Skip to main content

Ecotopia 2121 - Alan Marshall ***

This is, without doubt, one of the the strangest books I have ever reviewed. Around 500 years ago, the cleric and politician Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia that brought a new, and much misused, word into the world. Now, Alan Marshall has used some of the concepts of utopia (which he points out combines the meanings 'good land' or 'nowhere land') to provide a vision of an ecologically minded future 100 or so years from now.

The title emphasises that ecological aspect (it has been used before), though for me it's too close to 'ectopic' to be comfortable. In the book, Marshall takes 100 world cities and gives us a vision of what they might be like in 2121. Each has a rather beautiful image, plus between one and five pages of text which typically combine a bit of historical context, an idea of why he has chosen the particular approach he has used for that city and some details on what the future city is like.

The choice of cities is quirky. The obvious world capitals are there but we also find, for example, Andorra la Vella (with a very retro feel and a banning of nanotechnology). Inevitably the urge is strong to pick out the cities in your country first. For the UK we get the fairly obvious London and Birmingham, combined with Bristol, Oxford, Plymouth and Wolverhampton. Inevitably, also, the first response is 'Why these? Where's Cambridge and Manchester? What happened outside of England?' but in the end, the choice is the author's.

The range of environmental futures awarded the cities is impressive - and like all good utopia stories, there are some darker reflections. Paris, for example, is portrayed with the Eiffel Tower collapsing as the remains of a space elevator collapses from the sky (Marshall doesn't like space travel) and Palo Alto (is that really a city?) is a monstrous hi-tech future environment. Many, though seem impossibly wonderful. Marshall's cities seem largely redesigned from the ground up - yet history suggests that this rarely happens, with evolutionary change more likely than revolutionary.

All in all, like most books where you get 100 anything, it's difficult to read from end to end - it's more of a dip in book. There are some interesting environmental ideas here - for example, the Bristol entry concentrates on a tidal barrier to Cardiff, which is wide enough to be a very narrow city in its own right - and I think the future cities will also prove a rich source of settings for science fiction writers. There's not a lot of science here, so I can't score it more than three stars - but at the very least it's a book that's worth taking a look at for its imaginative vision of a very unlikely but inspiring set of future possibilities. It is available on Kindle, but I'd go for the hardback to get a better feel for those illustrations.


Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…