Let's talk about some unusual sources of inspiration for the Lost Subways book.

It's been a weird, long ride finishing this book, and now that the manuscript is mostly done, I'd like to recognize a couple of the major influences on The Lost Subways of North America.

The first major influence comes from an unusual source: an obscure, out-of-print British sci-fi book from the late 1970s called Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD, written by a fellow named Stewart Cowley.  (Paper copies are expensive but not impossible to find - thankfully, the Internet Archive has a copy.)

Spacecraft is a delightfully weird book.  Cowley took a bunch of quirky 1970s sci-fi art made by masters of the genre, and paired the artwork with short fiction pieces describing the specifications and history of each ship, written in-universe, as though it was a manual put out by the fictional Terran Trade Authority.  There's no central plot to Spacecraft*, just a bunch of really interesting vignettes that immerse you in the world. The book does some fantastic worldbuilding, providing snippets on ships like the sumptuous Interstellar Queen spaceliner, the fragile Shark interceptor operated by the militant aliens of Proxima Centauri, and the mysterious City-Ships of Alpha Centauri I. 

My first iteration of the manuscript of The Lost Subways of North America was meant to be like Spacecraft.  That is, I'd be providing snapshots of transit systems of the past, but the text was very much there to support the art, not the other way around, like in the snapshot above.  Publishers were generally unwilling to bite.  One editor's commentary was both cutting and correct:

"Ultimately, while I think the project is a terrific concept and I remain a fan, I just don’t see how I’d be able to publish this. It’s a bit too much of a slice of a slice for me – I personally was fascinated to learn about the Chicago transit system, for example (as a native Chicagoan!) but felt less compelled about other locations I have no personal connection to. I fear that this would be the overarching difficulty in getting someone to buy a book like this."

While my maps were universally lauded, they weren't enough to carry a book alone. I ended up tossing the entire manuscript, and starting from scratch.  The rewrite would have to have compelling essays about transit and urban development, so someone unfamiliar with a city place would still find the writing interesting.  (My goal was to write a book that my late uncle, an aviation mechanic who lived in Northern California nearly his entire life, would want to read.)

In doing the rewrite, I also drew a lot of inspiration from a late 1980s New Yorker article by John McPhee entitled "Atchafalaya".  "Atchafalaya" takes a dense, technical topic - controlling Mississippi River floods - and makes it incredibly compelling, touching on everything from Cajun culture to the hubris of Man trying to control the Mississippi.  (The New Yorker article became the basis of his excellent book The Control of Nature.)


Cowley himself did something similar in his sequel to Spacecraft, a book called Great Space Battles.  More than just a fictional technical manual, Great Space Battles combined the gorgeous sci-fi art with a bunch of fun, pulpy short stories that brought the artwork to life (above).   He ended up writing two more of those in-universe books: Spacewreck, and Starliners 2200AD - both of which I highly recommend.

Looking at the finished manuscript of The Lost Subways, the writing shows both the influence of Cowley and McPhee, even though the subject is public transport and land use, rather than spaceships or Mississippi River floods.   It's nonfiction in the vein of McPhee, with plain-English deep dives into a complex, technical topic, but the format definitely shows the influence of Cowley's sci-fi books.  I owe them both a debt.

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