Sunday, December 07, 2014

The New Dystopians

If, like me, you're resistant to SF but enjoy well-written speculative fiction, 2014 has been a vintage year. I've read so many new titles centered around the collapse of Western civilisation, it's been very hard to resist the urge to stock up on tins, dried pasta and firewood, not to mention the illegal weaponry needed to protect your baked beans from any marauding gangs.

Here are some of the novels I've enjoyed most during the last few months, in no particular order:

1. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Written by a Canadian author who now lives in New York, Station Eleven has been universally praised by critics and readers alike. Set 20 years after a devastating pandemic, the novel follows the fortunes of a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, as they move around the post-apocalyptic settlements of the Great Lakes. The initial premise didn't immediately grab me, but I was quickly won over by the compelling plot, a clever narrative structure and some hauntingly beautiful prose. I stayed up until a ridiculously late hour because I had to know how the book ended. It was well worth the sleep deprivation.

2. The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber

A novel about a Christian missionary on an alien planet might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is one of the most humane and poignant novels I've read for a long time. Written in the shadow of Faber's wife's terminal illness, the interstellar distance between the main character and his wife, trapped in a future Britain that is facing societal collapse, feels like a metaphor for the author's own sense of impending loss. In a recent edition of the radio programme Start the Week, Michel Faber stated that he wouldn't be writing any more novels. I hope that it was just the grief speaking.

3. The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell

If Christian missionaries on alien planets is beyond the pale, then this novel probably isn't for you, as the plot is utterly bonkers. However, David Mitchell writes with such brio that it's more than worth going along for the ride. Spanning half a century between the early 1980s and the 2030s, I found the novel's coda surprisingly moving and a very satisfying conclusion to the literary pyrotechnics of the main plot. The Bone Clocks is a confident riposte to anyone who thinks that the novel is dead. You'll either love it or hate it.

4. A Lovely Way to Burn - Louise Welsh

The first book in a trilogy (the other two parts haven't been published yet), this is a crime novel set in a London that is being ravaged by a pandemic. Welsh has been highly praised for her earlier novels and although this book reads as if it has been aimed at a more mass-market readership, with an emphasis on plot rather than character, its depiction of a city in crisis is powerful and evocative.

5. The Southern Reach Trilogy - Jeff VanderMeer

Actually three separate novels - Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance - this was a revelation. VanderMeer is classed as a science fiction writer, but with influences as disparate as Iris Murdoch and Rachel Carson, this is a beautifully-written, astoundingly imaginative series that transcends the limitations of genre fiction. It's dangerous to try and second-guess a novel's influences, but the plot reminded me of the shortlived 2005 television series Invasion, the Body Snatchers films and the recent low budget (but high concept) independent film Monsters. However, the science fiction elements almost feel incidental and the central question is always the same: what is it to be human? Imagine Lost written by Margaret Atwood and you'll have some idea what to expect.

It has been said that it is the conceit of every generation to feel as if it's at the end of the line, whether the threatened annihilation is deistic, nuclear, biological, economic or environmental. However, the number of mainstream writers tackling this theme seems to be growing by the year. Is there something in the air? Have we finally grown out of the Enlightenment belief in perpetual progress?

The answer presumably lies in the combination of a growing awareness of potential threats - global warming, the end of oil, pandemics, economic stagnation and overpopulation - with the increasing willingness of 'serious' writers to flirt with other genres. And after all, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a gift to any writer of fiction.

In the meantime, I will be busy forming the Lewes Militia, just in case. I've already designed the epaulettes for the uniform and started drafting the new laws. Anyone who begins their sentences with "So" will be in trouble.


Rog said...

I remember talking to a senior advertising executive during the 1973 oil crises when he admitted filling his garage with tinned beans. "From the sharks in the penthouse to the rats in the basement, it’s not that far", as the late Kirsty MacColl once opined.
I am SOOOO with you on "So" but not sure I could carry off epaulettes.
I'm thinking of writing a devastating indictment of Royal Mail's senior management and calling it "Post Apocalypse".

Steerforth said...

Rog - So...I have to say that Royal Mail are turning out to be the best of a bad lot, as far as posting books goes. Perhaps you had a different experience selling larger, more expensive items.

I've always tried to post my orders promptly - I even hobbled back to work two days after my appendectomy last January, so it can be galling to learn that a postal sack has then been on an impromptu mystery tour of the Midlands, ignored by a succession of bored, minimum wage warehouse operatives, as happened the other week.

I switched to Royal Mail and now get to drop off my mail bags at the village post office, have a nice little chat with the postmistress and sleep soundly at night, knowing that my orders have a more than reasonable chance of arriving.

Grey Area said...

'The Book of Strange New Things' was dramatised on the radio earlier in the year - I stumbled across it by accident half way through - so it was a very confusing and disturbing affair - but quite beguiling and I did make a note of catching up on it later in the year - thanks for reminding me.

Annabel said...

Please forgive me for I don't know why, but I didn't have you down as a fan of this kind of fiction Steerforth, so I am delighted to find another fellow fan.

Station Eleven was possibly the best book I read all year. Loved it.
The Jeff Vandermeer set is on my shelves - hoping to get to it after Christmas.

Steerforth said...

Richard - It would have been very confusing if you'd joined the story half way through, but it all makes sense from the beginning. I'd strongly recommend giving it a go. I hadn't read Michel Faber before and moved on to 'Under the Skin', which was also very good.

Annabel - I've always loved books of this sort, ever since I read Chysalids as a boy. I'm glad that you loved Station Eleven - definitely one of the best things I've read this year too.

This year, nearly all of the novels I've read fall into one of four categories: post-apocalyptic, the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, modern fiction in translation and mid-20th century American authors like Patricia Highsmith. I also enjoyed Trollope's Palliser novels.

Annabel said...

It was The Chrysalids that made me love dystopian novels too!

Steerforth said...

It's such a good story. I was also gripped by television programmes like 'The Changes' and 'Logan's Run'.

By the way, I've just realised that reading about the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire is also a form of apocalyptic fiction.

Canadian Chickadee said...

So it's probably good that I live a long ways away from Lewes, I'm guessing! :) xoxox

Steerforth said...

Carol - I generally switch off my pedantry when talking to people from other countries, so you'd be safe from the wrath of the Lewes Militia.

The most grating aspect of "so" is the way it has spread like a virus during the last two years. What was wrong with our old friend "well"?

Any vocal tic, whether it's the overuse of "like", the rising inflection at the end of sentences or, when I was young, peppering sentences with "You know..." distracts from what the speaker's saying.

Nota Bene said...

We too have done post-apocalyptic planning, even deciding which of the relatives we'd keep, and which ones would be surplus to requirements...

Brian Busby said...

As a child, I fed on things dystopian. But when I grew up, I put away such things. This is not to suggest that are childish, rather that they are fixtures of a lonely adolescence I'd prefer to forget.

So, thank you for recommending Station Eleven, a book I'd ignored for no good reason. Dare I hope the Travelling Symphony visit my neck of Ontario? No, don't tell me.

In return, I recommend Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance. I read this novel in the autumn of 1997, and enjoyed it immensely. The threat back then was mad cow disease. Does that make it dated?

Steerforth said...

Nota Bene - Will you eat the relatives who are surplus to requirements?

Brian - A Scientific Romance looks promising - thanks for the recommendation.

Re: lonely adolescences, I'd be interested to know what sort of things you read. I also had a rather isolated adolescence and wasted the first half reading Marvel comics. Then, from the age of 14, I became obsessed with classical music, which was something even fewer of my peers were interested in.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Re: Vocal mannerisms, I've just listened to myself talking on the radio and it was all "um...well...yeeessss..." - anything to give myself half a second of thinking time. I also sounded like a BBC announcer from 1942.

What's the quote about "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?" I shall go off and hang my head in shame.

Brian Busby said...

Steerforth, I nodded knowingly when when reading that the first half of your adolescence was wasted on Marvel comics. I was more of a DC boy myself. Like you, at fourteen, one obsession replaced another - only in my case it was the blues. The seed was a BBC documentary aired on CBC.

I also wasted a fair amount of time on Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard - and spent it wisely reading John Wyndham. I was introduced to the man's work with The Chrysalids, assigned by my Montreal high school. One thing that struck me at the time was the Labrador setting. It was the only book handed out that actually took place in Canada... a post-apocolyptic Canada, anyway.

Steerforth said...

Brian - At least the blues had a bit more street cred than my collection of Scandinavian 20th century symphonies. I used joined the Vaughan Williams Appreciation Society and realised that the next oldest member was at least 40 years older than me.

Re: Marvel vs DC, even today, a small part of me feels shocked when they have characters from the separate universes in one story.

Brian Busby said...

Again, you've got me nodding. At nineteen, I joined the Sherwood Anderson Society, which then included members who had known the man.

The end of my comic book obsession pretty much coincided with Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. Reading the synopsis online, it is easy to see why.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I'm not really into SciFi. There's enough stuff going on in the "real" world that I don't understand. I don't need to spend any time in an alternate universe solving alternate problems. I've only ever managed to finish two SciFi books: The Day of the Drones (can't remember the author right off hand), and The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, which was riveting.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I'd love to read a bit of sci-fi for escapist relaxation, but I rarely get past the first few pages without thinking how silly it all is.

I enjoy speculative fiction because, apart from the vicarious thrill of seeing how people cope with the collapse of civilisation, there is always an interesting political message about the path we've chosen to pursue.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Thanks for these recommendations. Along these lines, you might want to read Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE. I thought it was excellent.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Chris. I've read it too and agree, it was very good. I must read the other two books in the trilogy.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I've just been re-reading your post and comments. I've probably mentioned this before, but my current peeve with newspapers and news readers is the misuse of word "looking": He is looking to improve his golf score, the company is looking to maximize profits, etc. Why not hoping to improve or maximize? I prefer to think of looking as something that involves seeing.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Yes, that's a very annoying one because there's something dishonest about it - you either are or you aren't doing it. And so often, companies are looking to grow their profits these days. I grow plants; I increase my profits (if only). It's lazy English.

I don't know if you had this in the US, but a few years ago, nearly every politician or civil servant would always claim that they were introducing robust measures to deal with a problem. The word robust became such a cliche, it started to be mocked and slowly died a death, so I think humour is probably the best weapon against cliches.

Dale said...

I got offered a plethora of "robusts" and also "rigorouses" long ago when I was editing draft public service material. The writers thought it sounded macho.

I fixed their wagons - every time I came across a mention that something was to be "rigorously" enforced or structured, I replaced it with "meticulously". "Robust" regulations/measures became "stringent" regulations/measures.

They hated my girly words, but couldn't argue because I was boss. Bwahahahaha.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Steerforth, humour and sometimes sarcasm are great weapons against a lot of bureaucratic pomposity.

Speaking of pomposity, I was reading a book this morning, in which the author referred to a set of circumstances as being "incriminatory." Now it's probably a perfectly good work, but a little overblown for my tastes!

Gert Loveday said...

Re "The Bone Clocks" Theo Tait says in the LRB, "The result is what John Updike called 'a million dollar penny dreadful', a work that is admirable only if you think that ambition and vitality trump every other literary virtue".

Steerforth said...

Dale - Yes, there is a macho quality to these words, full of bluster but ultimately complete hot air. I'm glad you were able to reintroduce a note of clarity to the documents you edited.

Carol - That reminds me of those military men with Kissinger-style voices who will never say "Yes, we're supplying them with arms", but hide behind "That is in the affirmative. We are weaponizing the allies."

Gert - Ouch! I wish I could have read the whole of the review, but I'm not a subscriber. The Bone Clocks is a big mess of a book, but it doesn't take itself too seriously. Whether playful, postmodern fiction is merely a million dollar penny dreadful or not, I don't know.

Gert Loveday said...

He does also say "As in every Mitchell novel there is much to be impressed by" and "Mitchell's dexterity, stylistic range and ability to build fictional worlds are very impressive". I wouldn't spit in the face of a review like that.
You can read an individual article online for nuffink if you don't mind logging in.

Brett said...

Jeff VanderMeer lives here in Tallahasse. He drew upon the nearby St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, a preserve of tidal marshes and forest, for his descriptions of Area X.

Someone this week wanted us to suggest a book similar to Hugh Howey's Silo trilogy, which got us talking about post-apocalyptic dystopian novels. I remembered the film Logan's Run too and the silos reminded me again not of a book, but of the computer game, Fallout.

Several librarians favored The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Just wanted to take this opportunity to wish you a very Happy Christmas, Steerforth. Hope you and all the family have a peaceful and joyous holiday. And may 2015 be filled with good things for you all.
xoxo Carol

zmkc said...

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