Archive for February, 2015

Post-apocalyptic futures…

February 24, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the taxonomy, or classification, of various types of what might loosely be called science fiction, in the light of earlier posts on this blog. There are differences and overlaps to consider, before I come on to today’s topic.

For instance, some utopias and dystopias might also be classified as alternative futures: Ernest Callenbach’s visions of California turning itself into an independent state run along ecological lines (Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging) might have been considered alternative futures in the 1970s when they were written. Many dystopias are clearly also alternative futures, or were when they were first written. And I suppose the argument might be made that all utopian visions are alternative futures, although that doesn’t actually get us any further.

But then it seemed to me, as I thought first about Richard JefferiesAfter London (see the preceding post) that the classification also needs to take post-apocalyptic visions into account, as many of these may also be alternative future scenarios…

Enough theorising, time to consider some of my favourite examples. One of the best science fiction novels ever (see my listings pages) is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, also one of the most pessimistic visions of humanity I can call to mind. Hundreds of years after a nuclear war, monks – still the repositories of knowledge – preserve the relics of the ancients (us) as civilisation slowly and painfully rebuilds itself, over many centuries, until it reaches such an advanced state that it can once again build nuclear weapons. And yes, da capo. Double post apocalypse yes, dystopia? I’m not sure. in M P Sheil’s The Purple Cloud, poisonous gases wipe out humanity permanently; in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, it’s only temporary.

Apocalyptic scenarios were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s when consciousness of the fact that our species had reached such a high point in its development that it was now capable of not only destroying itself, but possibly most life on the planet, gradually dawned on writers. Not all visions used nuclear war as the trigger, in George Stewart’s Earth Abides it’s a disease, in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids it’s genetically-engineered plants plus laser weapons in space, though in The Chrysalids there has been nuclear war and attendant mutations.

Wyndham and JG Ballard are perhaps the obvious masters of the post-apocalyptic in different ways, although Christopher Priest, with The Death of Grass and The Empty World, rates a mention. All of these writers bring to science fiction, and to post-apocalyptic writing as a new genre, a consciousness of the ultimate fragility of our species, and indeed, of sentient life. Perhaps the first to consider this in a scientific fashion was HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, and interestingly Christopher Priest provides a marvellous twist on this story and on The Time Machine in his wonderful novel The Space Machine.

However, this is all to view everything from a twentieth century perspective, where science fiction itself is a recent notion, allowing us to ignore or forget writers from longer ago who also considered such notions, which brings us back to Jefferies, and of course, to Mary Shelley and The Last Man, which still gets my award for one of the best post-apocalyptic novels, for who can resist her fantasy of having the whole world to oneself to do with what one likes (with only oneself for company)?

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Richard Jefferies: After London

February 22, 2015

Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways mentioned Richard Jefferies and prompted me to re-read this short novel from 1885; it’s one of those books where, when you reach the end, you think ‘no, you can’t possibly end it here!’ which of course he can, that being any author’s privilege.

Some natural and ecological disaster has devastated Britain at some point in the past; the details are never gone into, but London has vanished into a vast toxic swamp, large tracts of southern England are now a vast inland lake, civilisation has vanished and the population collapsed; small tribes and princelings carve out territories, warring occasionally and ekeing out a meagre existence.

The first section describes nature gradually taking over the land; no people, but wild animals. Then a slight shift in the narrative implies there are still small groups of humans, cemented by references to the ‘olden times’ and ‘the ancients’. Though there are historians, there are few records of the past and little accuracy about what is known; knowledge seems to have been lost very rapidly, though it is still known that the ancients had great knowledge and capabilities… The remaining English are oppressed by the remaining Welsh, Scots and Irish: tyranny and slavery abound in the petty principalities.

Then a story of sorts emerges, with a hero – Felix Aquila – a misfit, a thinker and an explorer, who has a woman to woo and win, too. He is interested in the knowledge of the past, its books and artefacts, in a world where people know little beyond their immediate surroundings, and because groups of people are cut off from each other, there is no global picture of what is known or how things work. This part of the novel has a very convincing mediaeval feel to its atmosphere, and to its pace, too. He travels the inland sea in his dugout canoe through various picaresque adventures, narrow escapes, and making some discoveries. We see various separate settlements and tribes, and their disparate languages which make communication difficult, their customs and different kinds of knowledge. The spookiness of the wastes above the ruins of London, with the toxic atmosphere and slime and total absence of life reveals some astonishing and lyrical description, and this is one of the strengths of this work, the writer’s mastery of language and his ability to create convincing atmosphere.

It’s a very slow-paced read, which matches the pace of the world in which it is set; it hasn’t a specific plot, but the picaresque nature of Felix’ travels enhances the overall feel of the book. It’s a really good example of early post-apocalyptic literature, worthy to stand alongside Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

Counterfactuals, or alternative histories

February 20, 2015

We are reading about our own era, our own time, but the world is not ours: it’s slightly different, or greatly different, but things have changed, and we are mesmerised, drawn in to see what happens, why it is like this. There has been a fair amount written about alternative histories recently; it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed, so it’s time to share my thoughts and recommendations…

At the obvious level, such writings are fantasy: that world is never going to exist. The novel is entertainment, often very good entertainment – and yet it is more. It is thought-provoking in the reader because it reflects the consequences of a different choice at some time in our past, and as humans we make choices all the time. It may reflect a different outcome to an action or an event, an effect of chance, and we are reminded that we are at the mercy of events, at the mercy of our own flawed decisions. On the micro level this is the story of our life, and on the macro level it becomes history.

There are some wonderful novels which consider ‘what if’, such as a successful Spanish Armada conquering England in 1588 (Pavane, by Keith Roberts), the Reformation never happening (Kingsley AmisThe Alteration), the Confederacy wins the American Civil War (Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee), the Nazis succeed in building their thousand-year Reich (Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin), the Axis Powers win the Second World War (The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick), Christian fundamentalists take power in the USA (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I also have a whole collection of short stories written a century ago imagining the various possible outcomes of the coming Great War between Britain and Germany.

Historians have mocked the value and significance of alternative histories. I don’t see why; it’s hardly encroaching on their territory. But they have made the valid point that there are many factors involved in a chain of events, that no one, single change can be that powerful in isolation – for instance, the First World War would have happened even if Princip’s bullets had missed their target, the Second World War would have happened even if Hitler had been assassinated…

On that last question, I’m reminded of a fascinating novel La Part de l’Autre by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I don’t think has been translated into English. It’s about a young Austrian would be art student; it begins as a single story but forks into two different tracks and becomes two parallel novels in the same book. One track follows Adolf Hitler (for it is he) through failure as an artist, experiences in the great war, into politics and the rest is history. The second track imagines that same student a successful artist who serves in the Great War and comes home to develop a successful career as an artist; events gradually diverge from the ones we know: Hitler’s life as an artist has a public effect, the Second World War still happens though without his help, but still provoked by the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles… It’s not a brilliant novel, but it is fascinating and compelling precisely because the author has written the two diverting stories in parallel so we can see the gradual unfolding and diverging of the alternate history before our eyes.

For me, such writing is entertaining, and it’s valid as an exercise in humans reflecting on themselves, their choices and their errors and the consequences of these, and, as a citizen, I could wish that certain people did an awful more of that.

Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways

February 18, 2015

51lcCRMsz6L._AA160_Ultimately, I found this book frustrating. Macfarlane walks a great deal, loves walking, for the sake of it and for the feel and exhilaration of it. He write about some of his favourite walks, the people he meets on his way and perhaps shares some of the way with, and the people he stays with.

Some of the walks are fascinating – Ramallah in Palestine, and the difficulties encountered in following footpaths there, tracks in the Himalayas, the trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the South Downs. England and Scotland seem to be his real ones. The detailed exploration of the haunts of the poet Edward Thomas and the story of his troubled life, and death in the First World War are very moving. Some of the walks were, quite frankly, tedious, especially some of the ones in Scotland, and the digression to sailing across wild waters off the Scottish coast left me cold.

I longed for some maps to help me relate more closely to the journeys, but there were none. The books called out for images to accompany his wonderful writing, so descriptive and atmospheric. Macfarlane is inspirational, urging us to our feel to get out and tramp through hill and dale, here and abroad; I’m certainly looking forward to my walking trip to the Ardennes even more than I was before. There is a spirituality to his idea of walking, a retreat from the world in one way, and yet a sharpening of the senses and a closer engagement with it in another…

The book did remind me quite a lot of the late W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, through Sebald is more philosophical, more engaging, and pursues a rather more coherent thread, whereas Macfarlane’s approach was often rather too disparate, too diffuse for me.

The comfort of many books…

February 11, 2015

I can’t imagine not being surrounded by books. My father made me a bookcase for my bedroom when I was about eight – only a small one, but I still have it. Now, most of the rooms in the house have books in, not just mine, but mainly mine, I think. They are lovely to look at – colours, textures, patterns of spines on the shelves, collections, a variety of sizes. I think there are about 3000, though I’ve never done an accurate count. And that’s part of the problem: I did reckon up from my reading log, which I’ve kept since age 18, that I’ve probably read some three and a half thousand books since then. So I’m never going to re-read all the books I have: why am I hanging on to them?

I have a ‘waiting to read’ shelf which probably runs into three figures: even if I disciplined myself to only read from that pile, there’s a couple of years’ worth of reading. Some of them are duplicates, too – if I see a particularly nice copy of a book I already have, I’ll buy it anyway. I do thin them out occasionally, reluctantly, but I find it really hard to part with things I know and love, even though I know I will never re-read them. Why?

Somehow it’s comforting to have them all lined up as a record of what I have read, of my likes and enthusiasms, conversation starters sometimes with visitors who haven’t seem the shelves before. This is who I am, they all seem to say. They are reminders, they say ‘you really liked me once’, they invite or await a revisit that is probably not going to happen. But what if, one day, I took a fit on to read a book and I’d got rid of it? Yes, I know I could buy it again, but that wouldn’t be the same. I think I’ve had to do that all of once! And some of the books have sat there so long unopened that I can’t remember a thing about them, other than a positive impression years ago.

In the sitting room are the novels, and some of the poetry. In the hall, cookery books. In my study, literature, history, travel. In the spare room, a hodgepodge of the rest, whatever fits, including all the science fiction. Reference books, dictionaries, poetry anthologies… There are the orange spines of the old Penguins, the austere white spines of the original Picador series, the black and white dust-jackets of the Everyman’s Library, the lovely plain spines of the French Folio series.

There is a cosiness about them all, they furnish the rooms and my mind; I’m always uneasy when I go to a house and there are no books on view. And yet… sometimes there sheer weight of them, the volume (!) feels oppressive; there are just too many and I should start again and just pick the ones I definitely want to keep…

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome

February 11, 2015

51Ye+XnR8TL._AA160_At some point reasonably soon, I intend to go and explore Rome seriously, so when I came across this in a secondhand bookshop, and because it’s in the generally reliable Penguin Travel Library, I thought it might be worth a read. I suppose it was…

It wasn’t really what I expected, though. The writer clearly has a great feel, and enthusiasm for Rome: she writes about a three-month stay at some point in the 1950s. What was good was the maps, which seem to be a useful help to negotiating some of the main antiquities in a helpful and sensible way, and her thoughts and reactions to much of ancient Rome, which is the part that interests me most, from my studies of Ancient History at school…

But, in the end, it’s a ‘me, me’ travel book, I felt, much more about her and her feelings about Rome than the place itself, and far less about the city itself; there’s a lot of emoting about the place, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of vagueness that in the end is lost on someone not familiar with the city: you have to know the city as well as the writer fully to appreciate her portrait of it.

So, ultimately moderately disappointing, although she hasn’t in any way weakened my resolve to spend time there.

On spectacles…

February 8, 2015

I have been thinking lately about the fact that I would not be able to read or write at all without my glasses… I have needed reading glasses since I was about fifteen or so, and have gradually become more and more dependent on them. I’ve always been ridiculously long-sighted, and this is still the case although I don’t think it’s as sharp as it once was. But the shorter range vision has definitely degenerated with age.

For about fifteen years now, I’ve given in and worn glasses all the time, bifocals so that the distance vision can be more or less unchanged, but the reading segment set to my eyes. And over the years I came to realise that I could read less and less without the glasses – I used to be able to squint, or juggle with the distance and make things out, but now print remains an indecipherable blur without the specs… and I’ve never wanted to even contemplate contact lenses.

Why does all this bother me? Because, I realise, that in the past, that would have been the end of reading, unless I were wealthy enough to have a servant to read aloud to me, and that would not be the same. I think about William of Baskerville, the detective monk in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, with his primitive glasses, a pair of hand-ground lenses set in a forked frame, and how these were regarded almost as witchcraft by people at the time, and also how completely lost he was when it was realised how crucial these were to him, and so they were stolen. And, of course, in the middle ages, you couldn’t just go out and buy another pair. Then, as now, you needed an expert craftsman, and they were very thin on the ground.

When I was teaching, one of my creative writing units involved imagining and discussing the relative usefulness and significance of the five senses to us, and deciding which one we would give up if we had to lose one; for me it was always a toss-up between sight (losing reading) and hearing (losing the ability to enjoy music); now it would be hearing I gave up, without a doubt; I just cannot imagine not being able to read. I am very glad we now have the technology which allows me to overlay maps with a magnifying sheet to see the small details, and the ability to adjust the fonts and their size on my e-reader. So hopefully I’m good to read for a long while yet…

Shakespeare: Richard III

February 6, 2015

61b1SdGL+jL._AA160_I am really relieved not to be a year older than I am, as then I would have had to study this play for O Level and I cannot imagine my love of literature would have survived it at that age. Even  now I find it astonishingly complicated; the dramatis personae seems far longer than that of any other play…

The play works because it has a central character around whom all the action revolves, and from whom it all originates: all is drawn together into a coherent whole in the way this does not happen in the Henry VI plays; in the Henry IV plays Falstaff was the real focus, and Richard II and Henry V have their eponymous characters at the centre, too. But there are just too many minor characters to keep track of, even when reading the play, where you have the names in front of you. There is also a lot of standing around and speechifying, and a lot more punning and wordplay.

Richard is an astonishing creation, in some ways foreshadowing both Macbeth and Iago. His wooing of Lady Anne, who loathes him, is a masterpiece of hypocrisy. His evil plotting and gleeful gloating sometimes outdo Iago. There is no end to the factionalism and baronial infighting of the previous three plays, but Richard’s star is in the ascendant, as he becomes ever more successful at pulling the right strings.

England is truly in a sorry state by this point; a sense of great decadence and decay permeates the play; everything is sour and rotten, it seems: even the warring factions are composed of small and petty characters, who are nonetheless still able to wreak mayhem. The innocence of children and youth is no help. The sycophantic Buckingham helps Richard to the throne, and it seems he’s the only one who can’t see his own inevitable fall coming. The supreme hypocrite is ‘persuaded’ to reluctantly accept the throne in an amazing scene where we completely forget he’s there after murdering both his older brothers…

In the closing scenes as reluctantly loyal barons try to change sides, he recalls the (still unwritten!) Macbeth in his rages, madness and cruelty; there is a tiresome parade of all the ghosts he has created, in a pageant scene on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field. In the end, I found it hard to avoid the feeling that Shakespeare is playing the Tudor apologist and propagandist here, as Richard descends into caricature; because they are underplayed (relatively), Iago and Macbeth in the end come across as much more sinister…

Shakespeare: Henry VI, Parts 1,2 & 3

February 4, 2015

After seeing the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth at Stratford last year, I promised myself I’d go back to the second tetralogy, which I’m not very familiar with, and I’ve finally got round to it. It seems curious that the later cycle time-wise was written first, but it certainly shows: these are plays of the bard’s formative years.

Although he presented Henry V as a successful king, everything falls to pieces after his death: his son & heir is very young, and has a regent and protector; the barons fall to squabbling with each other and we are on the downhill slope to civil war: the Wars of the Roses, as the houses of York and Lancaster slog it out.

Henry VI Part One is basically about things falling to pieces in the French part of the kingdom, helped by Joan of Arc, who gets a very unsympathetic portrayal here. The early nature of the play comes across in much posturing and overblown language (which does suit some of the characters), set-piece speeches and a heavy reliance on puns and wordplay in general.

The second play – originally The First Part of the Contention – gets us back to England and the factional baronial infighting: the French territories are pretty much lost. The stand-off between York and Lancaster becomes much more evident: everyone is plotting. Who has the best title to the crown, the descendants of Henry IV and V, whose claim is based on usurpation or not depending on who you believe, or the descendants whose claim was closer to the deposed Richard II? Shakespeare explores an incredibly complex issue, which lurked in the background in his own time as Elizabeth grew older without an available Tudor heir. It all makes me glad to be a republican.

The weakness of Henry VI, and the scheming of his treacherous queen Margaret are developed; the one decent man, the Duke of Gloucester, is done away with, and no holds are barred. The conspirators are constantly falling out, fearful of someone gaining a tiny advantage; soliloquies reveal truths, hidden plots and motives; the action becomes quite hectic. The play ends with the open challenge to Henry VI by Edward IV – once again the country has two kings at the same time, and we see the emergence of the dastardly Richard III-to be.

Chaos continues in the third part: as Shakespeare emphasises this chaos and the attendant slaughter on the battlefields we can almost hear his audience’s sighs of relief that the Tudors brought an end to all this. As usual he plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of a good play. Henry’s queen becomes ever more fiendish, and there is the battle of Towton (1462) which, apparently, given the population of the land at the time, was proportionally far more bloody than the battle of the Somme (1916)…

Interesting parallels begin to emerge between some of Shakespeare’s plays and characters: the weak and feeble Henry’s speeches increasingly resemble those of Richard II – chronologically long dead but still awaiting Shakespeare’s treatment – and the development of the cunning and plotting Richard reminds me strongly of Iago. The horrors of civil war – always the worst kind of war – are represented by two vignettes, of a son killing his father who fought on the opposite side and of a father killing his son, who fought for the enemy. No character emerges with any positive attribute; they are all turncoats, game players, time-servers and manipulators…

At the end, we are ready for Richard to begin murdering his way to the throne. To be continued…

On other languages…

February 2, 2015

So, having eulogised the English language the other day in this blog, I need to write a few words about my fascination with other languages. I have the kind of brain that is interested in the small details of similarities and differences, whenever these catch my eye (or ear). I read about languages, and attempt to learn them. So far, French is the only other language I can read and speak more or less fluently, and I’ve always marvelled at the ability to do this, and the picture I get of another country and culture because I can do it.

I love the way that, as one becomes more fluent in a language, one ceases to think or translate before speaking: the words just come out in the target language. One even begins to dream in the language. I think I’m approaching this stage with my German. I tell myself that I can get by in Polish, probably Italian and Dutch, and I have just begun learning Spanish, which is an interesting challenge as it keeps getting mixed up with the vestigial Italian…

Latin I learned at school, and I think the rigid grammar and the variability of word order have been most helpful in my wrestlings with other languages. It taught me that there was a grammar – a very different one – to English too, and linked me into the wonders of etymology.

French was challenging in terms of the sounds and pronunciation, being so different from English; just as that ‘th’ sound is so hard for non-English speakers, the slightly rolled ‘r’ in French was fun getting to know. German sounds so different, and the genders are a killer for me. I’m always amused by the ways the French and the Germans try to tame and regulate their languages, the Germans with their spellings and the French with trying to keep out alien (read English) words. Fortunately, we don’t, and couldn’t.

I love the liquid sound of Italian, and so far I love the straightforwardness of Spanish, though they do confuse themselves in my memory. Spanish pronunciation – particularly the b/v sounds – has reminded me of the ways certain languages just do not make some distinctions: the Japanese apparently find r/l difficult, and Russian makes little distinction between g/h, giving us a wonderful Shakespeare play called Gamlet… The spreading of the ‘schwa’ sound (sorry, cannot do phonetic symbols yet!) in English causes problems, both for us speaking other languages and for foreigners learning English.

I’ve made many attempts to learn Polish – as I should – and have failed thus far, for lack of a good teacher, partly. Polish pronunciation is actually very easy and logical once you know the sounds, it’s the grammar which is horrendous, making classical Greek (which I also failed at) look simple. There are genders, several cases, no articles, complex rules for plurals, and a verb system using perfective and imperfective rather than tenses, depending on the nature of the completion or not of the action, which can result in two totally different verbs to the same one in English… I was astonished to learn how many cases there are in Hungarian, but then discovered that it’s explained by the fact that they don’t do prepositions.

Alphabets based on Latin or Greek are relatively straightforward, but anything outside just looks bizarre. I am humbled when looking at a newspaper in Arabic, for instance, which says absolutely nothing to me, realising that millions of people can interpret it as easily as I can the front page of The Guardian. Scripts can look beautiful, especially some far Eastern languages like Thai; I find it astonishing that printed and written Russian use two quite different scripts; print I can transliterate, but written, no.

There’s been a lifetime of fascination and learning here, and I have realised that it’s important to me because language is about communication which is about being human. In my next existence, I think I would like to be a linguist.

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