leash. A street person was waving around dollar bills and asking passersby if they wanted any change. Just another day.

There’s still some hippies around, but the epicenter of a philosophic movement it is not. Partially because the appeal of the place — shopping, bars, restaurants — all cost money and despite how colorful it is, it’s very far from the sort of money-free egalitarian paradise that Talbot describes it as in the last 60s. Though the fact that it exists at all is only because of many people’s very hard work; while governor of California, Ronald Reagan made no secret of his seething hate of the Haight and would have prefered it to burn to the ground. The city itself did nothing to alleviate the pressure of thousands of youths converging on the city, fleeing the oppressive conservative climates of an America corrupted by McCarthyism and Vietnam. Instead, the establishment hoped it would turn to disaster and they could demolish it in the name of civic duty, like they had years before in the tragically racist destruction of the Fillmore. Season of the Witch details the efforts of the residents of the Haight to create free medical clinics, feed the foodless, and so on. At least for a little while before drugs and government meddling interfere and plunge the neighborhood into catastrophe.

I’ve come to distrust the counterculture movements of the late 60s, in large part due to Joan Didion’s essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and the sexism inextricably tied to the moment. But if there’s any question of why so many women embraced the movement, why they had to do the hard labor to support the brainchild of high and irresponsible men, it’s because what they were rebelling from was something much worse — the chief of police, a man of the Irish catholic establishment, was still publicly advocating patriarchs to discipline their children and wives with the rod while necessary. While the Summer of Love had its problems, it was favorable to an extremely rigid traditional life. Sexual freedom worked in women’s favor too of course, as famous poets of the day celebrated women’s sexual feelings and actually talked about orgasms, something woefully underrepresented in… anything, at the time.

III.

Prior to this book, all I knew of Harvey Milk was he the first openly gay elected official and he was assassinated. Of George Moscone, murdered moments before Milk, I knew even less. Just that I often passed a convention center named after him. 

I liked learning of their history, but far more fascinating and shocking was the domestic terrorism and horrors occurring during the 70s. I’ve heard of Jonestown — Jim Jones’ suicide cult in the jungles of Guyana — but I did not know just how terrible it was and all the SF politics involved that basically let it happen until I read this book. The zebra killings I had not heard of at all, playing second fiddle to the far less impactful or devastating zodiac killer. Indeed, they’re especially chilling when compared to the racial violence occurring in the US right now. The sequence of events basically went:

Ongoing systemic violence and dispossession of blacks in the city->Rise of extremist black muslim death cult and subsequent targeted murders of vulnerable white people->horrendous black profiling police practices including the shooting of innocent unarmed people.

It’s a racist construct all its own that this portion of history of so dimly known.

IV.

There’s something about the gay exodus to the city that becomes almost unremarkable when you live in the bubble that is San Francisco long enough. It feels somehow like the Castro was always here, at least for all of living history.

A few years ago, it became illegal to be naked in the city outside of private or certain designated areas, much to the chagrin of the cadre of men who were always hanging out in the buff on the corner of Market and Castro. This was not at the behest of close-minded straight prudes, but instead by the many gay folks living in the area wondering what about when my family comes to visit? Similarly, when hanging out among the friends of my wife’s uncle and his partner, I get to hear middle aged gays half-jokingly lament that there are women with children, whole families(!) walking around the Castro.

In other words, in some ways the gays have become the bourgeois. The movement succeeded. The party didn’t exactly stop, but the Castro of today is certainly not the Castro of the 70s. Even the Halloween party is no more!

Of course, the past also includes the grim specter of AIDS. There was a point in the 80s where a full fifty percent of gay men in the city had AIDS. It’s horrific to imagine, but timeline wise it basically just happened. It was a highpoint in the city’s trauma that so many people came together to care for those suffering. San Francisco raised 4x as much money as New York did, despite the much smaller population and spent more money than the entire federal government on the AIDS crisis. It’s funny/awful how the more I read about people writing about the Reagan administration, there’s apparently no ceiling on how terrible it was. Many people died, many others were persecuted due to the purposeful inaction of the president.

 

V.

Season of the Witch comes to a close with the rise of the 49ers dynasty of the 80s. Mostly by profiling the great coach Bill Walsh, author of the West Coast Offense, the modern form of football most teams play that puts an emphasis on the pass over the run. The city’s first superbowl win came at a time when the assassination-AIDS-social unrest upheavels all had run back to back to back and some relief was sorely needed.

Talbot paints Walsh as a model of San Franciscan upbring. He hired a gay trainer. He hired a controversial black mentor for his black leaders. While it’s not entirely convincing, at the very least it points out that people will get conservative about literally anything. You’ve got fools declaring the only ‘real’ way to play football is buried in the dust, grinding out three yard gains like it’s always been. They tried to feminize or gay-ify three receiver spreads even when it was winning.

The political-football crossover reached absurd heights when the 49ers, as a stand-in for San Francisco culture at large and formerly a joke and coming off a 2-14 season, blew out America’s Team/God’s Team/The Dallas Cowboys and major networks didn’t even cover the highlights of the game. Fuck the Cowboys.

 

VI.

All these highs and lows, triumphs and miseries, aren’t The City I know. Not least of all because the book wraps up before I was born. The San Francisco I know is crises of tech bubbles, housing, the homeless. And not a hotbed for revolution. 

Yet it still remains a progressive bubble of some kind. There’s a sort of baseline acceptance of people here. I’ve never met anyone personally who expressed any positive feelings about Donald Trump. Quite the opposite with pretty much everyone. As a result, it’s hard to grasp that so many people in this country will vote for him. Feelings like this follow Talbot’s notion that in San Francisco, even the right is to the left of the rest of the country. 

I would be shocked if anyone ever gave a gay friend a bad look, which certainly can’t be said for much of New England when I travel back home to family (It’s like a perennial fucking question of someone asking me “San Francisco? [pause] Are there a lot of… gay people there?). All of this was made possible through the troubles and travails of the people in this book and many others who fought through the 60s-70s-80s. And of course maintained by the people keeping it alive still.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeA few days before the racial violence of the past week — the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the retaliatory madness in Dallas — my wife and I decided to choose an audiobook to listen to on our Oregon road trip. We chose Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehsisi Coates open letter slash memoir about racial violence & white supremecy in America. It turned out to be a grim precursor indeed: Killer evidence that Coates’ morose belief that nothing will change, that plunder is an addiction, contains truth.  

The genesis of this book: Ta-Nehsisi Coates finds his teenage son crying in his room over the absence of punishment for Freddie Gray’s murder. This leads him (Coates) to relate the story of his black life, from the violent streets of Baltimore through reaching his own personal mecca of Howard University and his own disillusioning, rending collision with police-racism-brutality when one of his friends is
set up and murdered by cops. The danger of being black in a wealthy neighborhood.

Along the way we’re treated to Coates cogent reflections on the systems of race and oppression in America. The history of America is a history of a oppression of the black body. They are one and the same. Nor does it survive purely as history but a damning present and almost certain future. The infliction of fear and control continues. Coates is criticized at-large, and surely across many goodreads reviews about not being hopeful enough. Too pessimistic, too solution averse. I try to fit myself amid this history. Surely even the systemic racism of today pales in comparison to the generations born into shackles across the tenure of American slavery, or the crashing fall of Reconstruction and institution of Jim Crowe thereafter? But a weak form of progress, with a majorly long way to go, assuming the destination is actually reachable. I can’t fault Coates stance. Clearly American racism is unlikely to quote end (or anything close) in his lifetime, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to feel sure it will conclude in his son’s lifetime either. Coates’ has a good writeup in response to this ‘hope criticism’ here.

Between the World and Me is a less a story of specific injustices (unlike Tim Wise’s White Like Me, which we also started on the drive), but a general investigation of human systems and constructs. For instance, his notion that “white” is not a race but a totally fabricated classification that allows tribal unity in the ruling class is not so much stated outright but unfolded over time and through various means. Or one of my favorite points comes after Coates’ delves into his teenage African nationalism spent idolizing African cultures, and subsequent falling out from that mindset. After initially embracing the search for the answer to Saul Bellow’s question:

Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?

Coates then comes to a sort of awakening with his response that:

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

It’s a powerful response that sticks with me, and speaks to a possible and neglected human unity that all the “all lives matter” reactionary racist bullshit can’t even approach.

I used to listen to audiobooks all the time when I had to actually drive to work. Now I only listen to them during vacations or holidays or other rare times spending a whole lot of time in a car. As such, I can be more discerning and I only listen to books narrated by the author. Even if they don’t have a great voice, they understand better than anyone the rhythm and cadence of their prose and it makes for a much better listen. Coates spent some time reading (bad) poetry aloud or working spoken word nights in his youth, so his narration has a particular speakerish quality to it. His repetition of words and phrases “My body”, “the black body”, “plunder”, “the people who think they are white” etc added to the fact that’s a memoirish essay made for a more compelling experience than I figure the text would. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

in cold bloodThe familiar, motiveless crime: A wholesome, small-town Kansas family is brutally murdered by individual shotgun blasts to the head.

Truman Capote’s account of the slain family, the reaction of their community of Holcombe Kansas, and the sojourn of murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as they effortlessly flee the law and then foolishly deliver themselves unto it, is a gripping, classic work. First and most obvious because we, as a society, are entranced by true crime tales, especially those as masterfully written as In Cold Blood. We simultaneously have a deep interest in moral justice as well a fascination with violent criminals.

But more important and Capote’s far greater contribution: In Cold Blood does not limit its cast to ‘helpless victims’ and ‘evil ne’er-do-wells’. The four Clutters — Mother, Father, Son, Daughter are characterized fully, though clearly somewhat fictitiously as Capote reveals thoughts of theirs he couldn’t possibly know. By digging deep into the last day of their lives he shows how abrupt it all can can end. Not a dramatic build up like a movie, but day to day chores and concerns, errands to be run and college plans to be made, and then nothing.

Many more words are spent on Dick and Perry, the cold blooded killers themselves. They’re the protagonists of this narrative, really. It’s difficult to accept both the scope of their crime and the persons described, who the majority of the time act and think like normal-ish people. Perry is concerned with improving his vocabulary and likes to play the guitar. Dick is legitimately worried what his mother will think of him even as he screws her over. Even law enforcement agents who dedicated their lives to catching them for months couldn’t work up much animosity when they finally nabbed them.  

While the voice of the narrator does not promote any particular stance, it’s difficult to read In Cold Blood as anything but an indictment of the death penalty. Many of the court processes are farcical — a dubious Kansas law of the time only allowed psychiatric professionals to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the single question of ‘Does this defendant know the legal difference between right and wrong?’ instead of the myriad and complicated answers that mental health questions demand. As a result, Dick and Perry share death row with at least one severely mentally ill inmate (later executed) who cannot truly separate the real world from his own imagination. Moreover, Kansas’ death penalty at the time was hanging by the neck, which is unbelievably barbaric. Dick Hickock takes 19 minutes to die while the bystanders convince each other he felt nothing beyond the initial drop.

But it’s far more nuanced than ‘Hanging = bad’. For one, it doesn’t take much more than to take a look at the real Clutter family…

ClutterFamily

…and read the harrowing tale of the deaths, tortured, filled with terror as their loved ones were executed one by one, and think “Yeah, okay, Perry and Dick probably should not have been hanged, but honestly who gives a shit?”

The novel makes no bones about it: While it took a confluence of factors bringing both men together to lead to murder, it was far from unlikely and if they instead went to prison for 20 years and got out on parole, it would also be far from unlikely that either man, but especially Perry, would cause major harm again. Perry, a soft spoken and intelligent man, was seriously abused as a child. We’re talking horrendous, absent or fighting parents, nuns at school nearly drowning him by holding him under iced bath water, multiple siblings killing themselves. Every position of authority in his life not only failed him but actively damaged him. He goes on to compliment Mr. Clutter as a ‘nice gentleman’ right up until he slits his throat, the reasoning of which Perry himself does not entirely comprehend. When questioned “Does severe childhood trauma lead to unknowing bursts of extreme violence?”, mental health professionals of the time emphatically replied, yes.

Dick, even harder to feel any empathy for, being an abrasive pedophile, suffered a brain injury in a car accident many years earlier. His family described him as a “different boy” afterwards. It goes without saying his brain injury went unexamined. This is hardly a passing problem either, since our favorite national sport is scarring its players’ brains on the regular, and violence as result of brain trauma is something we need to address very soon. Should already be addressing much better than we are.

But the why’s do not help answer the question of what should have been done with the two of them. The cop-out answer is that we, as a society, need to prevent them from happening in the first place. Certainly Perry at least could have been prevented. It doesn’t seem like all that much has changed in fifty years, barring perhaps the scale of violence. Mass shootings instead. We haven’t adapted to help soothe abuse ravaged minds or very specific kinds of mental illness. And again, even then, what to do when it does happen? Is there a solution beyond death or life imprisonment (in prison or a hospital) for the perpetrators? Can violently askew brains be healed?

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

“Good prose is like a window pane.”

– George Orwell

homageThe above quote is a framed print on my wall. Orwell proves it fully with Homage to Catalonia, a personal account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a window into a very particular point in time, a baleful precursor to World War II. It went far beyond my previous understanding of the conflict, which in American schooling boils down to Franco = Bad.

The chapters of the book follow two different paths. The first is Orwell’s direct experiences on the front and later in the street fighting in Barcelona. This is largely a tale of privation. Both sides of the war were drastically undersupplied. No guns, no bread, no tools, and eventually no tobacco. Plenty of lice. It’s ironic that my mid-century version of the book has a bloodied bayonet on the cover because the Republican forces did not even have those. Indeed, their guns were 30-40 years old, often from the previous century, and as like to lock or blow up in their wielder’s face as shoot anything. Furthermore, the fronts were so far apart and in such hostile terrain, there was very little fighting at all for much of Orwell’s tenure. Endless boredom and sleep deprivation instead.  

It’s a vivid retelling. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been told that trench warfare was abysmal and some of the very worst humanity has inflicted on its own. To hear it in Orwell’s crisp prose is to be re-acclimated with just how miserable the whole experience was. Worse, how absurd and pointless. Orwell barely sees any action, certaintly not anything that can be claimed a military victory, but plenty of good men are wounded or die and George gets a bullet through his throat for good measure.

The alternate chapters are Orwell’s summary of the politics of the war, from his position a few months after he left. I just learned in newer copies of the book these are actually appendices placed at the end, which is a grave injustice if you ask me. The war and its politics must be intertwined. Orwell joined the war under a specific party, the P.O.U.M., without giving it a second thought. There to fight fascism, he assumed a unity amongst the opposing republican parties. But an ominous note early on bodes ill when he asks someone about a fellow acronym-based group and is told “they’re the socialists”, to which Orwell replies “Aren’t we all socialists?” 

Turns out there’s some majorly important distinctions between the political groups of the republic. There’s socialists of various kinds, communists, and anarchists, which should share many of the same tenets, but Orwell goes at length to show that this version of communism is based entirely on the military interests of Russia (the only party supplying the government with guns) and not much on ideology. This becomes essential later, when the communist-backed government clashes with the P.O.U.M. while George is on leave in Barcelona and the city devolves into street fighting. The end game is complete disillusionment with the war as he watches all his friends thrown in jail and escapes to France by the skin of his teeth. He has a particular hate for the misleading foreign journalism abroad, and the rampant censorship and harmful propaganda within Spain. You can almost see 1984 being written.

Something of a side note that I found fascinating was the political anarchism that briefly gripped Spain. Orwell writes that capitalist hierarchy was eliminated in Catalonia. In the militia, officers pulled the same pay as raw recruits and enjoyed the same social status; if a grunt didn’t like the order his ‘superior’ gave him, he had the right to question it. Land ownership was abolished and food freely distributed. It’s easy to think of political anarchism as nice in theory but totally impractical and before he engaged with it, Orwell thought the same. It’s fun and a little bittersweet to ponder what might have happened in Spain had the anarchists prevailed.

George Orwell is from a different era. It’s easy to forget. His writing, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, are still widely read and relevant today. Big Brother is a concept rooted in international parlance. I write this because his mentality on joining the war in the first place is thus: he thought it was the only decent thing to do. To go to Spain and fight fascism by killing some fascists. To modern eyes, the idealism and sense of duty present is almost shocking. He infuses the book with a certain violent moral force. Amidst the war is an appraisal of human decency, which through individual interactions he maintains a high opinion of, regardless of the widespread hate and oppression swirling around.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

shakespears_brysonWho was William Shakespeare? What did he wear? Who did he love? Was he lighthearted or gloomy? Who were his favorite writers? What was his family like? Did he have a happy childhood? Was he a good actor? Did he anticipate immortality? Did he spell his name S-H-A-K-E-S-P-E-A-R-E? Was he as stingy as the scant court records show? Why, in his will, did he bequeath his wife his second best bed? Did he even exist?

Despite there being millions of pages of analysis written on the man, and an unending tide of new articles every year, Bill Bryson’s point is that as far as actual facts go, we know next to nothing about the man outside of his written work.

(Though we do know he existed; Bill seems personally offended that anyone would suggest otherwise. )

Bryson takes the collected facts about Shakespeare’s life — which is indeed, not very much — and intersperses them with historical datum of the time, what it was like to live in Elizabethan/Jacobean England, the lives of the monarchs themselves, what we think the theaters looked like, and what living in London was like at the plague-ridden turn of the 17th century. There’s also musings on Shakespeare’s vocabulary, his genius for creating new words and phrases, and his overall impact on the english language. With solemn gravitas, Bill reminds us that Shakespeare was born in latin, but died in english.

Back when I drove a car to work, I used to listen to a whole lot of audiobooks. For the past several years I’ve taken the bus and read with my eyes instead. So audiobooks have become more of a road trip treat. My wife took me to San Diego for my birthday and on the return drive back — SD to SF — this book fit in perfectly time-wise and was a fun juxtaposition to sun-drenched Californian highways and one stop at an extraordinarily crowded In-N-Out Burger. Bill Bryson is a good speaker and narrator and altogether it made for a satisfying experience.

But, but, but, the book does suffer from its premise. Even constructing a short work on so little factual evidence is tough! It’s padded with anecdotes and tangents. I don’t think I learned much new. I feel like, looking back at this from the future, I’m going to have fond memories of the drive and my birthday but not be able to recall a whole lot about the specifics of the book.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (part II)

This is the second half of my review of Annals of the Former World. You should read the first part here.

annals

Wrapping up Rising from the Plains, McPhee explores the concept of ‘hot spots’. If you look at a geological map of the Pacific Ocean, you can see a chain of islands, underwater, extending from Hawaii most of the way to Asia. This is because there is an intense thrust of heat somewhere deep in the earth’s mantle — Hawaii, the Yellowstone Mountains, and portions of the Caribbean among others did not rise via plate Tectonics, but through these hot spots. The underwater islands are portions of Hawaii from the distant past. Eventually Kauai, northmost and oldest of the islands, will sink and new islands will arise southeast of Big Island and the chain will continue.

A hotspot lay under Yellowstone that conceivably traveled all the way under the US and fired Bermuda into the Atlantic.

 

Assembling California

For an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California. […] I don’t mean to suggest that California was underwater and has since come up. I mean to say that of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces that we now call California nothing whatever was there. The continent ended far to the east. Where California has come to be, there was only blue sea reaching down some miles to ocean-crustal rock.

This is a geological history of California, the newest segment of the United States. It’s also a story of settlers moving west, the doom of the Donner party, and especially the gold rush and the 49ers, a history of humanity directly triggering geologic events in a mad destructive frenzy to unearth more gold. It’s an excellent mix of history and science. As he wrote these books, McPhee learned better how to fluidly entwine the two. Like the Nevada books, my understanding was greatly enhanced by reading of areas I’ve lived/visited. It’s easy to image the miners shearing through the Sierras with high-powered hoses when you’ve actually driven by the pits they left behind.

McPhee travels with Eldridge Moores, a professor with an unlikely childhood in a tiny Arizona mining town, throughout the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and down through the central valley and over to the coastal ranges abutting San Francisco north and south. They do not remain state-side and revisit Moores’ old areas of study — Macedonia and Cyprus. Assembling California has a scope beyond the previous books, even while focusing on one state. The newness of California is fascinating and allows us to imagine how many other areas of the earth appeared in their infancy.

The book ends with a stirring present-tense account of what happened during the northern-California earthquake of 1989 (generally tied to San Francisco, it did greater damage nearer to its epicenter a couple hours south). Freeways collapsed on top of eachother, bridges swayed and lurched (the upper portion of the Bay Bridge smashed through the lower), skyscrapers jumped, bicyclists were thrown somersaulting through the air… it’s amazing only eighty-ish people died amidst such awesome destruction. The lesson here is that despite human and geologic time existing on such vastly different scales, they are still one and the same, occurring simultaneously.

 

Crossing the Craton

The last volume of this mammoth is much shorter and written considerably later than the others. It could only exist later because it relies on recent (for 1999) technologies that allow geologists much greater insight into the interior of the US — from Nebraska though Illinois (A.K.A. The Craton). For much of the history of science, the stable center of North America was considered to have been there, unchanged, since the fiery creation of the earth. Recent finds show that the craton came together like everywhere else: plates grinding and slamming into eachother with land aboard, little archipelagos and islands getting crunched together to form larger masses, ocean floor sliding under other ocean floor to melt and push up mountains. There’s mountains buried in Kansas, far below any human capacity to drill. Gravity surveys and isotopic dating allow us to see below.

This path pushes geology beyond the realm of rocks into astronomy and biology. It allows us to envision a world before plant life. It causes us to face the stunning truth that plenty of our modern rocks are reinforced or made of the fossilized shells of ancient vertebrates. It also gives us a vision of the early earth — extremely hot and withstanding the constant pummeling of meteors. Those same rocks are still there… somewhere. The oldest rocks any humans have discovered are around 4 billion years old, approaching the age of the earth.


This book was very long. I mostly enjoyed it. I worried throughout that I was not retaining enough. Indeed, a great fraction of this text passed through my brain and skiied beyond into the great blue yonder. Yet while camping this Memorial Day weekend, in northern California beside a river cutting into a mountain valley, leaping from water-eroded rocks that looked like ancient volcanic debris, laying down a towel upon pulverized rock and tracing the track of the river, I felt a geologic sense, an interest and understanding I owe to reading Annals of the Former World. It was only while writing this paragraph that I thought to look and confirm that the river I was staying on — The Eel river — was created by the San Andreas fault, which I was reading about while lounging on its shores.

Quick thoughts: Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV

ac3and4 I finished Assassin’s Creed III months ago. I had too many thoughts. The effort involved vs. finished review seemed a poor investment. The world does not need an AC3 thesis.Then I finished Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was fun, but ultimately kind of bland and not worth writing a review over. So, in an effort to record my experience during all those hours without getting excessive, I am limiting each game to one paragraph each.

Assassin’s Creed III: AC3 stars ‘Connor’*, a half british, half Mohawk man who Forrest Gumps his way through the American Revolution. It’s the least interesting historical period/event from a time-travel tourism perspective — I grew up in New England and these stories were drilled into me ad nauseum, via elementary school and cultural osmosis. The missions are too tightly scripted and controlled since they need to match precise events the player is already familiar with. The frontier stuff — running around on trees, hunting animals, building a homestead, sailing around on my ship — was my favorite part of the game; I could leave the Boston and New York pieces. A Native American protagonist started off promising but devolved rapidly when the plot and character motivation turned to utter nonsense. There’s a major turnaround late where it turns out Connor’s village was destroyed as a result of George Washington’s decisions — but the game is too afraid to denounce the patriots (until after the credits are over) and Conner basically doesn’t react and continues to support the revolution.

*Connor’s real name is a complex and difficult to say in its entirety for a non-native speaker. This leads to a ridiculous scene where Connor’s (black) mentor says something like “Better to pass as an Italian or Arab than an Indian… let’s call you Connor.”

Assassin’s Creed IV: To the golden age of piracy! The Caribbean is beautifully realized here. The plot and world adheres to real history but is elastic enough to be unfamiliar. Piloting a ship is fun, as is island exploration. For a while. The game starts to get repetitive right quick. Boarding ships is exactly the same every time. There’s a bajillion collectibles spread across the world, which dampens discovery and also makes no sense: Why are there 50+ treasure chests per square mile?? Not very pirate-y. Edward, the protagonist, is yet another rogue with a conscience. Feels like Ubisoft got real safe character-wise after Connor wasn’t received well (I thought he was great until the plot stopped making sense). Early in the game, Edward escapes bondage and steals his own ship (the Jackdaw) with a black man and his future first mate, Adewale. Adewale allows Edward to assume ownership of the Jackdaw on account of the color of his skin — ironic that the ownership answer of 1715 doubles as the reason a black man can’t be the main character of a video game in 2013.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Part 1)

annals“The world which we inhabit is composed of materials not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present but of the earth which. . .had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration. . .the result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
– James Hutton, 1726-1797

I like to think of the world in other eras. The alien sweep of Pangaea. The frigid silence of glaciers blanketing the earth. Dinosaurs trudging through the the mud. Deserts that were swamps, mountains that were oceans. The incomprehensibility of deep time and the eons where no life stirred on earth. Or the sheer cataclysm of the great extinctions that wiped out most of cambrian life and later, the dinosaurs and their ilk. It evokes a sense of crushing awe. There’s a comfort in human insignificance, a giddiness to the unbelievably small time we’ve existed in earth’s history.

And, as John McPhee elucidates in this behemoth, there’s a poetry in geology absent in other sciences, save perhaps astrology. Metaphor is absolutely required.

Annals of the Former World is not just one book — it’s a collection of five books. Each book selects a different part of the US to focus on, generally tied to Interstate-80. I’m only about halfway through. I plan to expound upon the first two and a half books and write of the remainder at a later date.

 

Basin and Range

Basin and Range takes place in Nevada — the contiguous mountain ranges and intermediate basins that make up most of the state. At one point, western Nevada was the coastline of America, and it’s the prime suspect for where the country will tear in half in the distant future, first creating a facsimile of the Red Sea and later becoming an ocean in its own right. This is the future of the Red Sea and the past of the Atlantic Ocean, which began as a rent between conjoined North America and Africa.

McPhee’s journey takes him along I-80 through towns like Battle Mountain and Lovelock and Winnemucca. I’ve driven this road myself, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and it was fascinating to see the history, both human and geological, detailed for this region, which I mostly found to be dusty towns whose primary feature was impoverishment. Having a real-life experience of the land is extremely helpful, but even then I can typically only grasp the macro-level of the geology that McPhee is describing. The book is written for any audience and the history, the big picture descriptions of past and future oceans and mountains, the basins and ranges thrust up and down throughout the earth are clear. The smaller scale descriptions of sandstone and quartz and which era they came from are a bit muddy for me. I can start glazing over when there is too much discussion of the finer points of sediment deposits.

In between descriptions of the journey, the text is peppered with history lessons on how geology grew as a science — the great revolutions of geologists rejecting the notion of biblical time (4-6 thousand year old earth) and the Great Flood, which people took as outright fact through much of western history. Later, the theory of plate tectonics. Or the many missteps in between. In addition, McPhee works as a biographer to the geologists he invites on his journeys. Basin and Range features a man named Deffeyes, who is characterized a bit like an obsessed mad scientist, with poofy hair protruding from the sides of his hat. Deffeyes is outfitted with a deep understanding of the actual basin and range and a plan to strike rich by excavating old silver mines that birthed small towns in Nevada and later ruined them when the silver ran out… but only for their 18-19th century technology, not for today’s.

 

In Suspect Terrain

The subsequent book is significantly weaker, at least from the perspective that I value. It takes place in Pennsylvania and parts of New York or New Jersey — states I’ve spent very little time in and thus areas that I can’t visualize from my own memories. There’s a lot of minutia and not a lot of history. McPhee’s companion for this portion of the trip just isn’t as interesting or eccentric as the ones in the preceding or following texts. Her big thing is that she is a skeptic — the theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the science, but geologists start using it as the answer to everything, which clearly cannot be the case.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve already forgotten large swathes of In Suspect Terrain.

 

Rising from the Plains

I am only halfway through book three and it’s already my favorite thus far. It chronicles Wyoming, a place I’ve never visited but would like to. The Rocky Mountains used to be submerged in earth (sand, dirt, mud, rock), and before that they were at the bottom of the sea. There’s marine life buried in the rock, as well as tiny jaws and teeth to three toed horses, the first tiny predecessors to our modern day mounts. McPhee builds on the descriptive prose of the first two books and I can follow the lay of the land and its intricacies with far greater acuity. Or maybe I just got better at reading.

Interspersed with the geology is the history of a family. McPhee’s companion for this trip is David Love. His mother was a Wellesley graduate who became a school teacher in distant Wyoming in 1905, still the wild west, with students who had to travel sixty miles through devastating cold to reach the schoolhouse. She was an excellent writer and her captivating journals are excerpted throughout. Her husband and David’s father was a Wyoming cowboy, who spend at least one seven year stretch sleeping without a roof over his head, and was a miraculously successful homesteader in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, a land which is very cold much of year, reaches fifty below zero in winter, and has winds so powerful and unrelenting that houses with closed doors and windows fill with snow through cracks in the walls and keyholes.

The local and family history and how it entwines with the geology is masterful and I look forward to charging onward, both through millions of years of geological time and the infant history of inhospitable Wyoming.

 

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

Part II continues here.