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.
I was looking for westerns to send to another branch of our library system a while back and came across the book Doc by Mary Doria Russell. I loved her book The Sparrow, which is a science fiction & religion mashup on the first contact story. Doc is not like that.
It’s the story of John Holliday and how he came from the south to Dodge City and got in with the Earps. There’s a small flash forward to the O.K. Corrall and the narrator talks a bit about his eventual death too, but the bulk of the story is about life in Dodge.
It’s all right. It’s good at doing the whole “stories about a person are not a person” theme. The writing keeps you involved. There’s a mystery but the plot is hardly the point. It’s a story about people in a shitty place, more of a document of what things might have been like than anything very plot-driven. Selah.
Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.
The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.
Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.
Best Shot in the West is the story of Nat Love, a former slave who became an expert cowboy. The comic is taken from his autobiography, so it’s basically a pile of anecdotes of the cowboy life. It’s good cowboy stuff that isn’t about some kind of criminal life. He talks about the danger of stampedes and the work it is to deal with cattle rustlers. Very nice little introduction to cowboy-dom.
Sebastian O is a Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell comic about a dandy killer in a high-tech Victorian England. He’s been in jail and then busts out to get revenge on those who put him there. It’s not a bad little comic, and there is a bit of a weird Morrisony twist to the ending about how the world can be the way it is. I quite appreciated the timeline at the beginning of the book that gave me a sense of what Sebastian was capable of. It was a good way of getting a lot of backstory in so the story itself could be stylish and quickly moving.