Steampunk Trains and Whatnot

I actually had to look up steampunk before writing this post because while I know what it is aesthetically, I’ve never really been sure what it was about other than cogs and goggles and dressing like Victorian nobility who have fallen on hard times. So I can now say with certainty (thanks, Wikipedia) that steampunk is alternate history – usually of the 19th century – with anachronistic technologies but still with Victorian sensibilities.

That said, I just finished reading A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison today. I originally bought it because I read somewhere that it was the origin of steampunk. I am pretty sure that is not accurate now – because it came out in 1972 and is occurs in (an alternate) 1973 and is way more alternate history than steam-anything although there is some interesting technology involved.

The alternate timeline that the book occurs in is super interesting. It’s a world in which America lost its war for independence from the British, and George Washington was put to death as a traitor, and so in 1973 America is still a colony of the British Empire and they decide to build a super fast train line between America and England that goes along the ocean floor. The science of which is discussed at length, although I can’t attest to its accuracy it definitely seemed legit.

The alternate timeline even gets a little self referential with the inclusion of a hypnotist and a medium who think that there are various time streams that exist and who are trying to get in contact with the alternate time stream that is our reality outside of this book. Definitely my favorite part was this even though it’s kind of a bummer and I edited out a bunch of “urghh”s and “arrrgggh”s:

“She spoke, first rambling words, out of context perhaps, nonsense syllables, then clearly she described what never had been.[…]
‘penicillin, petrochemicals, purchase tax…income tax, sales tax, anthrax…Woolworth’s, Marks & Sparks…great ships in the air, great cities on the ground, people everywhere. […] I see strange things. I see armies, warfare, killing, tons, tons, tons of bombs from the air on cities and people below, hate him, kill him, poison gas, germ warfare, napalm […]'”
“We can hear no more, Madame will not approach this area, she cannot stand it, as we can see why instantly. Such terrible nightmare forces. Hearing of it, we are forced to some reluctant conclusions. Perhaps this world does not exist after all, for it sounds terrible and we cannot possibly imagine how it could have become like that, so perhaps it is just the weird imaginings of a medium’s subconscious mind.”

As is almost always the case with sci-fi and especially old sci-fi, I must add UHG THE LADIES. There are technically two named female characters, only one of whom actually says things. And she’s the daughter/stay at home care taker of the story’s patriarch, she is on-again-off-again engaged to the main character based entirely on her father’s wishes. It’s infuriating. But not even a little surprising.

The ending of this book is not my favorite. In an effort to tie up every possible loose end the last 30 pages are so are just really rushed and pretty forced. The patriarch, on his deathbed, changes his personality entirely to resolve unobsolvable obstacles, etc.

That said, I’ll probably read more Harry Harrison soon. Both because he seems to have written some steampunk novels (there’s a whole series about a stainless steel rat?) and I’m still curious about that and also because his name is hilarious.

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Modern Romance

So, Aziz Ansari wrote, Modern Romance, which I actually read a while ago but recently convinced my book club to read so that I would have people to talk to about it (full disclosure: that did not really happen because as is most often the case book club was just an excuse to hang out with some of my super busy friends and catch up while drinking at someone’s house). So I reread it and decided I’d tell the internet about it instead.

ANYWAYS Aziz Ansari is famous for being a comedian (on Parks and Rec but also in other stuff too, I guess?) so I think a lot of people were expecting this book to be a comedic memoir – which it kind of is when he talks about his dating forays and failures – but mostly it’s a book about the sociology of dating and specifically online dating. He does do significant sections of it as part of his stand-up and I think several of the text message examples he uses in the book are from people who volunteered to come up on stage at some of his comedy events so it’s safe to assume it’s all pretty funny. But there are also studies, graphs, focus groups, and even a co-author (Eric Klinenberg, who has actually written a bunch of other interesting-sounding books too) who is an actual Professor of Sociology (and a bunch of other stuff) at NYU.

It’s a super interesting book. In which I learned that, shockingly, I am not alone in being literally the worst in the world at dating. I am actually part of a pretty large team. Because dating is nebulous and ever-evolving as an idea and because most people in my age range aren’t even sure how seriously they want to take it anyways. This, apparently, is new-ish. In previous generations marriage was how you moved out of your parents house and started being and adult. Now it’s pretty much the last thing most of the people I know want to do. Like the steps are: you want to be settled into a location, employed at a thing you like, financially stable, generally happy with your life, and then find a person who fits into all of that to feel serious feelings about. This is rambly and making my head hurt. It’s/We’re all a mess basically. Let’s just stick with “nebulous.”

One of my favorite things in this book were the various graphs. For example: So I knew that average marriage ages were younger and that people often lived with their parents until they got married. But it never really occurred to me that this meant that people 70 years ago didn’t really consider many options before to deciding who to marry. There are some pretty hilarious quotes in the book from people they interviewed at a retirement home about how they literally proposed to/were proposed to by and then married the first non-off-putting stranger they saw. Which certainly sounds simpler but is definitely not ideal.

So, I guess, in conclusion I’ll leave you with this quote because it seems pretty pertinent:

“We want something that’s very passionate, or boiling, from the get-go. In the past, people weren’t looking for something boiling; they just needed some water. Once they found it and committed to a life together, they did their best to heat things up. Now, if things aren’t boiling, committing to marriage seems premature. But searching for a soul mate takes a long time and requires enormous emotional investment. The problem is that this search for the perfect person can generate a lot of stress. Younger generations face immense pressure to find the “perfect person” that simply didn’t exist in the past when “good enough” was good enough.”

Last thing: This book, I think because it was comparing dating over several generations where the definitions would have been significantly different for each, sort of uses the words dating and marriage like they are interchangeable (not as parts of speech, but as activities) and that wasn’t great but I can understand why it would happen. It occasionally made it sound like dating was what you did after you got married in the past and/or that all dating in modern times was leading inevitably towards marriage otherwise it was unsuccessful. Perhaps feeling strange about that is just a me thing. But, just a heads up, that happens.