Human society was a sort of monster

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood

When I saw that Margaret Atwood was coming to Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas I got very excited about it and bought tickets. Only then did I realise that she is coming here to talk about her new book Maddadam, which is the third part of the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, and I had read neither of those. Cue a hurried purchase of both…

This dystopia is hauntingly desolate, a lonely existence for our hero Snowman, who may be the only human left, though not the only person. The devastation of society appears to be quite recent, as Snowman not only remembers the world as it was before, but played a key role in the tragedy, something that is gradually elucidated by his unreeling memories.

“The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest – clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.
‘You did this!’ he screams at the ocean.
No answer, which isn’t surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash.”

However, the world as it was, the world Snowman knew before, back when he was Jimmy, was also a place that might be called a dystopia. Global warming was wreaking havoc, claiming coastal cities and changing climates unrecognisably, with widespread droughts and species becoming extinct with alarming frequency. Society in North America had become unruly and dangerous, with only those living in heavily guarded compounds safe from crime and disease.

“Too many things were coming back to him, too much of what he’d lost, or – sadder – had never had in the first place. All that wasted time, and he didn’t even know who’d wasted it.”

But how did the world change from there to here? Who are or were Oryx and Crake? Who are these people who look human but aren’t, called the Children of Crake, whom Snowman feels compelled to protect? And can he keep them safe in this post-civilisation Earth?

There’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a pretty complex set-up and I can see why it’s a trilogy, because there’s so much more that could be said with this setting. The central theme is an environmental one, pressing home the point that the Earth will go on, it’s humans who will lose out and risk making ourselves extinct if we continue to mess with our habitat. And in this respect it’s a very sad story, because what’s depicted is so believable.

“Maybe there weren’t any solutions. Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain.”

However, there is another major theme that is, perhaps, less believable, more sci-fi conceptual idea (and possibly saves the whole from being too preachy or moralising, or perhaps is actually more of the same). The pre-disaster society depicted is a world where genetic modification/bioengineering has gone to sometimes ludicrous extremes. I found this sometimes annoying, often strange, but ultimately it all makes sense.

The world we are left with is a beautiful but terrifying devastation, with nature reclaiming control, and I look forward to seeing where Atwood is going to take this next.

“Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see, however. That was the trouble.”

Published 2003 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

More of the cold stuff

by Kim Stanley Robinson

I seem to be on a bit of an Arctic/Antarctic bent – had you noticed? After the last two titles I read, Tim suggested this as an appropriate follow-on and it did indeed fit in well. A lot of the history of Antarctica, especially the famous great expeditions of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, is recounted here amidst the near-future politics and sometimes scary tale of global warming and eco-terrorism.

Robinson is good at this sort of ensemble cast, giving voice to several characters to give a real overview to a situation without it being obvious that’s what’s going on. Each perspective is distinct and interesting, which I think shows in that each time it switched I was briefly disappointed to be leaving a story thread but then within a page I’d be completely caught up in the next thread.

Despite all the talk about Antarctica being the continent of science, and the scientists therefore at the top in terms of social status, they are the one group we don’t really get to know. Instead Robinson gives voice to the “other people”, a lot of whom (if not all of whom) support the science.

X is a general field assistant, essentially a dogsbody doing whatever work is assigned to him. He is very aware that he is at the bottom of the social strata and longs for change but loves Antarctica too much to leave. He used to date Val, in fact they had a bit of an ugly break-up, which is colouring his world view somewhat and she wishes he would get over it.

Val is a guide, a strong, athletic, experienced outdoors type who leads expeditions “in the footsteps of…”. She is uber-fit and uber-capable and sometimes struggles to hide her impatience with those less fit and capable. She is also fed up with the male attention she gets being a young, attractive woman on a continent with three men to every woman.

Wade Norton is an adviser to Senator Phil Chase (both of whom pop back up in Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy), and is sent down to Antarctica to investigate rumours of eco-terrorism and the effects of the breakdown of the Antarctic Treaty. The pair have humorous phone conversations that belie the complex politics they are discussing.

There’s also Ta Shu, the initially silly-seeming Chinese poet and Feng Shui expert, whose calm, steady positivity is infectious; and a mysterious eco-warrior who can no longer stand idly by as the global warming situation gets worse and worse, with sea levels rising and extreme weather events frighteningly frequent.

The story fluctuates from positive to negative, from calm to stormy. The icy continent is both a place of unparalleled beauty and of incomparable danger. Extreme tourists who have climbed Everest and the Matterhorn are challenged to the point of misery. Global warming has accelerated alarmingly and at the same time the world population has exploded and first-world governments have all but abandoned attempts to mitigate their emissions. But there are still people trying to do good, seeing the beauty of the world.

This was an exciting, moving read but I did skim some of the hard science bits (there’s a geophysics controversy that is an accurate portrayal of how science works but I must admit I found it dull) and I did get frustrated at the US bias. The two biggest research stations in Antarctica – McMurdo, or “Mac-Town” and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station – are indeed both American, run by the NSF, so maybe it’s understandable, but I did feel that the presence of and research carried out by other countries and other organisations was ignored somewhat. Robinson does, though, make a point of showing the vast range of nationalities working on or visiting the continent. He took part in the US Antarctic Program’s Artists and Writers Program, so he did draw on real experience.

He also, perhaps surprisingly for science fiction, shows some of the negative sides of “doing science” – the resentment and antagonism from the unseen support crew, the tendency to have such single-minded focus that the rest of the world doesn’t get noticed, the painfully slow process of peer review and publication. However, the individual scientists that we meet are great people, doing great work.

Somehow this novel is both pessimistic and hopeful, which is artful indeed. And it has made me want to re-read the Science in the Capital series. So much for making a dent in the TBR.

First published in Great Britain in 1997 by HarperCollins.

Time to make those far-off lands distant again

When the news first broke about the Icelandic volcano eruption causing a flight ban across much of northern Europe, I must admit that I was a little pleased about it. Great! I thought. People will turn to the alternatives (trains! boats! holidays close to home! eating locally produced food!) and discover that they’re not so bad. Of course, as the situation has continued and the news has been filled with little else, my naivety has been proven. It is of course miserable for most people affected and may continue to be miserable for some time to come.

The thing is, for the first 48 hours most of the news I heard or read was overwhelmingly positive: John Cleese takes comically expensive taxi ride across Europe, people use the internet to find other travellers to share alternative journeys home with, skies are clear and blue, hot-air balloon flies safely over Bristol Airport. The reality that’s now emerging is that it’s costing a lot of people a lot of money – the extra costs incurred to get home by other means and/or stay in a hotel for extra nights; missing work and therefore pay; African farmers not being able to sell their crops that are usually air-freighted to Europe; businesses reliant on tourism from the US and Canada watching their bank balances with horror – not to mention the non-monetary issues like major operations being postponed; missed birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries; students and schoolchildren missing exams and coursework deadlines.

Obviously a crisis like this is not the way to show the world what life would be like without flying. The world relies so heavily on flight that a sudden ban would never work. Alternatives need to be improved and people need to start using them. Then we can start significantly reducing flights and discover that it’s better all round. Stuart Jeffries paints an attractive picture of this but like many people he concentrates heavily on how we can all change our holidaying habits. This isn’t just about holidays, it’s about business travel, air freight, artists on tour, student exchanges, sports tournaments. So much of modern life relies on air travel and that’s going to be difficult to change.

I do not think that everything about globalisation is bad. I honestly believe that it broadens the mind to travel as much as you can. I love working with and meeting people from all over the world. I love trying new and interesting foods. If a truly environmentally friendly plane fuel became readily available then I would be fine with flying. However, I do not believe in carrying on as we are, hoping for that magic pill. We, as a whole world, should be trying to fly less. Businesses need to start actually using those expensive teleconference systems that gather dust in meeting rooms, farmers need to be encouraged to grow crops that have a market in their own country (or that can be freighted by ship or train, I suppose)…and 101 other little changes that have been talked about for years but don’t seem to be happening. George Monbiot has covered this in a lot of detail.

The alternatives to flying need to get better, cheaper and more readily available. For example, crossing the Atlantic – there are currently 10 cruises per year from Southampton to New York (and back, obv.), 6 cruises per year from Southampton to Barbados, plus various cargo ships that carry 2–12 passengers. (This website looks like a pretty good source of info if you’re considering a transatlantic boat trip.) Not a lot of capacity for the millions of Brits who travel to the US each year, let alone those visiting other American countries or indeed any other nationalities wishing to cross the Atlantic (I can’t seem to find useful numbers on this – let me know in the comments if you have some). The cruises that do exist are luxury Cunard ones, with the fastest one taking 6–8 days each way and costing over £2000 per person. Cheaper, faster boats are going to be needed for the average Atlantic crosser to even be able to consider it as an alternative.

What should be easier – and arguably more useful – is improving rail infrastructure within each continent. You can currently get to almost anywhere in Europe and a lot of Asia by train. I don’t know about Africa, Australasia or South America but I hear that North America is pretty bad for rail travel (please do tell me in the comments about any experiences you have of rail abroad). The Man in Seat Sixty-One does a sterling job of explaining rail travel (and indeed all land and sea travel options) all over the world (though it does assume you’re starting from the UK). The problem is that it’s slow and expensive compared with flying and, while some train journeys are beautiful and comfortable enough to be a holiday in themselves, many are not.

For reliance on flying to be significantly reduced, we need to find alternatives that suit everyone, not just reasonably well off well intentioned holiday-makers. Everything needs to change, which is frightening and exhilarating. What an opportunity: to create a better world.