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The Monday Book: THE END IS ALWAYS NEAR by Dan Carlin

The endThis week’s Monday book comes courtesy of Paul Garrett, who has a wicked sense of humor….

While the headlines of the day may have us fighting over toilet paper at the big box store and thinking of mortgaging the house for a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’s easy to assume we are facing a unique threat. The fact is throughout human history we have always been walking a knife edge between chaos and order.

Dan Carlin, famous for his long-winded (up to six hour) Hardcore History podcasts has written a relatively short-winded book about the history of the world from the perspective of disaster. Running just over 200 pages, The End is Always Near (Harper Collins, 2019) makes the point that though we may live in self-assured tranquility (up until about a month ago) from an historical perspective mankind is never far from disaster.

Much of the book’s narrative is spent on three topics: The first is the so-called Bronze Age Collapse, when civilization, after centuries of advancement suddenly and without explanation imploded and fell into a dark age. Another topic, which could have been written yesterday, covers the frequent scourge of pandemics: from the Black death to smallpox to the so-called Spanish Flu. That pandemic alone killed between fifty and one hundred million people world-wide in a period of about 24 weeks in 1918-19.

In a chapter entitled The Road to Hell he discusses the nuclear age and the deadly math of the war planners who believe the way to shorten war is to kill as many people as quickly as possible. The calculation is that many more lives will be saved by bringing the conflict to a quick end. He asserts that the threat of nuclear annihilation may have prevented many deaths as the nuclear powers have been loath to engage in large scale so-called kinetic action for fear of driving their enemies to the nuclear button. Instead we have opted for proxy wars where we encouraged various client states to do the fighting for us.

He gives barely a nod to Climate change, stating that whatever destruction it reaps will take place over decades or centuries while this book is about things that can wipe us out in weeks or milliseconds. We have only to notice how the Chinese Corona Virus has swept climate change off the front page to see his point.

The book has footnotes on almost every page, some with more text than the narrative, as if it were written by someone who forgot to take their Adderall. It is a warning to people whose most dire concern up until a month ago may have been who would “Like” their latest Facebook post. It serves as a reminder (as if the morning’s headlines weren’t enough) that no matter how secure we feel in our Mc Mansions with all the modern conveniences, there are dragons lurking out in the darkness.

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The Monday Book: TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis

We return to our friend  Jeanne Powers for this week’s Monday Book….

to say nothingWhen Lady Schrapnell agrees to endow the time travel project, it seems like a dream come true for the researchers at Oxford University. They didn’t count on their benefactor deciding to use the project to re-create Coventry Cathedral, sending travelers back to umpteen different time periods to locate objects. Time lagged and exhausted, Ned Henry is sent back to Victorian England to recuperate away from the demanding patron. Unfortunately, he’s sent so hastily that he arrives unprepared to fit into an era of séances, village fetes, and penwipes. He lands at a railway station in 1888 where he meets a dreamy college student who spouts poetry and tends to fall in love suddenly, an eccentric Oxford professor, a bulldog named Cyril and a whole host of characters who could have walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Ned is infatuated with Verity, a fellow time traveler, but he isn’t sure if it’s true love or time-lag. Whatever, they need to resolve a little problem caused by Verity’s accidental removal of an item that needs to be returned to its rightful place or else. . . well, they’re not quite certain what may happen but that might mean the downfall of civilization. At the very least they might be stuck in the past.

As you may have gathered, this is a difficult book to explain properly. I can tell you that it’s an entertaining adventure with science fiction, a bit of romance, some farce and a comedy of manners. I think it’s a delightful tale that should appear to a wide variety of readers, including those who don’t usually like science fiction or fantasy. One of my favorite scenes has a weary 1940 time traveler telling a colleague that a native asked about the Queen. “I told him she was wearing a hat. She did, didn’t she? I can never remember which one wore the hats.” They all did, is the response, except for Victoria. And Camilla. (It’s worth noting that this book was written in 1997.)

By the way, the title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but you don’t need to have read that to enjoy some of the in-jokes and brushes with history.

I’ve read it twice now, and enjoyed both times.  It’s part of a series which includes The Doomsday Book—a book that is considered a bit of a classic as it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards when first published—and the more recent WW II book, Blackout /All Clear. However, each is a standalone book.  While Dog is a much more light-hearted book than others in the series, Willis is using it to put forth her vision of time and time travel but wrapped up in an entertaining package.

I’ll admit the book drags a bit in the middle, but all the seeming side-trips play a role in the grand dénouement, making for a most satisfactory ending.

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