Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Laurie Frost: The Elements of His Dark Materials

January 22, 2023

      This will be the last Pullman-focused post for a while, I think. But if you are as hooked on His Dark Materials as I am, in the sense that you both enjoy the story, and admire the inventiveness of the alternative universes and the writer’s philosophical and theological explorations of the human condition, then I’d say this book is for you.

It’s encyclopaedic. All the necessary connections, references and links are here for you to check and explore or remind yourself about if you’re slightly lost or confused. There are reflections, perspectives and thinking points a-plenty, about characters, peoples and worlds, as well as more general mini-essays; it’s clearly a labour of love by someone who is even more taken with His Dark Materials than I am; it’s a serious companion to the novels, not a work of fandom.

At the same time, there are some things that are not explained, along with a few inevitable minor errors and inconsistencies. Why, for instance, is the college in Geneva St Jerome’s College? Geneva I understand, St Jerome I know about, but the connection in his mind that led Pullman to the name eludes me… And a real index at the end would be very useful, too. It’s not a book for constantly referring to as you’re reading – Pullman’s storytelling isn’t that impenetrable – but each time I’ve delved into this book and read large chunks of it has been after a reading of the novels, to help me get my thoughts and ideas clearer in my mind, and it has worked.

His Dark Materials: Parents and Children

January 16, 2023

During this re-read of HDM, I’ve found myself thinking about what Pullman has to say or suggest about parents and parenting. Lyra grows up not knowing who her parents are, thinking Asriel is her uncle, and eventually learning that Mrs Coulter is her mother; her father has obviously ensured she is provided for at Jordan College, while her mother has nothing to do with her until the story starts. As things develop, it’s evident neither is an average nor an ideal parent. Her mother has a lust for power and influence which leads her into embracing all kinds of evil; it becomes clear, however, that there is some kind of maternal bond as Mrs Coulter’s emotions and behaviour become much more complex and conflicted when she is with her daughter, and this foregrounds itself ever more strongly as the story progresses; are we intended, by the end of the story, to feel that the bond of love between parent and child is the strongest thing there can be?

Asriel has an obsession with his conflict with the Authority which blinds him completely to his daughter other than seeing her as a potential tool in the battle; this is crystallised in Lyra’s (unwitting but necessary) moment of betrayal at the end of Northern Lights, when her friend Roger is what Asriel needs to pursue his experiments… Asriel is capable of ‘mansplaining’ various aspects of his compulsion to Lyra, but there is no recognition of any bond between them.

We see similar conflicts when we learn about Will’s parents: his mother seems to suffer from a kind of mental disorder which manifests itself in obsessive-compulsive behaviours at times, and Will is clearly her carer rather than she his. As the storyline develops, it becomes clearer that there is a partial explanation for this, related to the disappearance of Will’s father, the secret work he was engaged in, and the interest of the authorities in his discoveries. We accept Will’s father’s disappearance as accidental, perhaps; we know of his concerns for his son via the letters and through what we learn of him via his alter ego, the shaman Stanislaus Grumman, in the parallel universe in which he is trapped, and their brief reunion before Grumman in killed by the witch is a touching and powerful moment, as is their encounter in the world of the dead later on.

Neither hero nor heroine has what most of us might class as an ordinary childhood. Is this significant? Well yes, in the sense that Pullman didn’t have to tell the story thus; it was a deliberate creative choice. But that’s a statement of the obvious, though some might overlook it. What we do have are two characters who grow up differently from, and much more independently than most children: Lyra has a carefree existence in her Oxford, while various people keep a weather eye on her in terms of safety; one or two people are aware of some significance to her future. Will is forced to be grownup before his time, keeping his mother safe, both by physically protecting her and by participating in her strange behaviours so as not to alarm her or others too much; lurking in the background is surely the possibility of both of them being institutionalised in different ways…

Both Will and Lyra are pretty self-sufficient and self-confident in their thinking and behaviour and this means the reader is more likely to take them seriously (pinch of salt here, ok, but you get my drift) when Pullman throws them into their respective adventures, and there is the potential for a good team, too. Then, in terms of the ultimate temptation which the entire plot must lead to, there is the credible bonding, firstly via their common experience of and survival of perils, and secondly because they perhaps experience for the first time (key word there, experience) real closeness on an equal level with another person. This closeness Will knows only via caring for a loved mother and an imagined bond with an absent father, Lyra only through her deep friendship with Roger and her horror at the ultimate betrayal of it; she only knows coldness from Asriel and she is appalled by he mother’s evil. And the reader cannot but approve of the temptation and the Fall, if indeed we use those warped religious concepts here.

Milton, Blake and Dust in Pullman’s His Dark Materials

January 15, 2023

Pullman acknowledges his debt to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a masterpiece of literature that nowadays eludes many people, for a number of reasons: it’s in verse, it’s very long (12 books), it’s about religion, it’s written in 17th century English, which is a little different from today’s, though far from impenetrable. Milton’s aim was to write the ultimate epic, the story of creation, and the redemption of humanity by Jesus’ death. He tells of the temptation of Eve and the Fall of the first humans, tempted by Satan.

Unfortunately for Milton, Satan takes over the story, becoming rather more of an interesting hero-figure than God or his son. And the question of the Fall also becomes double-edged: before it, Adam and Eve mimsy around the Garden of Eden blandly doing the gardening and having rather wet and innocent conversations, and a bit of very dull sex. Our feeling tends to be, well if this is paradise, I’m not sure I’m all that interested. The temptation is to take the forbidden fruit, of the knowledge of good and evil, after which they become humans as we know them: sex and arguments and blaming each other. And the real question is, why was the fruit forbidden? Because, is Milton’s and God’s answer, and that’s that… and we humans have become what we are because we have that knowledge. There are consequences: death. Adam and Eve have no idea what it is and cannot imagine it; we are the only species on the planet that knows of death and can contemplate it… And while I’m on with the Miltonic parallels, clearly there is an intended resemblance between Asriel’s armed camp preparing for battle with the Authority, and the building of Pandaemonium in the second book of Paradise Lost.

Pullman is fully aware of the importance of this difference between innocence and experience, and how it shapes us through our lives. There are things which happen to us which change us irreversibly, and which we cannot easily explain to others who have not experienced them. How do you describe to someone innocent the experience of an LSD trip, or sex for the first time, or indeed what love actually is? And, of course, you can’t rewind from any of these points, or turn back the clock: you are now changed, experienced. I have often felt that it’s perhaps easier for adult (experienced) readers to overlook this liberating aspect of Pullman’s stories, whereas they may perhaps be more eye-opening or life-affirming for younger readers. I don’t know for certain, of course; I’m on the wrong side of the fence here.

So in His Dark Materials, there are forces – organised religion – who would have humans remain permanently in a pre-pubescent state of innocent obedience, easily controlled. And the rebellion Pullman visualises is one against this tyranny, which might install the republic, rather than the kingdom of heaven. The more I think about it, the more utopian I find this notion, as well as extremely attractive. The idea of humans taking control over their own lives and their futures, rather than kowtowing to external forces, is one which has been revolutionary through the ages, and sadly, we are no nearer to achieving it…

Here is where Milton and Pullman overlap, for me: the crux is free will, which Christianity says we were given as a test: would we freely choose to obey and serve God, or would we wilfully choose what we shouldn’t and take the consequences? Milton feels the first humans made the wrong choice and it had to be rectified; Pullman lauds that choice, and has his Adam and Eve figures willingly give in to temptation and not regret it.

Dust. There is a serious amount of philosophical, even theological argument woven in to the novels; we don’t have to worry too much about it or strive too hard to comprehend it all. There is a serious information dump about Dust and its link with the Christian notion of original sin in the final chapters of Northern Lights, in conversation between Lyra and Asriel, and I’m still not sure how convincing I find this, given Lyra’s supposed age at this point. The concept is further developed in The Subtle Knife, where the arrival of Dust is linked back 33,000 years, presumably to the time of the first emergence of human consciousness in our species, which is where Pullman seems to situate the mythical Adam and Eve event and the original ‘Fall’. I’ve still not completely fathomed the significance, several times iterated, that things began to go seriously awry three centuries ago with the making of the knife: I can’t fit this timing in to a historical event, though I suppose we are at the start of the Enlightenment and the scientific era…perhaps a more astute reader can enlighten me here. Clearly these two dates are significant to Pullman’s ideas, and the second Fall, in the world of the mulefa, has the effect of reversing something.

Phillip Pullman: Parallel Universes

January 14, 2023

Pullman uses a common SF trope in His Dark Materials, the idea of a parallel universe, one which resembles our own, but with certain differences. The concept is often used to show an alternative history, such as in Philip K Dick’s well-known novel The Man in the High Castle, set in a United States where the Axis powers won the Second World War. Pullman’s parallel universe is rather different, in that it doesn’t represent an alternate direction after a fork in time, as it were, but is one of a myriad of possible universes, one that happens to be quite similar to our own.

The conception is carefully done, even down to the level of the language used, with different but logical terms used for ideas like electrical power; different technology, with airships being the modern mode of transport; countries having slightly different names reflecting the way in which recent history has also obviously been different. A great deal of careful thought has evidently gone into constructing this world, and in a sense Pullman has far less ‘conceptual freedom’ in the framing of such a world than an SF writer constructing a forked path. One might compare a twentieth century USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, as portrayed in Ward Moore’s interesting Bring the Jubilee, or a world several hundred years in our future, where the Nazis had been victorious in the twentieth century, as in Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, which is all the more chilling a tale for its having been written before the Second World War…

Because Pullman posits an infinity of possible worlds, the other two he develops in depth can be radically different: the empty world of Cittàgazze bears some resemblance to our own, though we cannot really map very much of our world onto it, and the world of the Mulefa visited by Mary Malone and in which she plays out her role as temptress, is alien in terms of creatures, but flora and fauna are still recognisable.

Where Pullman is at his most radical, and deliberately so, is in his vision of daemons in Lyra’s world. Every human has a daemon – a creature of the opposite gender, and this bears some thinking about – from which they are inseparable; their form is mutable until maturity or puberty is reached, at which point they become fixed permanently. We need to think about what Pullman seems to be saying here. There is obviously something about the plasticity or mutability of human personality in the younger years, and the eventual development of a more recognisable and permanent personality as we grow older.

Is the daemon a soul? It’s an inseparable part of a human, visible rather than invisible as the soul posited by various religions in our world. And we see the interaction between human and daemon, through looks, closeness or distance, and conversation. There is also conversation between daemons…. And there is also the taboo on touching someone else’s daemon, as well as the horrific process being developed by the Magisterium and Mrs Coulter, to sever the connection between a human and their daemon; here Pullman wants his readers to think about, or imagine, what exactly it is that makes us human, and what the effect of such a severing would be. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, our attention is also focused on this question, and ultimately we are pushed to the realisation that the inhabitants of that society may look and behave like us at times, but they aren’t actually humans as we know them…

So what is the intercourse that goes on between human and daemon? It’s clearly far more than just a visible friend: there is advice, discussion, reflection back of ideas and decisions: daemon as therapist/counsellor? Somehow it’s possible to see humans in Lyra’s world as more fortunate than we are here in our world, in that such interaction is more obvious, more foregrounded? And yet Pullman also plays, at some length, with the notion that in our world, if we get to know and understand ourselves well enough, we can see our daemon and converse with it, too.

More to come…

2022: My year of reading

December 30, 2022

A house move early this year has had a major impact on my reading: books boxed up, being unable to find books that I wanted to read, far less time to read due to having so many other pressing things to deal with: are those excuses or reasons? I’m not sure. But the books are now, much later, out of boxes and on shelves, although in different places, so tracking down and finding a book still isn’t easy, until my ageing brain has internalised my new system…

There has been a certain amount or re-reading; there has been the usual ‘compulsory’ reading for our book group, some of which were real eye-openers. In 2022 I bought or was given (and kept) all of 19 books, which represents a slight decrease on 2021; I read 50 books, which marks a serious decrease on last year’s total, for the reason above-mentioned.

I have a number of resolutions for 2023: to continue buying fewer books – and this is partly because a good number of the new books I come across I only want to read once, and I know I shan’t return to them – to return to my interrupted project to re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological sequence, to revisit a lot of the poetry I cherish, to revisit some old favourites including Josef Skvorecky, Garrison Keillor and Amin Maalouf, and to continue weeding my library and disposing of books I no longer want. And, driven by the final TV series which is currently being screened, I want to re-read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: I’ve watched the TV adaptations and loved them, and I’ve listened several times to the excellent full audiobook recording of the trilogy while I’ve been on my travels, but it’s a good few years since I actually consumed the printed volumes…

I’ve read far fewer travel books this year, and I’m wondering if I’ve finally exhausted that bug. There does seem to be a limit to the number of new travelogues through Siberia, or the various deserts of the world, that a person needs.

This year’s awards:

Best novel: Sequioa Nagamatsu How High We Go In The Dark. A novelist I’d never head of and took a punt on; a challenging fantasy which I really enjoyed and hope to go back to shortly. It’s good to read new authors.

Best non-fiction: Alberto Angela Une Journée Dans La Rome Antique. I’ve liked everything I’ve read by him.I’ve been fascinated by ancient Rome since my school days, and this historian brings it to life with a wealth of detail, without ever being patronising or talking down to his readers.

Best travel: Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire. I love deserts, and travel in deserts, and this journal of time in one of the US natioanl parks by an early ecologist (as you’d have to call him nowadays) is a gem: he shows you the desert and makes you love it as much as he does.

Best re-read: Jan Potocki Manuscript Found in Saragossa: an astonishing novel, a tour de force from the early 19th century; it was good finally to find time to re-read this one. And I have the film, waiting to be watched, too.

Best book group discovery: Ben MacIntyre Agent Sonya. I thought, “Do I really want to bother reading this? Why would I read this?” and I did, and it was another object lesson in not dismissing books too easily. A fascinating and thought-provoking account of pro-Soviet espionage in the twenties, thirties and forties, and out book group discussion was enhanced by a guest appearance from one of the heroine’s relatives.

I’m hoping to resume normal service in 2023, ie lots more reading and re-reading, further pruning of my library, and continuing to buy rather fewer books than previously.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt

August 8, 2022

     I’d been meaning to come back to this long novel for quite a while; it intrigued me when I first read it some twenty years ago, but it was nothing like I’d remembered it, this time around. It’s a well-written and evocative alternative history of the world covering several centuries, with a major difference: the Black Death of the fourteenth century did not kill only one third of the population of Europe, but eliminated it entirely, leaving the world to develop along a rather different track. Robinson explored potential futures focused on the Islamic, the Chinese and the Indian worlds, with a major emphasis on reincarnation thrown in…

It’s complex – obviously! – confusing, and at times annoying and rather boring; it’s clearly a tour-de-force for an accomplished writer like Robinson to imagine history on such a grand scale, but it does verge on the self-indulgent. Being a great fan of alternative history, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I shan’t even attempt to summarise the plot. The absence of Europe is thought-provoking in itself, given how we and our various offshoots, the USA especially, have shaped the world as we know it. Christianity has also gone, places have disappeared, and later on, our ancient history becomes the study material for curious archaeologists from other continents.

Imagining how the Muslim world might have developed is an interesting line of development, and I wonder what the reaction of Muslim readers has been to various strands that Robinson explores. The futures he creates are largely impressionistic rather than detailed; other religions and philosophies can get stuck in a rut just like Christianity has done in numerous ways. The effect is convincing, and also frustrating at times when I felt I’d have liked rather more detail to his alternative visions…

The Chinese explore the world in the way that various European nations actually did, and Islamic scientists replicate the investigatory and experimental tracks that actually took place in the West: the Islamic science that we know to have faded rather after the Middle Ages continued to flourish. Fortunately, scientists from all nations conspire to foil the development of nuclear weapons.

Although a world without Europe is very different, Robinson inevitably must remind us that humans are humans: there is still the lust for power, much cruelty, development of weaponry and warfare: in his future the equivalent of the First and Second World Wars are telescoped into one war which lasts over sixty years. It’s a strangely riveting read, and at times I found it hard to believe that a Western writer had written it; equally, I wonder where a non-Western writer would have gone with a similar idea. Robinson philosophises about the world, about power and religion and has obviously researched his material: I didn’t ever find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t a credible development’.

The best science fiction, to my mind, makes us think about and reflect on our own world; if it goes into the future, it makes us consider our own future, too. Humans are the same everywhere, and the big question which faces us now is surely whether we can learn from our history and our mistakes or whether we are condemned to revisiting and repeating them, in which case there’s little hope left. Robinson, from a very different and unusual perspective, and in a challenging work, offers much to think about.

Sequioa Nagamatsu: How high we go in the dark

April 10, 2022

     My acquaintance with Japanese fiction is pretty slight, and I’ve found it hard to access in certain ways, as I find it quite different from what I’m used to (European, English, American fiction mainly). Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and the novel was written in English, but there’s an approach to story, and also a narrative tone, I think, which I find hard to get used to. And I’ve forgotten what it was that prompted me to want to read this novel.

It’s set in a near, and fairly recognisable future, a world where the climate emergency has continued and made the planet far worse; it has released a deadly virus from the distant past through the melting of frozen land in Siberia, and humans no longer have any defences against it. The novel is a series of loosely related chapters or episodes that cluster around the consequences of this event, as they gradually unfold and humanity grapples in a pretty ineffectual manner with them.

The prose feels business-like, but is polished; there is pace to the unfolding of the plot, and interesting intellectual concepts are explored, too. Characters develop interestingly. Initially the plague seems only or mainly to affect children: euthanasia parks in the manner of Disneyworld are set up. Then adults become susceptible, perhaps to a different variant, and the story becomes more disjointed, almost hallucinatory at times. I think one of the things I found challenging was the matter-of-fact tone of the narrative here, almost as if the writer is saying, “well, of course this is what would happen, naturally this is what we would do in these circumstances” whilst at the same time describing what we think of as quite alarming courses of action… And the characters are emotionally involved in the events; the overall effect is Brechtian, unsettling in the extreme. At the same time as realising that such events are easily possible now, there is also a sense almost of detachment, disembodiment from our world. Robot pets, to which people become strongly emotionally attached, are people’s response at one stage. A reflection of Japan as a technological nation? That’s trite, I know, and the chapter is surprisingly poignant.

It’s very depressing, at times surprisingly maudlin, and yet the images of a disintegrating world, beyond our capacity to put right, are very powerful. It’s not an easy read, but it is a compelling one, given that mortality is at the heart of the novel, watching death and dying, following characters experiencing it. One most unnerving chapter tells of a woman whose marriage falls apart as she has an affair with a dying man…

I found many of the separate chapters intriguing, even gripping, and yet I had an overall feeling as I worked my way to the end of something missing, the sense of an ambitious hotch-potch that didn’t quite gel, at least for me. At the same time, I realised I was possibly being unfair, and decided I’d read it again soon.

The novel ends with humanity sending a craft into space to try and reach another planet to colonise it; while it’s on its centuries-long journey, somehow the plague is cured, and humanity sets about addressing the climate emergency; the people on the spacecraft are left to their own devices. Bleak, this one, in so many ways.

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

February 6, 2022

     I’m always glad to re-read anything by Ursula Le Guin. This time, it’s for my book group, and it’s also only a couple of years since I last read this one. Since then, I’ve learnt rather more about her background in anthropology, which casts an interesting light on her ‘thought experiments’ as she calls them, in the range of Hainish novels and stories. It’s the way she can make the reader think about our own particular species of humanity, its greatnesses and limitations, by imagining variations on the template, particularly in this novel in terms of gender and sexuality, that is the great success of her oeuvre.

The Left Hand of Darkness was written over half a century ago now, in the early days of the second feminist wave, and Le Guin’s later reflections on what and how she wrote back then are also interesting: she acknowledges that she comes across as having made the reader picture the androgynous Estraven as basically male, and being focused only on heterosexuality in her imagined society… However, what struck me most in reading around the novel this time was that she apparently started off with the premise of a planet which did nthought experiments,ot know war, and the androgyny of the inhabitants only came along after that.

We see the Envoy’s awkwardness – he is apparently a Terran, as we are – faced with the Gethenians; he cannot grasp the implications of their sexuality and often seems to put them down or demean them for not being clearly one gender or the other; this is significant, as clearly we are invited to remove our own blinkers when he is narrating the story.

So this novel is an anthropological experiment as much as a political story, with obvious undertones of the Cold War era whence it originates. The science fiction elements include faster-than-light travel and the ansible, an instant communication device which keeps the many planets of the Ekumen in contact with each other. Parts of the anthropological experiment are the skill of ‘foretelling’, and also ‘mind speech’, both of which are self-explanatory. The two nations of the planet which concern us are very different, one clearly a Soviet-style state and the other almost mediaeval; the well-intentioned Estraven, who can see what becoming part of the Ekumen will mean for his fellow-humans, attempts well-intentioned manipulations and duplicity, which inevitably lead to personal and political misunderstandings and disaster.

The title of the novel comes from the Tao Te Ching, and Le Guin produced what she called a ‘version’ of it in English; I have to say that when I read it, I felt that for the first time I was attaining some understanding of its wisdom. I came across a reference to someone writing a biography of Le Guin; I’m not normally one for reading biography but I shall be keeping an eye open for that, most certainly.

Finally I have to mention how well Le Guin writes; this is no run-of-the-mill, plot driven science fiction with wooden characters and stilted writing. This is literature that deserves to last, and, at the moment, I think it will.

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia Emerging

October 21, 2021

         One of the problems with many utopian novels is that they are very good at showing us a much better, an ideal world even, but not so good at leading the reader there: how does one get from the horrendous present to the wonderful future? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) portrays a secessionist state on the West Coast of America, running along green/ecological principles; it’s set in the late 1990s, as I recall. And in the prequel here, he sets out to show how it all came about. This book has sat on my shelves for many years; I’ve read it before, but forgotten from whom I must have borrowed it and failed to return it, as it does not bear any of my library accession information…mea culpa.

Although there are characters who are well-developed and to whom the reader may warm, it does strike me first and foremost as a didactic novel: there’s an awful lot of 1980s ecological information spliced into the narrative at almost every turn, reflecting the concerns of all those years ago: dangers of nuclear power, chemical pollution, power of big oil and car corporations. The only thing missing from our present-day world is global heating and climate change. I found myself wondering, well, if the situation was that dire back then – and having lived through those years, yes it was – why didn’t anything actually get done about it all?

Callenbach is under no illusions about the opposition that there would be to any threat to the integrity of the United States. And in the back of my mind there’s the thought that, depending on what happens when that country tries to have its next presidential election, the threat to the unity of the nation may actually never been greater than it currently is…

So here’s a novel firmly rooted in its time and place – 1980s USA – and yet in some ways never more relevant than it is now. An idealist environmentalist party may perhaps have been a plausible prospect back then; forty much more cynical years later, it sadly feels much less so. Its political programme still makes eminent sense today, but the odds are far more strongly stacked against success.

Arguments for degrowth are carefully presented and evidenced, but depend on a large enough audience willing to pay attention for long enough to take in, process and accept those arguments, and this seems far less likely in the reduced attention-spans of the current social media era: divide et impera has never been more fully implemented. Seeing the car as the ultimate enemy was logical in the US of the 1980s, and it was possible to consider rejigging transportation, workplaces and living spaces to accommodate alternative ways of being and doing; now we are told to think that electric cars will be the solution to everything…

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of ecology over half a century ago, as a schoolboy, though reading Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1970 polemic The Doomsday Book. Now there’s an awful lot more sound and fury about what we have done to the planet, but still precious little effective action, I fear. The culprit is capitalism, pure and simple: money still has to be made so that the rich can accumulate it; governments are in hock to business and we are told it’s up to us as individuals to save the planet. Quick, buy that bamboo toothbrush…

Callenbach’s two novels are an addition to dreams, prompts to think about the future, instances of the ‘what if?’ that good science fiction can do. But why hasn’t anything happened?

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