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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, amzn.to… 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” amzn.to… 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,” amzn.to… 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” amzn.to… 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.

Apple News on the Mac has potential but it’s not ready for prime time

Apple shouldn’t have released it. Or if they did release it, they should have made it very clear just now preliminary it is.

It doesn’t look or act like other Mac apps. This is a puzzling problem because one of the chief Mac selling points has always been the uniform behavior and appearance of its apps, from Apple and third parties.

Apple News for Mac doesn’t let you easily open news articles in the browser. I bet 99% of the people who use it don’t even know you can do that.

And worst of all it’s very noisy with alerts. I’m getting alerts for celebrity gossip, fa’ pete’s sake. If Jimmy Kimmel has done or said something, I don’t need to know it right away. I don’t need to know it at all. But Apple seems to think it is so important that it needs to interrupt what I am doing to let me know it happened.

After playing with Apple News for a couple of months, I’m back to Google News as my first source of news.

Seven characters you meet on science fiction/fantasy TV

The leader: Buffy

The scientist, who uses a lot computer screens: Willow

The one who knows the lore, who handles a lot of dusty old books: Giles

The comic sidekick: Xander.

The outlaw who’s allied with the good guys: Angel and later Spike

The muscle: Buffy, once again.

And of course, the Big Bad: A sympathetic villain whose story arc spans a full season or more. Examples: the Mayor in Buffy Season 3, Bulshar on Wynonna Earp.

A good Big Bad steals every scene he or she is in.

Roles of individual characters change over time, and are often combined in a single character. In Stargate SG-1, O’Neill was both the leader and the comic sidekick. Teal’c was both the outlaw and the muscle. In Buffy, Willow became a powerful witch. Doctor Who is leader, comic sidekick, outlaw, scientist and loremaster all in one.

Star Trek shows have similar but different roles. No Trek is successful without the Alienated Alien – for example, Spock, Data and Odo. Voyager was flailing until they brought on 7 of 9. (Credit goes to a friend on the Alienated Alien observation.)