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book review: the triumph of human empire

I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).

Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.

The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.

I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.

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