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.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Untitled 1

I had a slightly disconcerting experience in the gents' loo of a restaurant last night. As I walked in, several men turned round and looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. It was very unsettling.

I quickly checked myself in the mirror, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. The men left and I resolved not to give in to any feelings of paranoia, but in the silence that followed, I became aware of some very strange atonal piano music playing in the room.

I can safely say that I have never heard piped Webern in a public convenience before and it only served to enhance the sense of unreality. Perhaps the restaurant manager was indulging his quirky and sometimes inappropriate sense of humour.

After a brief pause, the music continued. The new movement reminded me of the soundtrack to a particularly grim Eastern Bloc animated film. Outside, I could hear some innocuous folk playing in the restuarant. It was all very odd.

Then I finally realised that the music was coming from my pocket. I must have pushed an app button on my smartphone and the strange looks from the men were a perfectly rational response to a man entering the loo with atonal music emanating from his nether regions.

It was the second of two embarrassing misunderstandings this week. The first happened at my son's ninth birthday party.

For the presentation of the cake, I dimmed the lights and put on the third side of the Beatles' White Album, which begins with the song 'Birthday'. The candles were blown out and the boys seemed to be enjoying the music and having the lights off, so I left them to it.

Unfortunately, when the parents arrived, they found their sons sitting under a table in a dark room listening to 'Revolution 9' blaring out "Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine..."

I tried to explain, but I think it only made things worse.

I shall be glad when this week is over. In addition to public embarrassment, I had to spend most of Wednesday in the A&E at Haywards Heath, after my mother had fainted at a concert. Fortunately she regained consciousness quickly, saying "Well, they weren't very good singers anyway."

The doctor wanted to keep my mother in for tests, so that they could eliminate the possibility of a blood clot. Sadly, this meant spending six hours sitting in a cubicle, listening to my mother talking non-stop about other people's ailments. At one point I suggested that she should have a sleep, but she didn't take the hint.

Perhaps I'm being churlish, but six hours of "Doris with the neck needs to be near a toilet...There are a lot of coloured people working here...Brenda didn't pay me back for that pint of milk I bought...Vera's cross because the window cleaner didn't come on Thursday..." is five hours and 45 minutes more than I can take.

The one enjoyable moment this week was visiting the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, just as the sun was setting over the sea.

As long as there are moments like these, everything else is tolerable. Just.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Autumn Gold

I took some photos at work earlier today, as I thought the late afternoon light looked particularly appealing. For some reason, Google Plus has automatically tarted two of them up. I've no idea why and can't be bothered to find out.

My workplace isn't exactly glamorous, but even the most mundane features seem to acquire a strange beauty when the setting sun highlights the rough contours of the surfaces of buildings and objects:



I must bring a proper camera in one day and capture the post-apocalyptic splendour of my farm.

It has been an annoying week at work. A courier lost a bag of orders a few weeks ago - something I didn't discover until customers started emailing to ask where their books were. After a three week tour around the Midlands, the parcels were returned on Tuesday in a large box, along with a packet of 10,000 staples.

I think the staples were another mistake, rather than some form of recompense.

I have now switched to Royal Mail. They may have an online ordering system that makes the Enigma machine look simple, but at least I know that the books will reach their destination instead of sitting in a warehouse in Leicestershire.

I enjoy working in the countryside, but can't quite get over its oddness. On Monday a stranger asked me if I'd like to see his puppy (you could get arrested for that in London). He opened the back of a car and handed me a beautiful 13-week-old spaniel, with adoring eyes. Later, on the way home, I saw a man standing on the corner of a road with a falcon perched on his hand. I've no idea why.

On other days, I'll suddenly see a succession of people ride past in horse-drawn carriages, or spot someone casually carrying a rifle with a telescopic sight.

It's only a matter of time before I go native.