John Higgs seems awesome to me, and many of this blog's readers seem to agree. Now the rest of the world gets a chance to find out.
A British publisher has announced that it has signed Higgs to write an alternative history of the 20th century. The press release explains, "In the book, Higgs argues that while the 19th century gave birth to concretely intelligent developments, such as the steam engine and electricity, the 20th century produced by contrast theories and ideas such as quantum entanglement, cubism, relativity, psychedelics, postmodernism and chaos maths." (Alas, Higgs hasn't really won a BAFTA, which is apparently a British Oscar.)
I was coming off a bad weekend and really, a tough last few days, when I got up Monday morning and read the press release. Made me feel better. When I read the topic, I thought, "Yes, of course!"
John looks rather serious in the publicity photo illustrating the press release, as if he's thinking about how he'll be constantly recognized on the street by beautiful women once he become ubiquitous on the BBC chat shows.
Here's how Higgs himself explained the project in a blog post: "For years I have been wanting to write an alternative history of the 20th Century. Why? Well, almost all 20th Century histories are written by politicians or political journalists who, unsurprisingly, attempt to understand the period through the actions of the political class. Yet the ideas and innovations of the 20th Century - relativity, cubism, quantum mechanics, postmodernism, psychedelics, DNA, The Somme, video games, cosmology, the subconscious, moon landings, Dada, chaos maths, Hollywood and so on - don't make any damned sense from that perspective. Surprisingly, though, those things make far more sense together than they do when studied separately, because a few key ideas run through 20th century science, art and culture which are, I think, the key to unlocking the whole period. Hence my stupidly-ambitious intention is to write a book that will be a fun, easy read and which will casually make sense of the entire brainmelting, fascinating period. In less than 100,000 words."
Higgs wrote a biography of Timothy Leary. His more recent book KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money is both a satisfying account of particularly unusual pop stars who drew attention by publicly burning a large amount of cash and an account of some of Robert Anton Wilson's ideas and how they influenced musicians and other artists in Britain.
Like the upcoming Jesse Walker book on the history of paranoia and conspiracy theories in the U.S. (out August 20), the new Higgs book sounds like the perfect marriage of the big idea and the perfect guy to write about it. Higgs' ability to discuss strange ideas (and strange people) in lucid prose no doubt got the publisher's attention.
Speaking of the KLF book, there is also going to be a new expanded edition. The book was so startling and interesting in its ideas that Higgs actually had a brief failure of nerve and considered not publishing it. (I cannot recall ever reading another nonfiction book that has alternative endings.) But the book has turned out to be quite a success.
We'll just have to see if expanded means "even more Robert Anton Wilson references," "even more weird insights" or a third alternative ending for readers who didn't like the first two.
My interview with Higgs last November is here; note that the sequel to The Brandy of the Damned mentioned in the interview has been completed, according to Higgs' Twitter account.