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Mind Out of Time


I spent a total of about 14 hours stranded in airports the other weekend, because bad weather delayed both my outgoing and return flights. No, no, please keep reading: I promise this won't be a diatribe against air travel -- well, not too much of one anyway. I mean, it was rainy and stormy, so not like the airlines could have done much. And I've seen enough airplane-disaster movies and TV episodes to know that it's pure folly to tempt nature (cue scene featuring arrogant airplane pilot -- portrayed by Paul Gleason, maybe? -- who is sure they can "ride the storm out").

Anyway: I tried to prepare as much as possible for extensive waiting by bringing along stuff to read, including the Sunday New York Times book section and Thomas Mallon's Two Moons. If you're not familiar with Mallon, he's noted for his well-researched, highly-detailed brand of historical fiction, with a focus on American politics and history experienced by characters (real-life, invented, or some combination of the two) he describes as "on the fringes of big events." I really enjoyed Henry and Clara and to a somewhat lesser extent Dewey Defeats Truman and Aurora 7. So, when I came upon Two Moons in my quite disorganized bookshelf, I threw (OK, carefully inserted) it into my carry-on bag.

When the first of many flight delays was announced, I was ready: I finished perusing The Boston Globe and dug out Two Moons. Quick overview: The book takes place in Washington, DC, in 1877, following the contentious resolution of the 1876 presidential election that resulted in Rutherford Hayes taking office. Some of the plot involves the fall-out and machinations resulting from the compromise, but the primary setting is the US Naval Observatory, where Cynthia, a 30ish Civil War widow, takes a job and finds herself becoming attached to Hugh, a young, idealistic and fragile astronomer with a grand, futuristic dream that practically anticipates the very genre of science fiction. Politics; corruption; romance; residual grief; testing the bounds of 19th-century gender attitudes; the advent of public-health awareness -- a lot going on.


I was perhaps halfway or two-thirds into the first chapter, when I realized: I'd already read it. Must've been quite a long time ago, but sure enough. Probably before I started keeping a list of "finished books," or else I'd just forgotten to include it. I think the tip-off was when Mallon

introduces to the story Roscoe Conkling (that's him in the photo at right), a controversial, literally larger-than-life US senator from New York who was a major player in American politics during the 1870s and '80s. I mean, you just don't forget a name like "Roscoe Conkling." By the way, I wouldn't mind if "Roscoe" were to enjoy a stay on the Most Popular Baby Names list for a while (not that I'd ever use it on a kid of mine -- maybe a pet, though).

Still, I figured that I must've liked the book enough if I hadn't gotten rid of it, so I kept reading (there are only so many times you can walk aimlessly around an airport terminal), and in fact by the time I got home a couple of days later I was almost done. And, having thought about it, I feel one reason I found Two Moons as enjoyable the second time through was how Mallon manages to personalize some nascent technology in a meaningful, prescient way. Without giving too much away: One of the key subplots is Hugh's developing plan to transmit his image across time and space; meanwhile, Cynthia stumbles onto a precursor to audio recording, and it's not until the end when the significance of this encounter becomes apparent.

Now, of course, we've long had the ability to send our images – moving as well as still, and with sound if we so desire – out into the world just about anytime we want (providing our WiFi is working), and we can make audio recordings sitting in our living room with a quality that George Martin could only dream of back in Abbey Road days. Here's the thing: When Mallon was writing Two Moons (it came out in early 2000), a lot of these technological advances were in the formative stages, or still a ways off. So was the idea that one could make a living (of sorts) by creating and sharing images across the Internet. Comparatively speaking, we might as well have been Hugh and Cynthia, making our way around 1870s Washington with its gas-lit streetlights and horse-and-buggy traffic.

The irony, I suppose, is this occurred to me while stranded in an airport, because however far we've come, we still can't banish thunderstorms and other inclement weather with the touch of a button.

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