Friday, December 28, 2018

Science Fiction Florence

Over the lovely, long Christmas weekend, holed up with my wife, I read a lot. Most of what I read was in the realm of Science Fiction. The high point was probably a book called A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and it did a good job of representing much of what I read in the other books during that time. There was a group of interesting people living together on a spaceship. They had their complicated family histories that they were largely divorced from, and they had made a new family on a working interplanetary ship that did space stuff. There were different, interesting aliens as part of that, with their own different biologies and cultures. And there was advanced tech, both alien and familiar, including full AI which was one of the main characters in itself. All intelligible worlds, but at varying levels of strangeness and alieness.

But the last thing I read during this long weekend was not a Science Fiction book. It was a book called Brunelleschi's Dome. It was about Filippo Brunelleschi and the building of the Duomo in Florence back in the 1400's. And as I was reading along I suddenly realized that the whole book was very familiar. It reminded me very much of all the Science Fiction books I was reading. It was all like some vaguely plausible cultural account of aliens. Fourteenth century Florence was bizarre! It required a suspension of disbelief to accept that the Wool Merchants Guild pulled the purse strings of Florence and lorded over building an epic Cathedral for a couple hundred years, spending vast sums, then just leaving a giant hole in the roof for a few decades waiting for some genius to figure out how to build a dome there. Or how about that there were wars and battles fought with mercenaries that would occasionally be settled without fighting and just determined by the tactical agreements of Generals. "Ah, I guess you've outflanked me there! You win! Drat." The plague would sweep through and kill a fifth of everyone in town and meanwhile artistic masterpieces in a half miserable city of 60,000 would come along at a rate like good songs in the sixties. Revered artists would be thrown in jail for a couple weeks. They'd go to Rome and secretively poke around in the ruins for a decade, come back, and reinvent perspective after its 1,300 year absence. Everyone seemed to know everyone; Brunelleschi friends with Donatello, hating Ghiberti, Borromini and Bernini hating each other. Michelangelo hating Leonardo. Everyone simply over the moon about everyone who was already dead, which maybe explained all the smuggling of dead bodies. Just like all the Science Fiction books it was familiar and weird at the same time.

Though all the stories of Florence and future space are equally remote and bizarre, there is one, nice, strange difference. Though I will never be able to visit a large, funky spaceship that bores holes through the spacetime, Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, The David, or Brunelleschi's dome can, apparently, actually be visited. That seems good. At this point I think I'll need to see some proof.

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