Review: The World Without Us

The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an amazingly educational book, from underground cities in the Middle East to the mechanics of the Panama Canal, I’m unable to recall a time when I’ve learned such a wide variety of facts from a single source. Of course, the vivid depictions of an ocean teeming with floating plastic or the near absolute permanence of radioactive waste hammer home the sobering reality that humans have altered our natural world, certainly negatively, perhaps permanently.

Despite my pleasure at the book’s premise and execution however, I was disappointed that Weisman failed to address any practical methods that can be taken to reduce or replace our destructive behaviors. His one suggestion, that we somehow limit reproduction to one child per female and thereby gradually reduce total world population and resource use, was so slapdash, so haphazard and simplistic–no discussion of infrastructure, no attempt to explain the economic implications of an aging population–that it almost negated any credibility he had garnered from the previous pages.

I say almost because it remains a truly impressive attempt at explaining the complex reality of humanity’s impact on our environment.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife

Ever since I read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as a child, I’ve been a sucker for pan-dimensional travel, so when The Time Traveler’s Wife was suggested for a book club, I was in. But at about the half-way mark, I wanted out, out, out. It’s been a while since I’ve been so angry about a book of fiction (I get frustrated with non-fiction all the time), particularly one with such an intriguing premise.

The Time Traveler of the title meets his wife for the first time when he is 28 and she is 20. But, because he suffers from a condition that involuntarily pushes him back and forth through time, she actually met him for the first time years before, when she was 6 and he was (is? will be?) 35. The mystery of the future is revealed through clever flashbacks to moments when he is 40 and she is 16, or he is 37 and he is 37 two weeks in the future (yes, he can meet himself, which is how he learns as a 5-year-old that he can time travel in the first place).

At a certain point however, the time travel became less an interesting plot constraint and more a convenient plot hole, with Niffenegger using the device as a substitute for character dynamics. I kept expecting to understand more of their motivations–why would a self-destructive alcoholic 20-something choose to change his ways just because someone knew him in the future? And why would a teenager commit her own future to this man who periodically shows up in her life? Instead the characters became flatter and flatter as the time travel becomes more and more gimmicky (like when he disappears on their wedding day but his future self miraculously arrives to fills in).

Eventually, what little empathy I had for the characters was obliterated by one particularly distasteful and dishonest act of betrayal near the end of the book, something so completely jarring that the entire book felt false. In the first few hundred pages, I was intrigued and excited. Now that I’m done, I just feel manipulated.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

(PS The only reason I give it any rating at all is for the concept, but when a concept fails so spectacularly, I can’t help but be pissed about the whole thing.)

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