Science journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz, who is reluctant to let capital determine fate, wants people to choose where to live and how to work in the land of the free. The book wavers between rival explanations for writing about why people “lose” cities. Sometimes more reasons appear for choosing city life in the first place, or for why people put so much work into doomed structures. Much attention focuses laudably on retrieving residents’ lives from middens, graffiti, and the layout of sewers, or ruts in the roads; elsewhere, the author concentrates on the misdeeds of elites that make those lives intolerable. Early on, readers learn that the book was written in refuge from—perhaps expiation for—the suicide of the writer’s estranged father. The reaction seems unusual: Most people, according to their means, might erect a monument, endow a charity, or leave flowers. But the author is a journalist, and it is no sin to labor in one’s vocation ... The book is excellent of its kind—in a familiar mold, which has yielded many recent best-sellers: a work of reportage, in which the writer undertakes a journey through an unfamiliar academic world, unlocking ivory towers, interviewing the denizens, and making their squabbles and stories interesting and relevant to the rest of us. The book is written in fluent journalese, well paced, but sometimes glib or flip.
Though Annalee Newitz began work on Four Lost Cities long before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s impossible to read it today without periodic is-this-where-we’re-headed? musings. The book functions as a travel guide to places that no longer exist ... Another way of using Four Lost Cities is as a compendium of archaeological findings on humanity’s urban origins ... Perhaps looking back 9,000 years can yield practical guidance on how to move forward from where we are. For me, the effect of reading Four Lost Cities was more meditative. This is a long, long, long ride we are on. Much is beyond our control. Humanity trundles on.
Newitz clearly draws parallels and lessons for the here and now from these once-vast settlements. We are not immune to natural disasters, political upheaval, and labor force abuses. What happens if cities become unlivable for too many? Highly recommended for anyone interested in that question and in what history can tell us about the possibilities for the future.