Monday, 23 April 2012
The second of my ongoing exploration of post apocalypse fiction, Year of the Flood is by Margaret Atwood and depicts a much more modern apocalypse than Greybeard did. This is fitting, the fears of the early 21st century are very different to those of the 1960s, viruses, cults and dirty bombs have won in our imaginations whereas the idea of nuclear weapons and experiments seems almost prosaic (unless you live in Kashmir at a guess).
Atwood embraces this fact to present a world where capitalism has spun out of control, its almost cyberpunk in its intensity and in the politics she presents, and where things are fracturing at an alarming rate. To fall through the gaps in society is to fall into a world of crime, cults and vice where nothing is safe, not even food (a chain called Secretburger makes mystery meat fast food, and its suggested that humans may be making their way into the food chain). She creates interesting cults to show how desperate things have got but focuses on one group, God's Gardeners who are a strange church that straddle the line between scientists and believers. Atwood manages to make their doctrines interesting and at times compelling and it's clear from the very beginning that they're preparing for an apocalypse, a "waterless flood" as its put.
The story itself concentrates on two women who have been part of the church and retraces their lives through the Gardeners' rise to power (and their slow fall from unified group to schism and ultimately violence) to the point where the apocalypse comes and its aftermath. She approaches the stories from two different directions: Toby, a person on the edge of falling who's saved by the cult and the other character, Ren, who travels in the opposite direction, starting with the Gardeners who ends up in a sex club, albeit of the most exclusive variety. Both take detours through the world of the corporations, which allows us to see how unreal and cut off from reality their workers are, hemmed in by 'news' (aka propaganda) and the sort of material comforts that allow people to put on their own blinders and ignore difficult questions. There seems to be comment on civilisation here, that in being civilised we stop asking the right questions and start to filter our input in such a way as to avoid reality. The idea that civilisation deadens us is perhaps also behind the idea of Painball, which in some ways is the most generic idea in the novel, the idea of extreme violence being used for entertainment, whilst not without historical precedences, is a staple of science fiction to the extent that it's even penetrated Young Adult books (the Hunger Games).
Returning to the world, the author presents human control of science and nature (and the hubris that comes with it): the corporations can work miracle, creating such creatures as Liobams, part sheep part lion and using pigs to grow human organs including brain cells. At the same time one of the protagonists, when she has to go into hiding she's altered in so many ways that her appearance is utterly changed.
Interestingly the apocalypse in Year of the Flood is intentional, a new race has been prepared to inherit the Earth, this is no cock up but cover up and it's an interesting idea but to an extent I feel its the part that stretches credibility. Even a small group would surely have been caught if they were planning an apocalypse (though that said surely a small group of terrorists would have been picked up before they could hijack several planes and crash them into significant American buildings, so perhaps I'm wrong).
All in all, a good book and one that's intelligently and compellingly written.
Saturday, 14 April 2012
The first of my post apocalypse reading, Brian Aldiss' Greybeard is set in a devastated England where nuclear experiments in near space coated the world in radiation and rendered the vast majority of mammalian life sterile. Whilst creatures that nest within the earth have been unaffected, and are prospering in the increasingly wild world the last generation of humanity lives in, anything that lives above ground is in danger of becoming extinct, surprise is expressed by the main characters that they find sheep of all things for instance.
By the time we join the story as readers the damage has been done, society has fragmented into tiny settlements in a world where roads have gone and the next village along the river is viewed with suspicion; horizons shrinking as old age with its terrible burdens sets in. Aldiss doesn't shrink from his vision of the world, the elderly are shown to be just as grasping and tyrannical as the young can be, as delusional and demented. Despite the widely known symptoms of the "Accident" phantom pregnancies are common even amongst women who are too old to have children anyway and the lack of children is constant regret for the protagonists, apart from possibly the title character. At the same time the natural world is shown as bolder, more troublesome, as man's grip slips threats emerge; much significance is given over to the danger of packs of stoats, which sounds laughable until you remember that as a man in his mid fifties Greybeard is considered young, and the image of an octogenarian trying to fend off a horde of animal is one that only stirs fear and pity.
The main plot details Greybeard, Martha, his wife, and a few other people, most of them men, setting off on a lunatic quest to boat down the Thames, partly to escape the terrible place the village, Sparcot, has become and partly because they have a desire to see what the conditions are like elsewhere. This journey is interlocked with flashbacks to events that detail many of the characters lives at points before they arrive at Sparcot and its here that we see most of the effort Aldiss has put into the shaping his world and characters, though most of the character development focuses on Greybeard and Martha.
He unflinchingly details what happens to society, the transition from gentle decline to more vigorously trying to destroy itself through war and authoritarianism; whilst being helped along by disease, especially cholera. The idea of cholera ravaging through somewhere as genteel as Oxford is somehow quite terrifying. The effect of there being no children on businesses and the economy is a repeated point, Greybeard's father ran a soft toy manufacturers and dies in a car accident soon after learning that the markets collapsed because there were no children, whilst in another flashback we learn that another character's father jumps out of a high window because there are no teenagers to buy his company's records. No children means no one to sell products to, which means the economy falters, the whole world falling apart in a cascade of dominoes.
The flashbacks detail the efforts made to try and secure a future for the species and to record society's final days, in a gesture that seems at once altruistic and narcissistic. Greybeard ends up working for the amusingly acronymed DOUCH(E), which I assume didn't have the meaning as an insult it does today back in 1964, the organisation that attempts to do this recording work and we see how it affects him; which is to say, badly. Greybeard after the collapse of society seems a happier, more collected figure than he does during the last days of so called civilisation, as do many of the other characters.
Aldiss' use of language is beautiful in places, there are references to 'hollow cheeked street's and a 'beggarly greedy graveyard' in the early stages of the book and other parts of the language caught my eye as I read through. My only complaint about the book is that despite the collapse of society, the lack of children and therefore the destruction of their traditional role, the women don't seem to actually do anything beyond occupy the position of traditional wives, but I put this down to the time the book was written rather than anything else.
Friday, 6 April 2012
Monday, 2 April 2012
See her reflection in the water
Child of invention, divinity’s daughter
The widest eyes, the palest skin
She’s wilfully starved and painfully thing
Dark moons ride beneath her eyes
And the land between her thighs
Is undiscovered, a mystery
In her eyes lies a sorrow
In the shadow of their hollows
Lonely and wild she rides
And in her, all her hopes hide
Beneath old dust sheets in her mind
All her dreams are lost inside
And struggle to be free
Spider fingers and scorpion tongue
Express her hate of this iron lung
Of a world that she lives in
Prefers the worlds she keeps within
Only emerging to feast at dusk
Full of vampires, wolves and lusts
The measure of her dreams
The graveyard truly is her home
Amongst the memories and bones
At midnight that’s where she’ll be
With a book and a sprig of rosemary
Like Ophelia cold and dead
She’ll weep, tears so sweetly shed
For everything that’s real
And hiding there at midnight
Standing in the cold half light
She seems so very frail
Her passion was to no avail
No solace here for her heart
Her world slowly pulled apart
Until it bled away