Friday, 2 December 2016

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.

Review by Brian Clegg

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