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Book reviews Christmas special: gift ideas with technology in mind

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As a traditional seasonal roundup, E&T’s features editor suggests some recent titles on trains, planes, rockets and more that engineers would appreciate finding under the tree this year.

Publishers and retailers agree that the run-up to Christmas is one of the top bookselling periods of the year. The books that are bought around the festive season are mostly of the special gift-worthy kind: atlases, cookbooks, photo albums and other coffee-table folios. In short, anything that looks weighty and impressive when wrapped up and placed under a Christmas tree.

Alongside the albums, the sales of ‘normal’ paperbacks and hardbacks go up, too. A true book lover whose daily life is too busy to incorporate regular reading times, except perhaps for a brief bedtime slot, won’t miss the opportunity to use Christmas and Boxing Day to catch up on their reading while the rest of the family are glued to phones, computers or TV screens.

The first book on my 2019 selection of best Christmas reads, however, will certainly appeal to both serious readers and the armchair travellers most us become during Christmas period, when real-life journeys come to a stop to give way to imaginary wanderings and travels of the mind.

Cover of 'Europe by Rail'

Image credit: Hidden Europe Publications

The new 16th edition of ‘Europe by Rail’ (Hidden Europe Publications, £16.99; ISBN 9783945225028) by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries is, as usual, a detailed guidebook for rail travellers, whose ranks keep growing by the day due to the legitimate climate-change concerns, when more and more people choose to cut down on flying in favour of slower yet more environmentally friendly trains. It’s also a great read for those who opt to stay at home and travel vicariously instead.

Apart from being probably Europe’s top experts in train routes and timetables (as they say jokingly about themselves in the latest issue of ‘Hidden Europe’ magazine, which they edit, their “understanding of rail fares and timetables is guaranteed to bore all who meet us”), Gardner and Kries are superb writers and stylists, as is proven by almost any randomly chosen paragraph from this fascinating guidebook.

As such, in the best traditions of Karl Baedeker, John Murray and other great guidebook writers, they are at times disarmingly honest and matter of fact: “This is one big leap across Germany, but let’s not beat about the bush: the main rail route linking Cologne with Berlin will hardly inspire you with scenery”.

As always, this edition is full of bang-up-to-date useful facts. It ends with a 35-page reference section, telling you all you need to know about travel times between places, night and cruise trains, rail passes and even trains that turn out not to be trains, such as the permanent replacement buses on some train routes, for example.

This latest edition also covers two brand-new routes in the Balkans and in the British Isles. The latter will be welcome news for many a UK-based E&T reader, whether real-life traveller or Christmas armchair dreamer.

Cover of 'The Future of Immortality'

Image credit: Princeton University Press

Speaking of dreams, the most persistent one throughout human history has probably been that of eternal life. Countless books in all imaginable areas and genres – from fairy tales to theology and applied science – have been written about the subject. The latest remarkable addition is ‘The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia’ (Princeton University Press, ISBN 978 0 691 18261 2) by Anya Bernstein, a young John L. Loeb Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University.

A fluent and engaging writer, Bernstein is the daughter of third-wave migrants from the USSR – a fact that explains her fascination with Russia and related topics (her other recent book is on peculiar Buddhist rituals in Buryatia). It is no secret that Russians have always been drawn to existing tales of immortality - perhaps due to the never-ending hardships of everyday life - and have long been quick to come up with their own.

‘The Future of Immortality’ is a gripping read, despite delving into some extremely obscure and esoteric areas of science and technology, including cryonics – the popular pseudoscience in Russia concerned with the low-temperature freezing of a human corpse, or just a severed head, with the speculative hope that resurrection may be possible in the future. The book also looks at Russian philosophy and mysticism related to immortality, in particular at the theory of Russian cosmism and its founder, the 19th-century Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Fedorov.

According to Bernstein, who met a number of Fedorov’s supporters while researching her book in Russia, ideas about the future possibility of resurrecting the dead through science turned out to be “extremely significant… in late Russian imperial and later Soviet culture, influencing a wide range of prominent figures, from Dostoevsky to Bolshevik revolutionaries to latter-day Soviet scientists.”

Among other persistent Russian transhumanist ideas is the so-called 'Avatar Project', the brainchild of former media tycoon Dmitri Itskov and cognitive neuropsychologist Timour Shchoukine that aspires to upload the minds of dying humans to cyborgs. This and similar projects, however, are facing growing opposition from conservative clerics who believe that by focusing too much on the preservation of the human body the transhumanists, cosmists and their like have all but forgotten about the soul.

Whatever the outcome of this ongoing argument, Bernstein concludes her remarkable monograph on the Russian drive for immortality on an upbeat, if not entirely optimistic, note: “It may be this conflation of apocalyptic anticipation with the desire for immortality, paired with rapid technological change responsible for reconfiguring the boundaries between life and death, that best tells the story of our times.”

Cover of 'Airline Maps'

Image credit: Particular Books

From issues of immortality to the area which many – arguably unreasonably – tend to regard as a modern reminder of the fragility of human life. I am talking about civil aviation, which statistics show is incomparably safer than motor cars or even trains. Yet the stereotype of flying as something very dangerous, triggered by such dubious airline slogans as ‘Fly straight to heaven!’ (Air Mauritius) or ‘Sincerely Yours’ (Aeroflot), remains. ‘Airline Maps. A Century of Art and Design’ by Mark Ovenden and Maxwell Roberts (Penguin, Random House, £16.99; ISBN 9780241434123) is a richly illustrated and colourful collection of maps old and new from all over the globe, bound to reduce the fear of flying in its readers.

By ‘airline maps’ the authors don’t mean navigation charts from pilots’ map cases and logbooks. This book features promotional posters listing all existing flying routes for this or that airline. Occasionally, these poster maps incorporate slogans, such as Canadian Pacific’s ‘Straight to the Point: Fastest to Five Continents’, but for the most part they don’t. Yet almost every reproduced map is a work of art and a masterpiece of graphic design. As we know, the proof of the pudding (and that includes Christmas pudding) is in the eating. I will therefore spare myself the unrewarding and largely futile task of describing something that should be stared at, scrutinised and admired individually. A perfect Christmas gift for engineers and compulsive travellers, particularly if those two roles happen to co-exist in one and the same person.

Cover of 'Baikonur'

Image credit: Jonglez Publishing

Christmas is also a time for remembrance, for travelling down memory lane, when we routinely look back at semi-forgotten times, people and places. Here, I cannot fathom a better Christmas present than ‘Baikonur: Vestiges of the Soviet Space Programme’ (Jonglez Publishing £29.95,  ISBN 9782361953775), the latest photo album from the award-winning ‘Abandoned Places’ series.

As E&T readers may remember, Baikonur is (or rather was) the first and only Soviet ‘Cosmodrome’, from which all major Soviet spacecraft - from the 1950s Sputniks and the first manned Vostoks (including Yuri Gagarin’s), to 'Buran', the first Soviet spaceplane and a direct response to the US Space Shuttle - were launched.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome and its eponymous host town were part of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, one of 15 states which formerly comprised the USSR and which is now part of the territory of independent Kazakhstan. Following the wrapping-up of the Buran programme in 1993, the site fell into disuse and subsequent decay, with the no-longer-needed yet still heavily guarded remains of the notorious Soviet Space Programme abandoned and left to rot.

Creating this unique album required extreme ingenuity and bravery on the part of its author, the writer and photographer Jonk. He travelled 20km through the arid Kazakh desert and, having reached Baikonur, snuck into the hangars with the abandoned spacecraft, which included two completed space shuttles. Covertly, he spent several days in the former Cosmodrome taking photos while avoiding armed guards.

The results are truly breathtaking. The sad, yet highly artistic, pictures of the abandoned and often crumbling remains of the giant Soviet space project’s technology and infrastructure carry an important emotional and philosophical message: even the most daring technological ambitions inevitably turn to dust if they’re carried out as a political showcase, staged and guided by a totalitarian state to the detriment of its own people.

Cover of 'Hidden London'

Image credit: Yale University Press

A much less sinister exercise in remembrance is provided by the richly illustrated ‘Hidden London. Discovering the Forgotten Underground’ by David Bownes, Chris Nix, Siddy Holloway and Sam Mullins (£25, ISBN 9780300245790), published by London Transport Museum in conjunction with Yale University Press to accompany the Museum’s ongoing programme of tours and events at disused Tube stations and secret sites across the UK capital.

Whereas the concept of ‘hidden London’ has almost become a cliché in itself, with dozens of eponymous publications (a simple Amazon search returned many similar titles), this one is distinctly different, for it helps to uncover and peep into some truly mysterious and at times ghostly corners of the Tube’s abandoned lines and stations.

To whet your appetite, I will mention just a few of the dozens described and photographed in the book: the Clapham Common wartime tunnel shelter; the vacuum pump used to power the Lamson tube pneumatic system for transporting messages at Goodge Street; a purpose-built ventilation tunnel at Euston to serve the Victoria Line; the widened tunnel once used to transfer locomotives from one track to the other on the City and South London Railway. There are many more inside. This is a real treasure trove for anyone who takes an interest in the history of transport, engineering and London.

What’s more, thanks to the above-mentioned programme run by London Transport Museum, anyone interested can actually visit most of the featured secret spots – a train buff’s dreams made reality.

Isn’t Christmas itself very much about that: our secret dreams coming true?

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