Posts Tagged ‘disaster fiction’

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.

John Christopher: The World in Winter

March 23, 2021

     I thought that Rolfe’s novel was the worst I’d ever read, but this one gives it a run for its money. To be kind, it’s horribly dated – casual racism and even use of the n-word acceptable in 1962 – and I can’t see for the life of me why, having read it over forty years ago, I bothered to keep it…

It’s marketed as SF, so that’s probably the reason: a new ice age moves in, and Britain (for that’s the sole concern of the writer, really) is uninhabitable. But this is merely a backdrop for a silly tale of domestic affairs and infidelity between barely credible cardboard characters, along with the casual assumption that Brits can just emigrate to warmer climes, the ex-colonies, to escape the worst of the global cooling. Chaos and anarchy in the UK are described briefly in this very sub-JG Ballard catastrophe tale, and the only slightly entertaining aspect is the Brits who decamp to West Africa finding that the boot is very much on the other foot in terms of relationships between the races… However, all the tired old tropes about the inefficiency, disorganisation and corruption of those countries are peddled ad nauseam. Of course, a clever white man can soon sort them out, although the power dynamics are somewhat different.

It really is that bad. I don’t usually get cross with a book, but I wanted real SF: the initial premise is interesting enough, even if barely credible nowadays. Instead there was maudlin tosh involving unconvincing characters. It reminded me of the Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes adventure fiction I devoured in my early teenage years – only they devised better plots and wrote better yarns.

So Britain is abandoned by its government and eventually a Nigerian expedition sets out to establish a claim to the territory, in an expedition in hovercraft, helped by our token white hero who makes the Nigerians’ incompetence clear, as well as their barely-disguised savagery. The ending is utterly predictable.

I won’t go on. You get the idea. One to avoid.

Ellis Meredith: The Master Knot of Human Fate

March 30, 2018

The resume of this Librivox audiobook grabbed me, and so I downloaded it to listen to in the car.

A natural cataclysm of some sort – never truly explained or clarified – isolates a man and a woman, who knew each other in their previous existence – on an island some where California and the western US used to be. Luckily (!) everything necessary for their basic survival is on hand…

I was interested to learn about the cataclysm, and was disappointed. I was interested to see how their Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson existence panned out, but, apart from everything going just swimmingly, I learned little. A home and smallholding, conveniently abandoned, was to hand.

I wondered if anyone else had survived. Our heroes hope against hope for a sign, a ship; after a year one appears on the horizon, and they signal to it – perhaps rather foolishly, it might seem – but next morning it is revealed to have been an abandoned wreck, and not even useful supplies can be gleaned from the wreck, as Robinson managed three centuries ago. So they are alone.

A twenty-first century reader would wonder about the possibility of emotion and sexual attraction between them, isolated for the duration. Clearly they were fond of each other in their previous world, and they do grow closer. They realise that they may be the only humans left alive, and reflect on whether they have a duty to continue the species. And they engage in interminable religious and philosophical discussions about this, and about what faith their putative offspring should be raised in…. Everything is sauced and spiced with liberal doses of nineteenth century religion (the novel was written in 1901); they must be sure they ‘love’ each other and have absolutely no doubts about what they are about to undertake, before they devise a wedding ceremony for themselves, and she happens to find an old wedding-dress in a trunk.

And then the story ends.

Reader, do not waste your time either reading or listening to this book: it really isn’t worth it. Maudlin, tiresome and sentimental, it should have stayed forgotten. Librivox and Project Gutenberg do a great job of restoring access to forgotten literature of the past, but this one could have quite well stayed lost, I think.

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