I finished Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which is a lot of fun. His style of humor is a bit out of date in the Internet age, though Garrison Keillor preserves it: he tells stories which take several pages to develop— the inveterate liar; the man who is infinitely digressive; the extremely tough sea captain; the judge taken in by a practical joke; the life of a desperado.

What will stick with me more, I think, is the portrait of Western life in the 1860s: the initial stagecoach journey, the disappointing life of run-down Indians, the strange vision of polygamist Mormons, the murders and inquests, life in the Nevada mining bubble, a vision of early Chinatowns.  (I wouldn’t have guessed that Twain knew how to wrangle chopsticks.)  It’s interesting to note that in this supposed heyday of laissez-faire, one of the things the pioneers were most eager to do was to set up a government.  You wanted courts and sheriffs and telegraphs and railroads and above all registration for mining claims, without which the bubble would have been murderous.

Here are there Twain extols the majesty of nature— Lake Tahoe, the desert, the volcanoes of Hawaii.  Though he is genuinely enthusiastic about these things, he feels it appropriate to break into a higher register, a sort of polysyllabic breathlessness that wears less well than his miner slang.

I also read Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep, where humans take their first space journey, only to find that they’re already there: space-traveling aliens have been abducting humans from Earth for a couple millennia, so there’s already a human presence in space.

MacLeod alternates chapters from this wide-scaled future and from a near-present when that first journey was being set up; this creates a structural problem, as the near-future story is much more interesting… the characters are sharper and they’re in much more of a predicament.

The book’s politics are unusual— in his near-future, the Russians took over the EU, and the resulting communist EU is described fairly sympathetically.  I think he gets a key bit of economics wrong, though: he thinks that the success of capitalism is due to increasing its size, and that it can’t last if this expansion is impossible— e.g. if Space is already full.  It’s quite true that within a few centuries we’re going to have to move to sustainable resources and population.  But what he’s missing is the expansion due to productivity, which is responsible for much more of the First World’s wealth than our population increase.  And productivity could increase indefinitely.

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