Science Fiction

Book recommendations from me and my colleagues

Time travel and originalism (not in the same book!)

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Every year, the Chicago faculty collects some of our favorite books of the year with recommendations for anybody who might be interested. This year, I had two:

Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

I am a sucker for time travel novels, but this excellent new caper is not an ordinary time travel book. It explores the surprising reason for witchcraft's demise, the dynamics of government bureaucracy, and the corruption of academia by the military industry complex. And yet it is light, funny, and not particularly mystical. If you've read the authors' work before, you might be able to guess how they pull this off. If not, now is the time to start.

Ilan Wurman, A Debt Against the Living: An Introduction to Originalism

This new book by a young lawyer provides an accessible, fun, and yet sophisticated introduction to originalism. The title comes from an exchange between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson about binding future generations to the Constitution. Jefferson protested that the earth belongs to the living and that we should not be ruled by the "dead hand" of the past. Madison responded that the improvements made by the dead, such as the Constitution, form "a debt against the living." Wurman argues that we are all still in the Constitution's debt.

You can read my colleagues' suggestions here.

NEXT: The Dangerous Toys of Christmas Past

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  1. The best book that I read recently was Eric Hinderaker, Boston’s Massacre (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017). The author looks at what happened that fateful night in the larger context of British colonial relations, outlines the way in which opposing narratives were formed to shape public opinion at the time, and unpacks the ways people have chosen to understand the event as it suits their purposes over time.

    As this is a book on social?not legal?history, it only dedicate a single chapter to the legal cases against the soldiers. This unfortunately caused the author to leave out the most significant aspect of legal history from the Boston Massacre trials: Rex v. Wemms et al is likely the first case in the English-speaking world to focus on reasonable doubt. In his charge to the jury, Justice Peter Oliver told them: “if upon the whole, ye are in any reasonable doubt of their guilt, ye must then, agreeable to the rule of law, declare them innocent.” While the line of thought had existed for at least 150 years, Sir William Blackstone’s famous formulation had only been published five years before the trial.

    Boston’s Massacre is an excellent book. The general principles that Hinderaker talks about are still relevant to this day. The trials of OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman focus heavily on reasonable doubt. Contentious cases like those aren’t going away any time soon.

  2. A great time-travel book for young adults: The Wells Bequest by Polly Shulman.

  3. Stephenson is indeed an engrossing storyteller, but I have a feeling that his intellectually brilliant characters are sometimes just slightly more intellectually brilliant than he is. Still; read, enjoy, ignore the ‘vague feeling of “huh?'” moments.

    1. > [stephenson’s] intellectually brilliant characters are sometimes just slightly more intellectually brilliant than he is

      Yes! When his characters form advanced philosophical or scientific opinions, they often extend just a wee bit into incoherence. But this actually makes the novel better because it doesn’t *seem* incoherent — rather it just seems that the character understands more than the reader. Nonetheless the reader can follow the story where the character is motivated by those mostly understandable but still tantalisingly mysterious ideas.

  4. Originalism would be easier with time machines, though.

  5. I am entertained by the guy recommending a TNC book and a YA book.

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