Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

February 20, 2017

519dthny83l-_ac_us218_I’d been quite looking forward to reading the Mars series for a good while, and I finally got started…now I’m not so sure. It’s certainly a very ambitious work (and I’ve only read the first part so far) but what does Robinson actually want the book to be – political treatise, detective story, travelogue around another planet, Swiss Family Robinson on Mars? – it’s all of these at different times, and none of them very well at all, at least to this reader.

There’s plenty of hard SF – if you like that sort of thing – about terraforming planets and building space elevators, and some thought given to the politics, psychology and ideology of a major human effort like colonising Mars. It all comes from a rather limited US perspective, at least to this European reader. There’s a compelling enough story about the clashes of personalities and approaches to colonising a planet, which draws the reader forward, though with a tendency to skim at times.

My biggest gripe, and it’s not one that I’d direct at this novel alone but at an awful lot of SF, is the poor characterisation. And I know one might say I’m a bit spoilt with the kind of ‘softer’ SF that I tend to prefer, and that I’d be bound to notice failings in this area. Robinson’s characters (he starts off with a hundred of them, the first group of colonists selected, which isn’t a terribly good idea in itself, I fear) are sketchy, some more than others, but some just random and interchangeable names at times, making the novel as hard to follow as a Russian classic. It’s hard to care about most of them, as they exist to serve the plot, and are picked up and dropped willy-nilly as the story unfolds. It’s all very well to say, but this is hard SF, this is a novel of ideas, but that’s not good enough when the genre is nearly a century old, it’s actually very frustrating. And I could get side-tracked into questions of genre, and science-fiction as literature, which I researched and wrote theses about years ago, but I won’t.

The one main point that I latched on to, that I think the writer does explore well, is just how difficult it is (will be?) for humans anywhere to escape their past, not so much their biology and physiology as their conditioning and their ideology, which lead to political and military conflict wherever humans go, and are reproduced with drastic consequences even on another planet. This pessimistic strand is quite well explored, and gave me pause to think…

In the end, I think that there’s just too much material Robinson wants to cram in, too much time and too many events and so the key elements of any story, and in particular characterisation, are just spread too thin. But it’s a compelling enough page-turner and I’ll probably read the rest when I find then in a second-hand shop, but there’s no real rush…

My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

On not reading fantasy

August 26, 2016

I’m not really a reader of fantasy. I devoured Lord of the Rings forty years ago; it took me two days while I had ‘flu, and I’ve never been tempted to go back to it. I really enjoyed Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (back when it was only a trilogy) but again, haven’t been tempted to revisit. I’ve just read Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind which was recommended and lent to me. It got me thinking: what have I got against fantasy?

As stories, they’re fine – they draw you along, you want to know what’s going to happen. The characters are inevitably interesting, because they bear little resemblance to reality: you never know what you’re going to get, and verisimilitude isn’t high on the list of fantasy writers. Although they can be a bit thin or wooden at times, if truth be told. It’s a similarity fantasy shares with science-fiction: characterisation has never been a strongpoint. Places and settings are interesting, too, though for some reason almost inevitably mediaeval. A setting in some imaginary, yet at the same time recognisable past, helps sustain an air of mystery – those days are so long ago that not everything can be known…a time of potions and poisons and spells and superstitions. However, because the world is so different from our own, alien if you like, many things about it require lengthy explanations, just as various elements of utopias do; this explaining can be interestingly or tiresomely done.

Ultimately, I think that it’s the lack of any anchor in reality as I know it that lessens my interest. This may seem strange given my penchant for SF, which I’ve blogged about before, but it bears thinking about. Science fiction does have links to our actual existing world. It may connect on the technological level, but moving us a few years into the future. It may speculate, or extrapolate from current events and issues, considering possible futures for us and our world. It may even attempt to visualise a utopia, and how such a state may be attained.

Fantasy allows itself a much freer rein: there will be a world, which in some ways bears a physical resemblance to our own, in that it will have human beings of a sort, though perhaps endowed with powers which do not exist on our world; it will have families, houses, towns and villages just as we do, and flora and fauna, though again these may or may not be the ones we know: they can be invented quite freely just for difference’ sake… Inevitably there will be conflicts, though conducted with weapons we may not recognise, and against all kinds of unrecognisable foes. Because the world is mediaeval, heroes (of the ancient kind) are possible.

Is there something wrong with me, that I cannot or do not want to cope with so many unknowns? Or is it, more likely, just force of habit, reading patterns developed and honed over a lifetime, that have no place for fantasy in the same way that they have no room for Mills and Boon? Perhaps I cannot empathise sufficiently with characters and situations too far from my own experience. I do need to care in some way about the people in the stories I read, and for that to happen, there need to be some connections with me and my world. Perhaps I’m saying that for me, reading serves a different purpose?

I can’t claim that I don’t like my literature to be escapist, when I can immerse myself in detective fiction, or science fiction. And yet, I don’t choose to read fantasy. What is going on?

To be continued…

The end of the world

August 12, 2016

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is, I suggested in my last piece, possibly the first disaster novel. I found myself wondering why it should appear at that particular moment, why she should come to consider the prospect of something more powerful than humankind bringing our species to its end.41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_

H G Wells did something similar when he faced the world with Martians in The War of the Worlds; humanity was saved not by our efforts or powers but by microbes. M P Shiel considered the destruction of the human race in The Purple Cloud near the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s only really since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons that the apocalyptic novel has come into its own.51qfsKHY-yL._AC_US160_51gGBhD5N6L._AC_US160_

And Shelley’s novel is different in another way: she kills off all of humanity bar one: Verney is the last man and has the two final chapters of the book to try and begin to come to terms with this; even Shiel’s hero, if my memory serves me correctly, eventually finds a companion, of the opposite sex, too, so that all can begin again. But to be the last one? Of course, never to be certain, too, for in the vastness of the world how could a single man ever check the entire rest of the planet to be sure? Why would one waste time and sanity searching?

There is a power and an attractiveness in the concept, surely, as Shelley realises, for every reader can and surely will substitute her/himself for the hapless hero of her novel: what would we do in the circumstances? Where would we go? Would we travel or settle? How might we retain our sanity? At the end of the novel, Verney sets off in his little boat to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, clinging for safety to the coastline, hoping against hope that he might meet someone…

When I was teaching, there was a novel (written for teenage readers) by Robert O’Brien called Z for Zachariah, about a young girl who is perhaps the only survivor of a nuclear and biological war which destroys the USA, apart from her small valley with its own isolated microclimate which protects her from fallout and the rest: she must survive on her own, and the focus is on the practicalities of this, a factor which occurs not at all to Mary Shelley: everything in her novel is there for the taking… In class we would explore for a while the logistics of survival – water, food, clothing, shelter, health and sanity, and whether it would all be worthwhile; we had some very interesting discussions; no two classes ever reacted in the same way, and there were many interesting and creative responses to the end of O’Brien’s novel.51YZEEACBYL._AC_US160_

There is wonderful material for fantasy in the idea that one could have the whole world to oneself: choice of house or home, country; one could go anywhere and help oneself to anything one needed, indulging oneself materially, at least. One could go on an orgy of destruction as did Shiel’s hero… and one would have, in the end, to face the same question as did Defoe’s isolated hero with only a small island for his home: what is the point of it all? Defoe’s hero turns to his God for help and reads his Bible – which of course he rescued from the wreck – nowadays we, I think, are probably more likely to revel in playing God in such circumstances…

Mary Shelley: The Last Man

August 12, 2016

41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_I think this is the fourth time I’ve read or listened to this strangely compelling novel. It’s so much better than Frankenstein, more leisurely paced, with more ideas and more complex characters, though still painfully overblown in the romantic strain in places. But what fascinates me most is that, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first ‘end of the world as we know it’ novel in history. (Do correct me if you know different!)

The Last Man is set in the closing decades of our current century, and ranges widely through different and challenging ideas: the future of England and how it is to be ruled, and its eventually becoming a republic when the heir to the throne steps down (though Parliament eventually votes him Lord Protector), and then the gradual disappearance of humanity with the world ravaged by seven successive years of bubonic plague.

The central characters are a group of friends centred around the ex-royal family of England and their associates; there are also various intermarriages and children, and we follow their lives, happinesses and ultimate fates over quite a lengthy period of time, which allows Shelley to develop real characters, feelings and attitudes.

As with any attempt to see far into the future, she too has problems, particularly with technology. She was looking two hundred and fifty years into the future, and yet cannot conceive of the world itself as radically different politically from her own time, so Greece’s attempts to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire still figure prominently in the 2050s, while we hear very little of ‘the Americas’, and a love of Italy still looms large, as it did in the late eighteenth century. England is pictured as a relatively prosperous, if not semi-utopian land, and yet Shelley cannot conceive of any kind of industrial or technological progress, which surprises me, since she imagined Frankenstein’s experiments and achievements: travel is still largely by horse (when people actually need to travel), although apparently there are some Montgolfier balloon-type airships for use when speed is required, or in case of emergency. Otherwise we might well still be in 1800… England is not an industrial nation – nowhere is.

But, of course, it’s not hard science she’s interested in here, in contrast to Frankenstein; she is considering humanity under threat from an unseen enemy – plague. Medicine does not seem to have made any advances in the intervening centuries either, so the disease sweeps all before it, and all that it’s possible to do is manage the catastrophe and the depopulation. There are episodes of great heroism and also cowardice as the inevitable end approaches; the last band of 1500 English people set off for better climes in Europe, but give way to rivalries and are beset by religious mania; eventually we come to focus on the last four survivors, and then finally there is one, all alone.

I make it seem rather banal, describing it baldly thus, whereas Shelley does make us care about her characters and their fates, and does get us thinking about humanity’s reaction to total calamity; it is a compelling tale, and even the overwritten, hectically gushing and romantic sections where our emotions are wrung out in search of a response, do not diminish the overall effect of what is a rather neglected classic. Verney, the last man, writes his farewell to the world at the turn of the year 2100 at the top of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and then sets off into his unknown. Powerful stuff.

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

July 23, 2016

51J6jDML6PL._AC_US160_It’s a strange novel in some ways: for starters, the two main sections are separated by a period of five thousand years. Shakespeare takes us past sixteen years with a little awkwardness in The Winter’s Tale, but five millennia? And, whilst the first part is a ripping yarn that carries you along, the second feels limp, self-indulgent.

For some reason, never explained, in the near future the moon explodes, and the further process of its disintegration into rocks and meteorites which bombard the earth, brings about the end of the humanity, but not before everyone’s efforts have been focused on trying to create a future for the human race in space, with a colony of about 1200 people centred on the International Space Station. There’s a little mild exploration of how the species might react faced with the prospect of annihilation, but we are mainly focused on politicking, which demonstrates the absurdity of our species, and hard science: there’s a great deal – far too much, to be honest – scientific explanation of how all the different machinery and robotics and spacecraft work in the two years between the calamity and the end of humanity. What this means is that a lot of the time I was skim-reading: not that I didn’t want to know about how everything worked, but I didn’t want so much information…I wanted to get on with the plot.

Human stupidity leads to further problems inside the space station and to factions and breakaway groups, fighting and cannibalism, meaning that in the end humanity is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are able to reproduce… and we also get the impression that if everything were left to the sensible scientists, things would have gone a great deal better (!)

So, there was a plot, some excitement and some tension in that part… then we arrive in the future, with humanity having re-established itself, but in seven slightly different races and colonised the ex-moon’s orbit space, and engaged in re-engineering the old earth for habitation. And here, things do seem to flag, initially. Eventually, we become aware that there were some survivors of the cataclysm on the surface: a sea-based race descended from people on a nuclear submarine that sheltered in the deepest oceans, and a land-based one that had secured itself in very deep mine-workings; the encounters between all the different groups and the potential for future problems are quite interesting. However, I feel Stephenson spoils his plot by replicating a Cold War Red/Blue split and stand-off between the space survivors – of all the hackneyed tropes to come up with!

Stephenson creates a future world, with some utopian elements, but it’s ultimately fantastical in the sense that he doesn’t have to/ choose to tell us how we get there: the five thousand year time-leap becomes a cop-out, and in some ways we are in the vague and mentally exhausting ages of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, where he takes us forward several billion years in a series of leaps, but fails to engage us emotionally in the future of the human race. And there is just too much scientific description of invented elements of future technology…..

I have enjoyed much of Stephenson’s earlier work: Cryptonomicon was gripping and credible, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy was a masterpiece. But here the ideas and the delivery feel rather laboured, and I felt up against science fiction’s oldest problem: can you create interesting and believable characters that really engage your reader (no) along with speculative ideas (yes) explained without too much technical detail (no). So, space opera then.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.



Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia

April 26, 2016

21wAaVQtrxL._AC_US160_51V9sYPAuNL._AC_US160_I first came across a reference to this 1000-page novel when I was researching at the Science Fiction Foundation many years ago; it was out-of-print and unobtainable, but their library had a copy. It seduced me then, as a utopia not quite like the others. At the turn of the millennium it was reissued, and I’ve gone back to my own copy and enjoyed it again.

Wright wrote the book in the 1920s, based on an incredibly detailed invented world he’d imagined and documented in great detail (I’ve heard his efforts compared to Tolkien’s – justified, but very different): Islandia is a nation on a continent somewhere in the southern oceans near Antarctica. It’s about to become part of the land-grab for its natural resources by Western nations in the run-up to the Great War. Two factions in the nation are opposed, one willing to accept the notion of opening up to the world, but naively unaware of the true cost of this, and the other determined to resist, to remain as they have always been, cut off from the outside world, a sort of mediaeval, pastoral utopia. In some ways, the closest resemblance I can think of it William MorrisNews From Nowhere, but Wright surpasses it by a long way.

Into this comes a young, rootless American named consul to Islandia as the US prepares to join the Europeans in getting what it can. Here is the classic way in to the utopia: the outsider slowly falls in love with what he sees, changes sides, eventually comes to make his new life there having helped the nation defeat the external threat. We can see how Islandia is attractive to him.

So far, nothing new. Yet Wright does more than spin a yarn, or offer a plausible route to human happiness, and, the more I think about it, the more the thousand pages is part of its success: it’s compelling because of its length; the leisureliness draws you in and seduces you with the attractiveness of the life the inhabitants seem to enjoy: hard work, good company, contentment.

As it’s an American utopia, the tendency is more individualist, anarchist even, than ours in Europe, but its proponents ask the same basic questions, nevertheless: what IS progress, exactly? Do we NEED it? There is more to life than the treadmill of work, be paid, consume… And they advocate equality for all. I could also see the American federal vs states rights issue coming though: how much should the individual cede to the state? – the minimum possible seems to be the answer.

The major striking thing, for a novel written nearly a century ago now, is its open and honest focus on relations between the sexes, and the nature of sexuality. Again, because we spend so long in Islandia, the issues can be explored at length. At one level I could describe the novel as a bildungsroman: the hero, John Lang, grows up and finds himself in terms of discovering a meaning to life, but also sexually: he experiences three very different relationships with three very different women, and we leave him having finally found happiness in his adopted country.

It’s by no means a flawless novel: there’s somewhat disturbing – to us nowadays, and I don’t think deliberately intended – racism, in that the external threat to Islandia comes from ‘black savages’ armed and put up to it by Germans. Islandia is a small nation and feels rather mediaeval in some ways: there’s no suggestion that its system might work on a larger scale. The important issue of stasis in perfect societies and what to do about it, is admitted but not really resolved. At one point I did find myself wondering, was the novel – elaborate fantasy that it is – written for the author’s own satisfaction rather than a wider readership?

But it is good, and definitely worth a read if you are interested in utopian fiction. I think it’s one of the classics of the genre.

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