Letters from Atlantis – 4/5 Stars
In this novella, we meet a time travelling archeologist/anthropologist writing letters to his wife. Seems normal enough (well, minus the time travelling) but what we find out is that this narrator is actually 20,000 years in the past in Atlantis, the mythical or not mythical island country that existed pre-historically, and if the stories that go at least as far back as Plato go, was seemingly advanced. So the time traveler is observing, this society has electricity, as well as a lot of other advanced technologies. This, while mammoths roam many continents and the world is in the Ice Age. So to further complicate things, this narrator has not actually traveled back but rather had been beamed back into the consciousness of the crown prince of Atlantis, taking over his consciousness at times to take notes and the original transplantation. And as such, as the prince begins to question his weird experiences, he comes to believe he is possessed. The novel goes back and forth from the conceit, the tensions of the central dynamic, and the letters.
Not only is the conceit of the story solid and fascinating, he takes it to some good places. The novel is short, it doesn’t mess around with too much additional stuff, and delivers on the promise.
Sailing to Byzantium – 3/5 Stars
Another novella from Robert Silverberg, this short book deals with a central conceit, plays with it, and then it ends. It’s a solid formula for a book because too often an author will try to shape a full novel around an unformed idea and the result is a watered down mess. This book is almost the opposite, like a lot of sci fi books from the this general time period. Here, we are dealing with a man who’s been ripped from his timeline (20th century America) and brought to a kind of Westworld amusement park in the future to be an attraction for a group of future humans, whose lives can best be characterized by leisure and lack of responsiblity. There’s some of Joe Haldeman’s Forever War here, as well as Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird. The humans now live in a world of low population because of extended lifespans, controlled population, healthcare, and a total control over all those intangible parts of life. So this man is brought into this world, finds a number of different historical cities around the world, and becomes the love interest/plaything of one of the humans, who he’s told is dying. It turns out that she’s got decades of time left, instead of centuries, and the pressure leads her to abandon him. As he searches for her, he discovers uncomfortable truth after uncomfortable truth about this new world.
Nightwings – 3/5 Stars
A short novel from Robert Silverberg, but not novella, this novel begins with a “watcher” and a flying being walking through the wilds of Europe en route to Rome. What we slowly come to realize is that we’re in a future version of the world, post civilization (as we know it) and in a world in which humans are divided into various factions, each who perform a set of specially defined tasks for the running of society and the protection of the world. Watchers are there to look for signs of foreign (meaning alien) invasion in order to protect the world from outsiders. Oh, the flying creature is a specially created genetically modified species of “magical” creature. When the watcher finds out about but is unable to protect from the invasion of the world, he is cast into a world of turmoil as he searches for a new kind of identity in the world.
This book most feels like a Histories of Future Earth/Jack Vance’s Dying Vance kind of thing. What often happens in these books (and I am especially thinking about Gene Wolfe’s New Urth books is that these book can feel a LOT like fantasy, and this book feels like this of course.
The Little World of Don Camillo 4/5 Stars
This is one of those book I’ve never heard of until this year, and it turns out it’s quite beloved. This is an Italian novel from 1948 by the Italian writer Giovanino Guareschi and takes place in a small town in the Italian countryside after WWII. Fascists have fallen and Communists have recently taken control in local elections. The book centers on a local Catholic priest, Don Camillo, who finds himself as constant odds with the local Communist mayor. Don Camillo has a sense of right and wrong, a sense of fairness, and a sense that the local Communist mayor should leave him alone. He’s constantly struggling morally with these senses, especially as he looks for potential short cuts to getting his way (the right!) even though that would be wrong. It’s not an anti-Communist book per se, except in the sense that Italy has been bounced back and forth among different ruling classes, so the local Catholic priest might not really trust the new political flavor. It’s a comedy, and central to this comedy is the introduction of a third character who the moral questions play off constantly, Jesus Christ.
In the novel Don Camillo is constantly asking in his head for guidance from his lord and savior, and Jesus is right there to tell him what’s what with no uncertain terms.
Technopoly – 4/5 Stars
Neil Postman books are often populated with good analysis, a real, well-articulated exploration of a cultural problem, and then an at-best naïve proposal of a solution.
This book deals with the full giving over of American (and the world, in fits and starts) life to that of technology. And I can’t disagree in the slightest with the laying out of the problem. This book came out in the mid 1990s, when I was in middle school, and right about the time that it might have done me some good. But because this book struggles with the concept of how to implement its solutions, it ends up not really doing much. Like a lot of media criticism from this time and before, it has the auspice of both being right, and completely useless at the same time. He has no clue what’s coming next. Imagine not knowing that the internet was going to completely shift human life, and that smartphones will also change everything about how we communicate, how we work and live, and how we function in modern society.
So I am thinking about these questions here in 2020, about twenty five years later. We are in the middle of the pandemic, and while anti-maskers are talking about a loss of liberty for having to wear a piece of cloth on their face to go to Kroger, I am spending a lot of time and energy thinking about how, as a teacher, my entire professional life has been upended by the total shift of teaching, planning, learning, grading, feedback, and communication through my work computer. In addition to this, the pandemic has created a virus in my parents and my in-laws’ brains that somehow causes them to demand to see us more now, than before the pandemic both through mediated and nonmediated terms. In addition to all this, for reasons that completely baffle me, an ex decided to email yesterday. So this is all to say that I get it that technoloy just SHOWS UP and the question is never, how do we stop it, because we can’t, but to be cognizant of how it changes us and how it changes how we think through these media.
The Disappearance of Childhood – 2/5 Stars
This book spends its time talking about the rise and creation of the concept of childhood, and then about it’s slow dissolution, all as a concept.
So childhood as concept doesn’t really develop until the 1800s, and Postman ties it to the rise of literacy, the rise of education, the flattening of mortality rates, and through the stabilizing of life to the point that children take on specific and precious roles in the lives of adults.
So the dissolution of childhood is where this book gets hazy. I don’t disagree that childhood is a weirdly fragile part of life, and Postman’s definitions of that preciousness and fragility is not at issue. But he reaches some faulty and flawed conclusions from this analysis based in a kind of cultural conservatism that he says he doesn’t agree with, but defends. To be clear, when he says that the moral majority has defined and worked toward the preservation of the innocence of children, he’s so wrong, he can’t even begin to understand it. They don’t care; they are control freaks and fascists, not concerned citizens. But more than this, he never quite defines the “harm” of the problem in so many of the “secrets” of adult life that he discusses are being the defining difference between adult life and childhood.
The Most Beautiful House in the World – 4/5 Stars
This by the Canadian/Scottish architecture professor Witold Rybczynski, who was a whole thing 30 years ago, but has since faded. I read his book Home a few weeks back and while it was interesting and solid, it didn’t really settle my curiosity on the questions of domestic life. This book takes on the history of architecture (at least in broad strokes, and then in some specifics regarding homebuilding) as well as boatbuilding, memoir, solitary life, and other random and arbitrary topics that occur to the author as he settles the question of what to do with himself. The book is a short explanation and exploration of contempory domestic life, centered on the home, by someone who knows a lot about these topics academically.