Civil Wars by David Armitage [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

civil-warThis book is different from what I usually review. I want to give fair warning to anyone reading this that Civil Wars is very much an academic text. I don’t say this to make it sound dry or boring, because it was neither of those things, but I know that this won’t appeal to everyone. I love footnotes and new ideas presented to me as an essay or thesis, so if you feel the same, read on fellow nerd, read on.

The subtitle of this book really sums up the content better than I can. Civil Wars: A history in ideas looks at the concept of civil war, and how we have come to understand it over time. Beginning in Ancient Greece and tracing the evolution of internal conflict through Rome, early modern Europe, 19th century America and through to the present, Armitage uses the historical record to examine how we perceive war, and how our perceptions have changed.

When I started reading this, I was immediately struck by how timely the book is, and I’m not even sure if Armitage could have anticipated that. He says “democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means” (p. 19) and as I sit here in the relative safety of Canada watching the news from south of the border, I think that’s never been more true.

I think I had always assumed that civil war was a thing that humans did to each other, and I never stopped to really consider that there was a time where this wasn’t true. Greeks and Romans had very different ideas about whether or not infighting was really a war, and those ideas are just as different from each other as they are to our modern understanding.

In terms of readability, I have already mentioned that this is an academic text. Dr. David Armitage has a long list of academic credentials, including being the former Chair of the Department of History at Harvard, and this book is not written to be the sort of narrative non-fiction you seek out at your local bookstore. It’s the culmination of significant research and thought. I also found that having a solid understanding of the historical periods he’s talking about was beneficial. There was a time in my life where I thought I might stay in academia and do my MA and PhD in History. Alas, the library called, but I have found my undergraduate degree to be extremely useful in variety of situations and would recommend to anyone that taking the time to learn your history is well worth it.

I really enjoyed this book. It was great to get back into reading something that reminded me of my love of history and of academia in general. Being a librarian, life-long learning has become a bit of cliché, but I really believe in it. This book allowed me to use what I already know to read a compelling argument and consider the implications on our world today.

I know that of all the blog posts I’ve written about great books, this one will likely result in the least number of people picking up the book, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be this book that you read next. I would encourage you to find a topic you want to learn more about and just go for it. The Great Courses, Coursera, Audible and of course your local library all have fantastic resources to help you expand your knowledge.

*Page numbers were taken from the NetGalley digital edition of this book and may not reflect the pagination in the print edition.

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All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai [Review]

Image result for all our wrong todaysI’ve been trying to write this review for a little while now. I had a draft, tossed it out, googled “how to write a book review” (I kid you not) and then came back to this again.

I think I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to come to a conclusion about how I feel about the book. I felt completely differently about the story at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, and I’m not sure if that’s because I always struggle with time travel plots, or if it’s because the premise of the story was excellent, but the execution was lacking.

At the beginning of the story, we meet Tom Barren. Tom lives in the future that the 1950’s thought we would have. They have an unlimited supply of renewable energy, flying cars, and there are thousands of inventions to dramatically improve their everyday lives. As Tom’s father works tirelessly for the next big scientific breakthrough, Tom struggles to fit in and find his place. In a dramatic turn of events, Tom gets caught up in his father’s work, gets transported back in time (and there is some great stuff in this section about why time travel is difficult), and changes the world. Now he’s stuck in “our world”, but soon discovers that it’s maybe not as bad as he initially thought.

What I found particularly compelling about the story was the science that apparently makes all of this possible. The Gottreider Engine is a fictional machine that is the source of energy in the novel, and underpins the entire narrative. It works by harnessing the motion of the Earth through space to generate unlimited power. This source of clean energy is what makes Tom’s world so different and more advanced than ours, and had me convinced that it was a brilliant idea. I haven’t read something like this in fiction before which was refreshing, but the concept has the allure of a Dyson Sphere about it, which is familiar. It’s so big and unwieldy that I can’t fathom actually creating one, but had me wondering if it was theoretically possible. In my mind, this is the key to great science fiction.

I was hooked by chapter two, and raced through the next couple hundred pages. Somewhere along the way, I began to lose interest. It wasn’t a chore to finish by any means, but I wasn’t invested in the character anymore, and while I wanted to know how it all ended, I didn’t find myself drawn to my laptop and wanting to spend all my time reading this book. And I think this is where the time travel elements of the plot bogged me down. As Captain Janeway (the source of all wisdom) said,”Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.”

Image result for captain janeway time travel

What ends up happening is that I try to logic the situation and keep everything straight, and I think that’s the job of the author. The reader should be able to just enjoy the story and not need to create themselves a timeline to follow along. And this plot wasn’t even *that* complicated. I just didn’t want to think about it. And that really slowed me down.
The tone of the writing was great throughout. Mastai has spent years as a screenwriter and it really shows. Tom is speaking directly to the audience for much of the story and he’s honest, crass, at times witty and at other irreverential. But this all serves to draw you into the story and to care about him. He also does some interesting things with the structure of the story that pay off later and I really appreciated that.

At around the halfway mark, there were some interesting discussion between the character about time travel, parallel worlds, and how it all might work. Some of it is based on scientific theories I’m familiar with (insomuch as a lay person can be familiar with quantum physics) and some of it was more philosophical and I loved it all. It was a smart way to break up the frantic pacing and do some character development. In particular:

“We didn’t have the resources to actually make the stuff we came up with, so we stuck them in our science fiction. We kept them safe in our dreams. And then you assholes raided our imaginations, took credit for our ideas, and built yourself a paradise.”

So for me, the second half of the book struggled to keep my interest and I struggled to care as much as I had in the first half. And as I got closer to the ending, I found myself feeling a familiar sense of dread. The writer has spent hundreds of pages developing a world and the rules that govern it, and now they have to wrap everything up in a way that is both convincing yet original. And inevitably, they are doomed to fail on at least one account.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the end just felt too neat, like a perfectly wrapped gift. I like having a bit of a mess left over. You can’t mess with time and space and then just expect it to all work out. You might argue that it wasn’t tidy and clean for all characters, but I didn’t really care about them anyway, so the painful bits just didn’t land for me. If I was to predict the future, the things about this book that will stay with me will be the Gottreider Engine and the science-y bits about time travel. The characters will fade and I likely won’t even remember the ending.