Book review: America’s other Gilded Age

You often read political commentary comparing today’s America to the late 19th Century — the Gilded Age. “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age,” by Richard White, isn’t primarily a political book — it’s primarily history. But it makes the case that the parallels between now and that period aren’t just political hype.

Then as now, we had great wealth side-by-side with poverty. Then as now, we have wonderful technological advances. Then as now, we have the federal government in disarray, with one weak President following another. Then as now, advances in racial equality hard-won in recent decades were being rolled back. But there are also differences of course. Today, racism has to hide behind coded language and denials; back then it was out in the open and mainstream.

“The Republic for Which it Stands” is tough reading, both because it’s very long and detailed, and also because it’s bleak. Racism and income inequality were so prevalent then that it’s hard to read the book without thinking how much worse things can get in the US today. But it’s also hopeful, because during the Gilded Age, progressives laid the groundwork for the American Golden Age of the 20th Century.

Book review: The past is so bright in Robert Charles Wilson’s “Last Year,” you have to wear shades

Robert Charles Wilson does one of my favorite things that science fiction writers do — takes a shopworn old theme and makes it new. In this case, the theme is time travel.

“Last Year” takes place in 1870s America, in the City of Futurity, a resort outside Chicago built by time travelers from the 21st Century. These future Americans are a strange breed, carrying mobile phones, with women, blacks and homosexuals as equals — even electing a black man as President of the United States. The hero of the novel is the 19th Century’s Jesse Cullum, who grew up in a San Francisco whorehouse and now works security in the City of Futurity. Cullum foils an assassination attempt against visiting President Ulysses S. Grant (and in so doing loses his beloved Oakley sunglasses). The assassin is using a Glock, indicating the attempt is an inside job from the future, and so Cullum teams up with a 21st Century woman to find the assassin and the plot behind it.

Wilson’s gimmick is that in his world, you can travel to the past and make whatever changes you want, and it won’t effect your present.

Wilson’s strengths are realistic worldbuilding and compelling characters. He takes us through 19th Century America that has been altered by years of contact with the 21st. Cullum interacts several times with the 21st Century American businessman behind the City of Futurity; like today’s real-life tech entrepreneurs, the founder of the City of Futurity initially professes the most noble motives, but the reality doesn’t work out like he said he planned.

Wilson just keeps on turning out one gripping novel after another, and his themes are frequently about time travel, or the past colliding with the future in some other ways. In “Julian Comstock: A Story of 22d Century America,” we see America more than a century from now, after fossil fuels have run out — after the “Efflorescence of Oil” — when both society and technology have regressed back to the 19th Century. “Julian Comstock” is an adventure story in the spirit of 19th Century dime novels.

Wilson’s “Spin” and its sequels tells the story of a half-century of world history starting in a time much like the present, when the Earth is surrounded by an impenetrable shell by some invisible alien superpower; “Spin” is a rarity among tales of super-science in that the explanation of how the miracle occurred turns out to be satisfying.

By the way: There’s a running joke in one of the early chapters of “Last Year” that’s made even funnier by the change in men’s fashions between the time Wilson wrote the novel, its publication in 2016, and my reading it last year. I shall say no more about that for fear of spoiling the gag for you. On the other hand, the gag in the marketing blurb for the book would have been better if Cullum has been wearing Ray-Bans — I had no idea until I read this novel that there is a brand of sunglasses called Oakleys.

Book review: “The First 15 Lives of Harry August.”

The opening of the “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North,  finds the main character dying of cancer in his old age in 1996, when he’s accosted by a seven-year-old girl.

“I nearly missed you, Dr. August,” the girl says. “I need to send a message back through time. If time can be said to be important here. As you’re conveniently dying, I ask you to relay it to the Clubs of your origin, as it has been passed down to me.”

I tried to speak, but the words tumbled together on my tongue, and I said nothing.

“The world is ending” she said. “The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it . So now it’s up to you.”

I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?

Not, I hasten to add, why was the world ending?

Why did it mater?

She smiled, and understood my meaning without needing it to be said. She leaned in close and murmured in my ear, “The world is ending as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

That opening pulled me in like jerking a leash. And the rest of the novel pays off on the promise.

Soon enough, Harry August finishes up dying and, just like the other ten times he died, he finds himself reborn as a baby in 1918 England. Quickly, all the memories of Harry’s previous lives come back to him. He’s an adult mind in a child’s body, until the body grows to adulthood in the usual way. He’s immortal, but it’s a peculiar kind of immortality, bound to repeat over and over the same swathe of the 20th Century. (One time he makes it all the way into the 21st Century. He decides he doesn’t care for it).

The novel wanders pleasantly for its first half, as Harry goes through his first few lives, learning how to be an immortal and exploring the world of the 20th Century. In the second part, Harry confronts the cause of the oncoming end of the world, and devotes several of his lives to preventing it.

“Fifteen Lives” is a thrilling, thoughtful, and well-written science fiction novel that explores moral responsibility and the 20th Century. I hope you love it as much as Julie and I did.