October 23, 2004

The Wanting Seed

Author: Anthony Burgess | First published 1962 | Amazon

The Wanting Seed is a very strange book, chronicling one pass of society from Pelagian encouragement and liberalism to Augustinian punishment and order. The theory of cycles is interesting, and goes well with the choice of Tristram Foxe, a historian, as the main character. The cannibalism and the staged battles are bizarrely horrifying, though the Malthusian problems Burgess saw leading to them seem to be diminishing, if more slowly than is good.

Unfortunately, the writing is frequently painful. I wonder if Burgess kept the Oxford English Dictionary next to him while choosing words. If it was written first person from Tristram's perspective, maybe it would make sense, but here it just comes out strange. I also have a really hard time believing the timeframe of the book, a mere two years. Maybe England is more changeable than I thought?

I don't think Burgess' particular telling of the future is plausible, but the theory of cycles he provides and many of the details of the Pelgian-Augustinian battle are well worth a lot more thought.

Posted by simonstl at 11:43 PM

October 17, 2004

Apocalyptic devastations

(Since I'm reading books with similar themes, and writing one as well, I think I'll pause to write a bit about their different takes on common issues. For the most part I'm going to focus on A Canticle for Leibowitz, Riddley Walker, and The Postman, but I may wander into a few other books, notably The Handmaid's Tale and Fahrenheit 451. (They have similar themes but take place in less-destroyed worlds.)

In The Postman, which takes place only sixteen years after "towering, superheated funnels had punched through to the stratosphere, filling it with tiny bits of suspended rock and soil," the world is wrecked but starting to recover. Gordon Krantz has fought his way from the radioactive remains of St.Paul to Oregon, struggling with a world blasted not only by radiation but by drastically changed weather patterns and ferocious survivalists. Oregon is in much better shape than anything else he's seen, though, and there are signs that life (and the weather) are starting to return to normal.

In A Canticle for Leibowitz, the effects of the "flame deluge" are more drastic. The book starts centuries after the great disaster, which has changed the minds and bodies of the survivors drastically. The church appears to be the sole surviving institution, and that barely. It could be worse, of course - when "Lucifer is fallen," it seems unlikely that the world will recover a second time. Perhaps.

Riddley Walker's world, supposedly at least 2347 years after the disaster, is broken to the point where magical explanation seems sensible. Dogs are a constant threat to the survivors huddled in their 'fents', and radiation is definitely still around, though no one seems to have geiger counters. The northeastern tip of Inland, now called "the Ram", has been separated from the rest by a flood of uncertain origin - "a jynt wave it wer a wall of water hyer nor a mountain."

All of these worlds are in worse shape than the one created at the end of Fahrenheit 451, perhaps because it was written in the 1950s, before standing in the wake of a nuclear explosion was obviously a bad idea for the lifespan of those blown over. Awareness of the relatively contained damage of the relatively smaller bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hadn't yet been replaced with visions of nuclear winter and massive and persistent fallout well beyond the blast zone.

Even The Handmaid's Tale, which isn't quite post-apocalyptic, has plenty of elements of a broken planet, most notably the declining fertility rates that drive much of its plot.

Post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have declined with the end of the cold war. I suspect we're more hopeful that the nuclear missiles will sleep in their silos. I'm curious what new genre will emerge to replace that scenario. I'm working on my own, but suspect that the recent increase in widespread fear will eventually have an effect on writing at least as powerful as that created by the fallout shelters and arms races of 1945-1989.

Posted by simonstl at 08:18 PM

October 16, 2004

The Postman

Author: David Brin | First published 1985 | Amazon

The writing is uneven, and the plot twists don't always feel to me like they live up to the basic premise of the book. Unlike A Canticle for Leibowitz or Riddley Walker, it's set in a future only sixteen years after a nuclear war and the ensuing consequences.

Brin makes the point repeatedly that the cause of greatest disaster is failure to stand together, selfishness in the face of a threat. He shows it in his tales of the causes of the war, the ensuing chaos in which hoarding and refusal to cooperate made matters far worse, and in his diabolical Holnists who combine survivalism and weirdly Nietzschean philosophy to produce nightmares for everyone they encounter.

There's also a thread on the importance of women, though this stays buried for a while. It's an undercurrent to the story that follows Gordon and a mostly male crew through the book. Though it surfaces dramatically, it didn't feel that well-attached to me. This theme does reinforce the value of community.

Like the other books I've been reading, reclaiming technology is a key thread here, though Brin seems to share a lot of the same doubts in its value as the other books have. Community matters more than technology, even when that community is based on faith in things that the reader explicitly learns don't exist.

Posted by simonstl at 11:43 PM

Riddley Walker

Author: Russell Hoban | First published 1980 | Amazon

Riddley Walker is like no other book I've ever read. It has some strands in common with A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its ruined world struggling to interpret remnants and the importance of religion, but it's far more hallucinatory. The prose is all in dialect, which often needs to be sounded out to establish its meaning - and there are often many meanings in a given set of words.

I've been on a post-apocalyptic binge lately (Canticle, The Handmaid's Tale, currently reading The Postman), but this one does an excellent job of conveying the confusion left after a disaster and the explanations people will resort to in order to make things seem sensible. The plot has a heavy dose of magical realism to it, but in the circumstances described, magical realism seems pretty realistic.

Posted by simonstl at 09:58 PM

October 11, 2004

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Author: Walter M. Miller, Jr. | First published 1959 | Amazon

I read A Canticle for Leibowitz in high school, but it didn't stick. All I really remembered was "pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels". There's a lot more here, even though the author enjoys using two languages I don't understand: my Latin is rusted out and I never could read Hebrew. Miller's vision of a world starting over after a nuclear holocaust is stunning, and watching the world recapitulate history is both amazing and plausible. The monks' care in preserving the sacred materials, even those they don't understand, is treated with the seriousness it deserves, and Miller does an excellent job of taking both faith and secular science seriously.

Posted by simonstl at 04:58 PM