Two nonfiction books (#SFWApro)

I’m always fascinated by the way people within particular belief systems see their system as perfectly rational (Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, for example, or for fiction, the Lord Darcy stories with their magical science) so I had a good time with RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England by Keith Thomas. The book is an exhaustive look about how religious leaders, intellectuals and the general population perceived Christianity, astrology, magic (astrology was not magic, being considered as rational and mundane as any other science of the day), witchcraft and ancient prophecies. Thomas argues that while scholars saw clear distinctions, at street level everything got blurred. For instance, despite church teachings that the wonder-working of the saints was not magic but divine power, generations of Christians saw them as the same thing, and trusted that pilfered mass wafers and holy water could work as magic charms. This was something the Puritans actively inveighed against, insisting that men of the cloth had no special magic and the only power that could be tapped for good was God’s, via prayer. Which Thomas argues is one reason witchcraft scares in England hit their peak in the 1600s — the Puritans emphasized the terrible power of the devil while simultaneously rejecting the protective power the Catholic Church had claimed to offer. Very interesting, giving me ideas for stories, though I’m not sure what they are yet.

WORLDS ENOUGH AND TIME: Explorations of Time in Science Fiction and Fantasy is a collection of essays not quite as relevant to my time-travel book as I anticipated as it’s “time” rather than “time travel.” Thus this includes topics such as whether 1984 was Orwell’s riposte to H.G. Well’s utopianism and how Jews are written in time-travel and parallel world stories (surprisingly omitting discussion of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union)—not well according to the authors. Overall this is way too academic and unsatisfying (like one essay on Outlander arguing that writers whose romance protagonists have sex completely misunderstand what makes romance work), though not without points of interest in the discussion of uchronias (alternate histories), metafiction in time travel and the hidden meaning of do-overs.

While the book doesn’t mention Jack Finney, he has a couple of time-travel tales (as usual for Finney heavily mired in nostalgia about how great America was in the late 1800s) in this collection (which I bring up simply to excuse throwing in the cool Powers cover).


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