In Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age--named an NPR Best Book of the Year--science journalist and science fiction novelist Annalee Newitz (The Future of Another Timeline) leads readers on a fascinating exploration of the rise and fall of cities that were abandoned by their inhabitants. She focuses on four of the most spectacular examples: the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey; Roman Pompeii; Angkor Wat in Cambodia; and the pre-Columbian city Cahokia in modern Illinois near the Mississippi River. In the process, Newitz considers why cities fall, the powerful trope of the "lost city" and what we can learn from the failure of these cities.
The exploration is literal: Newitz visits the ruins of the four cities and meets with archeologists involved in cutting-edge work related to each. Some of the most interesting sections of the book deal with archeologists using new technologies and asking new questions of familiar sources to look beyond the spectacular remains and the leaders who ordered their construction and study the lives of each city's general population.
Newitz makes a convincing argument that while the four cities were very different culturally, they shared common failures resulting from prolonged periods of political instability coupled with environmental crisis--failures that speak to our present. But Four Lost Cities is not a dystopian warning for an age of global warming. Instead, Newitz offers an appealing combination of travel account, historical narrative, hard science and hope. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins