Friday, August 28, 2009

Notes on the Underground by Rosalind Williams


So, every once in a while, I go totally geeky, and read a book like this. Notes on the Underground is, in short, a cultural history of technology, focusing particularly on underground spaces, particularly in the 19th century. Why? Because underground spaces are the perfect example of something (generally) manmade and devoid of 'nature' in the traditional sense, so it's a perfect place to see how people throughout the period grappled with technology. Taking a pretty loose definition of underground (20000 Leagues Under the Sea is included, for instance, and that makes more sense in the book than it sounds), the book covers a lot of ground, talking about everything from labor practices to architecture to Thomas Edison to androids.

I loved this book, simply because of the sheer breadth of what the author undertook to describe. A book that is this cross-topic does a great job of making you think of connections betweem vastly different disciplines. In a sense, it reminded me of Building Jerusalem, which I read a few months ago. Unfortunately, the breadth sometimes comes through as a sort of dissipation of the theme, and the book has stretches where it feels unfocused, even irrelevant to the topic at hand. Nonetheless, if you're interested in literature (particularly early scifi like Jules Verne, HG Wells), or architecture, or cultural history, or the industrial revolution, you'll find a lot to chew on in this volume. If nothing else, I added several books to my to-be-read list, just by reading this one...

3 comments:

hamilcar barca said...

i'm curious - what's the tie-in between H.G. Wells and "the underground"?

Jason Gignac said...

Two of his books talk a good deal about 'vertical space', including an underground: The Time Machine, where there is the Morlocks living beneath the surface, and The Sleeper Awakes, where the setting is a city with the rich living atop the tallest spires, and the poorer, in descending tiers, until soe live deep in cellars underground (this second I haven't read, yet!). There's also talk about The War of the Worlds, when the soldier is talking about how the humans should go live in the sewers and tube tunnels of London and mount a resistance there.

hamilcar barca said...

that's right, there was an underground civilization in The Time Machine. i think i'll have to find it at the library. i enjoyed the movie, but i don't ever recall reading any HGW.