Sunday, 8 June 2008

All Smell Is Disease

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

Despite the fact that he's a well established pop-science author, it's always tempting to read Steven Johnson's output like you would that of an exciting young novelist. Emergence laid out his themes and interests and tried to find connections between them; everything he has published since has chased down one of these concepts down hard*.

Whether exploring the workings of the brain in Mind Wide Open or discussing the increasing complexity of popular culture in Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson's previous work has made for speedy, idea-heavy reading, not unlike the fictions of JG Ballard. The Ghost Map slows things down a little, perhaps out of necessity as much as anything else. The story Johnson has decided to tell works well to explicate one of Emergence's themes (the way that cities organise themselves over time), but is also far more grounded in history and biography than anything he's previously written. This level of contextual detail might be slightly off-putting to those expecting something as sleek as Johnson's other works, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a slice of London Victoriana that sidesteps plastic Ballardisms for the earthier textures of Ballard's contemporary Michael Moorcock.

The story of two men (an anesthesiologist and a clergyman, contrast fans!) who discovered that cholera is a waterborne disease rather than an airborne one, The Ghost Map opens up with swathes of Dickensian detail and even the odd Dickens references, and then travels chronologically from the sources of 1854's cholera outbreak to the aforementioned discoveries. The most obviously "Steven Johnson"-esque part of this is the epilogue, with its discussion of the story's relevance to the modern city, but the content of the book are given more prominence than any of the points the author wants to make. As such, the novelistic elements of Johnson's writing blossom here, with his recurring thematic concerns seeming to grow out of vast swathes of sullied ground, rather than being scratched into it.

Of course, it's not that this style is better than that of Johnson's previous works -- that's a question of personal taste. What I will say is that it's good to see Johnson trying to find new, unforced forms with which to explore his recurring concerns, just like an ambitious fiction writer would.

*I haven't read Johnson's first book Interface Culture yet, so I can't say if it either strengthens my point or demolishes it.

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