Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thinking Through Nature - books ordered

Posting some rough ideas about what to do with my fall Literature and Environment course last week got me some great advice, and lots of supportive messages as well. So, I've ordered my books now, and once I finish marking this week, and then finish the small task of negotiating a first unionized agreement for faculty and librarians here at UVic, I'll figure out just what kind of course to build on top of and around them.

Here are the five books, in what might feel like a useful sequence:
If you're thinking that's too few texts: maybe. I'm thinking that I'll get the students to group off and present something (maybe online?) on other texts that might have been included, like the 1852 Canadian Crusoes by Catherine Parr Traill, or the 1900 Heart of the Ancient Wood by Charles GD Roberts. And I'm also mulling over options to get students working with environmental protests or actions of one kind or another, so there's lots to think about….

Richard Wagamese, Medicine Walk

Seriously, that's all I want to say.

In Robert Wiersema's review of Medicine Walk (which I saw in the Edmonton Journal but was inexplicably headed "special to the Sun"), he sounded almost at a loss for words about what makes this book so great. Ask anybody who knows Wiersema, and you'll hear that's not something you expect to see. He's a better reviewer than I am, so check out what he has to say, but the thing is, Wagamese's genius in this book is just to tell the damned story and keep everything else the hell out of the way.

You know the story about sculptors, cutting away the parts of the rock that don't fit the sculpture? Yeah, that. Again, over to Wiersema: "Wagamese is able to evoke entire worlds out of the simplest of passages, a sensitivity to subtlety and the smallest of gestures." This novel is stuffed full of meaning, much of it suspended and inaccessible in tension and silences and tableaus.

Reading Medicine Walk, it's almost like I found myself living with my nerves on the outside of my body, much the same way that Wagamese's characters do: so much unsaid, so much unsayable, and so much information flooding in through the senses that the book contains more of the world than there is in the world we're walking around in.

If you're the kind of reader who wants to know stuff about the book before making your call, fine, but you're getting nothing from me. I'm giving you absolutely no details about Medicine Walk, so just trust me, all right? Admittedly I'm exhausted these days, more than a little on the edge, but some random stranger on the bus asked me what I was reading. I tried to summarize it in a couple of sentences, and I choked up. Choked. Right. Up.  It really is just that beautiful, that remarkable, that memorable, this novel.

Medicine Walk will be the best book to appear in Canada this year, and it's the best I've read in who knows how long. Write that down.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Thinking Through Nature

Here at UVic, I've been lucky enough to teach the first three versions of English 478, a variable-content course at the intersection of literature and environment. In September 2014, I'll be delivering the fourth version, under the rubric "Thinking Through Nature," and it's planning season: book orders are due, and I'm looking for advice in all the wrong social media places.

We English instructors are free to propose each year what we'd like to cover in any of the department's variable-content courses. Courses can't cover the same ground within any rolling three-year period, and some years, the department's Curriculum Committee decides that some variable-content courses shouldn't run at all, so I'm feeling very lucky these days.

Here's the description that was approved for the course to be offered in September 2014:
"An examination of nature, both as an idea and in its material form, throughout twentieth-century Canadian literature. Explores the foundations and consequences of the stereotypic view of Canada and Canadians as being obsessed with and grounded in nature, especially wilderness. Reflects upon touristic and governmental discourses of Canada and Canadianness. Blends literary studies with environmental studies, environmental history, and conservation biology."
Eagle Pass Mountain, BC
And also:
"We will question what consequences this traditional faith in wild nature might have in the near future under climate change, and what consequences it has had over the last hundred years. In particular, this course is intended to let students connect Canadian literature to the aims and  methodologies of academic programs from across the university, such as environmental studies (especially law and history) and conservation biology."
So, I'm left with two big questions: which directions should the class head, and what texts should we look at?

Directions: the easy option would be to stick close to literary history and ecocriticism. Nothing wrong with aesthetics, obviously, and English students generally seem interested still in the traditional questions of literature, so maybe that'd be more attractive for a larger group of students.

But more and more, I'm feeling seriously drawn toward taking a much more activist approach. Could an English class work, if we read all our literature in relation to something like the recent IPCC climate change report; the Enbridge pipeline's Joint Review Panel report; or the potentially destructive Park Amendment Act here in BC?

In other words, are English students prepared to buy into a course that blends environmentalist protest, ecosocial critique, and literary studies?

Texts: this is tricky not just because there are SO MANY GREAT OPTIONS, although there are, but because the choice of texts will limit the kinds of directions we'll be able to pursue. Here's where I'm at right now:
I'm really looking forward to this course, or at least I will be once I finish digging out from under the torrent of marking under which I'm currently buried.

But for now, I'd appreciate any advice or suggestions you might want to share in the comments. Which books do I choose, would English students sign up for a protest-like course, and which issues might we emphasize for confrontation?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Hannah Holmes, Suburban Safari

I really, really enjoyed Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, by nature writer and science writer Hannah Holmes. It's a thoughtful, well researched, kind of fun almanac about the changes Holmes' in garden and lawn throughout what amounts to a typical Maine year in the first decade of the 21st century (and I do love an almanac). You'll come away charmed by Holmes and her compatriots, animal, insect, and plant, and you'll learn plenty of small details that you'll wish you'd always known.

Mind you, I weep for a world where anyone, even the benightedly unintelligent Entertainment Weekly, could possibly provide blurb fodder like the offensive and patently absurd equation that "Holmes is a Rachel Carson for 21st-century suburbia." I'm not the only one objecting, at least, so that dries my tears a bit, and that's from someone else who genuinely appreciated the book. Rachel Carson and Hannah Holmes are both American women whose books are about environmental issues: that's no reason to equate them, even if it's a reason to connect them.

Don't hold this against Holmes or Suburban Safari, though. I've been too busy in recent weeks to read consumingly anyway, but it has been one of those times where I've chosen to slow down in order to prolong my time in the mental space that the book provoked. My intentions are good, but there's so much about my local ecology that I don't know, so much about my own garden and lawn that's either invisible to me or subject to terrible management, that it has been inspiring to spend time with someone acting on her intentions and becoming genuinely, carefully knowledgeable about her own place in the world.

Plus it's the kind of book where you're constantly learning terrific "hey, did you know…" facts perfectly suited for dropping into conversation:
  • Earthworms are, in almost all parts of North America, an invasive species rather than a native species (pp.90-91), and they're killing forests.
  • A person living in the Sonoran Desert could gain sustenance from at least 375 different plants (p.129).
  • Trees can smell the chemical signature of other plants being under stress (such as through insect attack), and will produce chemicals resisting the stress before they're stressed themselves (pp.157-159).
  • "A fungus scholar once told me that rain causes fungus spore-pouches to burst and release kazillions of spores into the air, and that the smell of baby fungi is mistaken for the smell of clean air" (p.169)

Very enjoyable, very informative, and a baseline for how environmentally aware left-wingers and liberals really ought to be about urban nature (though it may also have a logical home among Stuff White People Like...).

Glynnis Hood, The Beaver Manifesto

Before we look at Glynnis Hood's nerdy little gem The Beaver Manifesto, I need simply to say that y'all should regularly be browsing the new releases zone for Rocky Mountain Books' RMB Manifestos series. Naturally they won't be equally appealing to everyone, but in my book, they're the only reasonable competitor for the Transmontanus series (from New Star Books). Volumes in both series are short, highly readable nerdstravaganzas, with either an intensely local focus or a personably political view of the world.

Revolutions aren't individual actions. Build your community, if you want to change your world.

And speaking of community, one crucial lesson from The Beaver Manifesto, a 2011 RMB manifesto by Glynnis Hood, is that North Americans -- especially Canadians, but not only us -- should imagine that this continent evolved under the joint stewardship of beavers and Indigenous humans. We've all gotten past the renovated "noble savage" stereotype that sees First Nations peoples as a kind of collective proto-No Impact Man, I hope, what with the irrefutable evidence (even for would-be deniers) of large-scale urban-style construction, fire-based resource management, and permanent aquaculture installations. Humans thoroughly reshaped the apparently natural environment of North America in all kinds of complicated ways before European contact, so settler Euroamericans need to get over themselves, and I think mostly that's underway.

Beavers, though, unless we've dealt with them at any length on the land, we tend to see as mascots and aren't-they-cute amateur engineers. Hood has done great work here in writing a popular-style book heavily indebted to academic research: hydrological and ecological studies of beavers' effects on the land (including during drought conditions), statistical data about the absolutely VAST scope of the fur trade, and political analysis of deliberate local beaver extirpation as a strategy of corporate warfare. Without beavers, human and animal populations in the Great Plains (on both sides of the border) would have been at great risk of collapse in the face of prolonged or intense drought. In regions without regular precipitation, or where steep slopes would otherwise have been subject to slides and slumping, it's really all about beavers: with them, there's a chance at a rich and thriving ecosystem, including humans, but without them, we're never far from catastrophe in the form of landslides or desertification.

Take Canada's boreal forests, for example. Hood's academic research (with Suzanne Bayley) has shown that upwards of 80% of open-water area is directly attributable to beavers. Given the ecosystem type is known for having such characteristic elements as bogs and moose, it may be accurate to say that the world's largest coterminous forest owes its fundamental structure to the multi-century efforts of beavers, most of which (most of whom?) were killed so that Europeans could wear particularly snazzy hats.

North America would have been a different place altogether, if beavers hadn't been pushed near extinction. If maybe half of the estimated six million beavers trapped for their fur had been left to keep managing local ecosystems, it's possible that the terrible American drought of the 1850s and 1860s would have been far less consequential, and it's even possible that the 1930s Dust Bowl would have been much more of a local event. (Side note: it's extremely difficult to figure out how many beavers were trapped! Hood doesn't specify a figure, and "six million" is the best I can find online. Advice appreciated.)

There are plenty of ecological atrocities that we should mourn and that should radicalize us. Today, I'm with Glynnis Hood in seeing the beaver trade as having generated a reduced, weakened North America. Rewilding should maybe start there -- and I'm taking rewilding more seriously all the time.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Roberts, Heart of the Ancient Wood

They don't write them like this anymore. Or maybe they do, but they don't publish them.

HPC project
Probably for the best, that, but it's so wildly through the looking glass to read early 20th-century novels that I'm persistently tempted to teach them anyway. Latest candidate: Charles G.D. Roberts' The Heart of the Ancient Wood, which might count as early fantasy masquerading as non-credible realist fiction. (Ebook available at

Now, Roberts was a pretty terrific poet, but he's name-checked more often than read, and his fiction doesn't get talked about very much even by the critics going to the trouble of name-checking his poetry. Sure, he wrote a vast number of books, so many that they can't possibly all be worth reading, and some of them are almost unrecoverably dated, but the 1900 Heart of the Ancient Wood is just bizarre enough that it shouldn't be overlooked. I mean, a colonialist frontier novel about the intersection between proto-feminism and vegetarianism that draws on Shakespeare's The Tempest and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter? Such stuff as dreams are made on, amirite?

(And before you ask -- yes, indeed I do realize that for most people, this would count as six distinct reasons NOT to read the book. I'm guessing that those people won't find themselves on this blog very often anyway.)

If you happen to pick up the New Canadian Library edition, though, let me just say that you should under no circumstances read the introduction before reading the novel. Even the very first paragraph gives away crucial plot points, and by its end, the introduction -- by the henceforth accursed Joseph Gold -- reveals every single narrative twist. These are hanging offences, in my book library, more so because this book is so weird that if you let Joseph Gold control your reading experience, you're not going to recognize the scope of the weirdness.

So … is this all a build-up for a book review that tells you nothing whatever about the book being reviewed?


The novel's spark is a mother's decision to abandon a frontier settlement and raise her daughter entirely alone, far from civilization but intimate with the wild. The novel itself is about the growth of a young girl into feral animality as well as womanhood, and about the Schrodingerian resolution of competing possibilities. Essentialism plus colonialism plus posthumanism, Romantic nature-loving plus anti-hunting diatribes plus Alone in the Wilderness: I refuse to give any more away than that.

Should I teach it in September, I wonder?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Robert Bringhurst, Wild Language

Bless the good folks at Vancouver Island University, for still fulfilling the assorted and diverse mandates both for the Institute for Coastal Research and its somewhat related Gustafson Poetry Series. All by itself, the Gustafson series (with its Gaspereau-issued keepsake talismans) is almost enough all on its own to make me want to live in Nanaimo.

Now, I don't get everything that poets say about their work, or about others' work, or I would've been able to finish the lovely wee Gaspereau-issued Gustafson chapbook by Daphne Marlatt.

But as weak as my mind is, I'm comfortable with how greatly I admired Robert Bringhurst's Wild Language:
It appears to me that what wild actually means is the opposite of undisciplined and crude. It means extremely sophisticated. It means capable of living under the most demanding conditions, with minimal tools and housing and clothing. It means self-sufficient in a high degree, and yet part of the fabric, a full working member of the ecology. Could language live up to that standard? (p.17)
In Wild Language, Bringhurst moves from speculations about the relative wildness of the place where his home is located on Cortez Cortes Quadra Island, through speculations about mapping and fences as objects and as technologies, into some remarks on the potential for wildness in language. He persistently succeeds in having it both ways in this short text, using "wild" and the notion of wildness literally as well as metaphorically. It's a fine and sparkling essay, Wild Language, arguing that in the end it all comes down to the function of language, especially the job of "understanding":
Understanding is something humans do for fun, the same way ravens do aerial somersaults and rolls, and squirrels play chase, and otters and penguins go tobogganing. But the time comes, as any raven can tell you, when you have to straighten up and fly right to avoid crashing. (p.30)
Bringhurst recognizes, of course, that what he's calling "understanding" isn't quite what the scientifically minded would call "understanding," and that we humans are nonetheless able to achieve quite a lot with language (that our frail and limited grasp is relatively potent, though still frail and limited). It's just that he can't leave well enough alone, and that he doesn't want us merely to leave things be, either. The ecological crises are a social crisis, in Bringhurst's twinned senses of ecology and of society, so he wants us to take language (to be taken by language) somewhere new, and his code word for this is "wild."

I remain firmly on the side of William Cronon on the troubles inherent in the notion of wilderness, and I think I read in Bringhurst's wildness an overlap with Cronon's use of the same term. But I distrust both writers' utopic uses of the term, indeed in any sense that salvation can come from words (or indeed, perhaps especially, from The Word). Materiality. Teaching at the intersection of literature and environment used to feel rewarding, but I'm so aware these days of my distance from the barricades, and in some ways this distance is best understood as the spaces jammed inside that confining, cute word "wild."

And yet I loved reading Wild Language. So there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

John McPhee, Assembling California

Madness, seriously: it wasn't until the late 1960s that our understanding of geology came to include plate tectonics. Maybe ring that up next time someone slags flat-earthers. Until 1968, pretty much every geologist on the entire planet had a fundamentally incorrect understanding of large-scale geological processes. (We should all know this, I think, even if I'm not sure quite what it should mean.)

More specifically, according to John McPhee, nobody could explain the feral complexity of California's topography and geology until plate tectonics entered broad currency, and even more specifically until the occasion of a 1969 conference, attended by many of the world's structural geologists. As one Eldridge Moores sat there listening to another geology professor, all the pieces of theory came together. Suddenly, to Moore if not to anyone else yet, everything about California's geology became clear.

Moores was struck, in that conference room, by the realization that California isn't really part of North America at all. At bottom, California's geology is instead the still-ongoing, echoing residue of multiple and successive super-massive collisions, as arcs of islands shaped like the Philippines or Japan smashed into and rode up onto the continent's western edge (pp.107-108).

via the Sierra Nevada Alliance: support them!
Huge events like these take time, of course, but they're huge. The largest earthquakes within the San Andreas fault system might take down whole cities, but comparatively, they're puny. Twenty feet of seismic shift, busting up freeways and taking down skyscrapers? Pfft. Weak sauce. Talk to me when you grasp that the mountaintops of the Sierra Nevada were formed at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

In explaining this concept McPhee uses almost exactly the same line he did in Basin and Range, but it's so good enough that it'd almost be a shame not to do the reprise: "If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is still the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone" (p.183 in Basin, p.214 in Assembling).

Assembling California follows on McPhee's earlier book Basin and Range, the two of which were five of the shorter books swallowed up, tectonic-like, by his leviathan Annals of the Former World (which I kick myself for still not having read. This summer, by God, this summer). There's never any explaining why a writer develops an expertise in a particular area, these things almost always growing by their own laws, but we're all better off because of McPhee's growth into a pseudo-geologist. I could go on, but either you'll buy into one or more of these books just on the strength of my enthusiasm and these few hints, or the book's already dead to you. If you're tempted at all, pick up a copy, and I swear that you'll turn halfway geological yourself.

And as a bonus, a way nerdy geology video for you, featuring one of the world's great beards (on the suspiciously cherubic face of McPhee's friend, source and hero, Eldridge Moores). You're welcome.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Maureen Brownlee, Loggers' Daughters

So many books, so little time: you've got to choose wisely, and to do that, we've all got shortcuts that we'd like to pretend are more sophisticated than judging a book by its cover. One of mine, that I'd love to say was helpful at least once, has been simply to check whether the book's blurbers are named in the acknowledgements section. I haven't relied heavily on it for a little while now, but even if I still believed, Maureen Brownlee's wonderful Loggers' Daughters would have marked the end of this particular shortcut.

The theory was that the blurbs maybe shouldn't be trusted, if those writing them were close enough to the writing process to merit public acknowledgement. (Obviously this was only a small-press strategy. A blurb from Entertainment Weekly gets you an automatic DQ anyway, if that's consolation.)

The thing is, though, that all these terrific BC writers know each other's work, and even if at times they're reading each other's writing when it's still in process, they're blurbing each other's finished books carefully and thoughtfully: Theresa Kishkan, Tim Bowling, Terry Glavin, Angie Abdou, Brian Fawcett, Charlotte Gill, JB MacKinnon….

In the case of Maureen Brownlee's Loggers' Daughters, in other words, I was worried that the blurbs were from two writers named in the acknowledgements section, Globe-dubbed "godfather" Andreas Schroeder and #socmedia dynamo Angie Abdou. When it took me a little while to get comfortable with Adare Wilkins and her family, when there was just so damned much in the book that I thought should have been grabbing me, well, I started to worry.

I shouldn't have, because the book was just nestling me into Adare's world. Once I was embedded, events began to accelerate, and I was utterly hooked.

Loggers' Daughters is set in the interior of British Columbia, 1983, when mortgage rates were around 20%, when employment was even more volatile than usual for logging communities, and when the BC coast was wild with marches and protests of many kinds (cruise missiles, Red Hot Video fire-bombings, feminism, etc.). Adare Wilkins, the novel's main character, is 44 years old, painfully aware of being stuck between generations and of the world's changes since her youth, and yet unsure how and where to stand on her own. Well before the novel's narrated present, Adare found herself dragooned into moving with her husband back to her mother's farm, mostly to care for her but also to keep the farm alive. She poured a lot of energy and time (and money) into the property, only to have her mother die without a will, leaving her with no legal claim to the farm, and yet because her siblings are all struggling financially as well, there's just no good reason for them to give her more than her due.

This novel gives its readers a brilliant, small-scale representation of a woman claiming her place in the world, anchored in a version of small-town 1980s BC that feels awfully true to me. As I said about Frances Greenslade's Shelter and Matt Hooton's Deloume Road, I'm not sure anymore how I really feel about realist fiction, given how much time I'm seeming to spend with environmental nonfiction and speculative fiction of assorted kinds. With Loggers' Daughters, Maureen Brownlee has written the kind of novel that makes realist fiction world enough for so many readers: great, great read!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bill Gaston, The World

Bill Gaston doesn't have to say it in The World, because most of the people likely to read this ingenious novel will have learned our lesson already from Thomas King: the truth about stories, wrote King in his volume of Massey lectures, is that's all we are.

In The World, Gaston cycles through the linked and interwoven stories of three separate characters, plus two layers of metafictional text, both of which may somehow map, inexplicably, and perhaps metaphorically, onto the life of one of the characters. Reviewers seem to take the view, where they don't love the book, that Gaston has too many moving parts in play here, that add up to too slight an achievement.

Not unlike a Rube Goldberg invention, I guess, but who's going to complain about the genuinely Goldbergian, right? Party poopers.

The first section of The World gives us the tale of the hapless Stuart Price, whose life started going all to hell five years before the novel's timeline. After the self-inflicted catastrophe that kicks off the plot, Stuart decides to visit his old friend Mel, or Melody, who lives in Toronto and who he hasn't seen in 25 years. (As one does.) One thing leads to another, and by the time he makes it to Toronto, well, let's just say that Stuart has hit bottom: the nothing that is, a kind of unwitting and unwilling achievement of Buddhist enlightenment through ignorance and bad luck.

And then we get Mel's story, from the moment that she sees Stuart again. She's suffering terribly, facing death from an illness that has been consuming her for eight years as well as watching her father's rapid disintegration with Alzheimer's, but she finds a complicated relief in the careful construction of her own funeral and wake, particularly the menu. Unlike Stuart, who finds himself dragged toward nothingness, she manages to welcome the approach of her own nothingness.

And then there's Hal, Mel's father, whose dementia means that his story makes little direct sense while we're reading it. Since turning 40, Hal has spent most of his life as a practicing Buddhist, but the uncontrollable effects of Alzheimer's anchor him even more fully to the practices of mindfulness than did his conscious efforts.

Via Dhamma Scribe
All three of these stories, in other words, depict the stripping away of worldly things.

The metafictional layers continue the theme, with the story of a young history professor who hires a beautiful young Chinese woman, as one does, to translate some manuscripts he has received from the D'Arcy Island leper colony. I'm not going to give any of that away, but I confess to really enjoying the slightly wooden, slightly fanciful, painfully recognizable schemings of the academic's rich imaginary life.

But the last couple of pages? Yergh…. I'm just not happy when a densely plotted novel, like Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl or Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma, wraps up with an overly poetic conclusion. Like those novels, The World ends poetically rather than realistically, and while the Author's Q&A in my book club edition explains some of the rationale behind Gaston's decision, I don't know quite how I feel about it. Presumably I can ask him tomorrow night at book club, but he's the boss of two club members, which might make it a little awkward to gripe much.

Maybe best not to open an author-hosting book club meeting with the old "thumbs up or thumbs down?" group review.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Luanne Armstrong, The Light through the Trees

Nature writing is an embarrassingly full genre, with far more good books than any of us will ever have time to read in each of its manifold varieties. Not everyone reads it, of course, and some people hate it, some people even hate nature itself, but for those of us who persist, we're constantly failing to read just the right book.

Most of you should, therefore, read Luanne Armstrong's The Light Through the Trees: maybe read it in the summer, because much of it's about summer, but I do love a winter book that reminds me summer's on its way. And for most confirmed readers of nature writing, this will be the right book for you, one day, even if it's not today. Get a copy, hold onto it, and wait for the time.

Briefly: Armstrong is a farmer and writer who lives now, in her 60s, on the British Columbia property where she was born. This book blends, provokingly, thoughts on writing and the writing life, on farming and food security, on colonialism and nostalgia, on real estate and the imaginary. The singular thread linking these topics is the intellectual fierceness of Armstrong herself, and she's a narrator and companion I really enjoyed (even if I'm not sure her neighbours would like some of the characterizations applied to them!).

Her key insight is, both simply and profoundly, that writers have always thought and written about matters related to what she at Armstrong at one point refers to as "human/non-human interaction," there being no way to cleanly describe the interface, relationship, obligations, etc. that exist (or ought to exist) between humans and nature, the environment, local ecosystems, the watershed…. Anyway, writers have always spent a great deal of time thinking about this interaction, and they need to keep doing this. Indeed, readers need to keep upholding their side of this bargain:
"… it is a necessary and crucial task to revisit this area of thought and ask ourselves what is worth keeping, and what needs to be re-thought, and what needs to be written." (p.168)
The immediate context is simply that we're governed by ethical systems whose bases were developed a very long time ago; we're living in a different world now, where humans have had an immense and unpredicted impact, and all our systems need re-thinking. Armstrong wants to start with writing and with farming, and after reading this book, I'm even more inclined to agree with her than I was before.

Wonderful book, highly recommended!

And that's the end of the review, but I can't help closing with a digression that's not entirely irrelevant.

At one point in the book, Armstrong writes of having attended, "feeling skeptical, … a university conference on literature and the environment" (p.122). She writes very effectively of her irritation at one of the panels, an irritation I've felt many times myself at such conference, and then moves on to other things. The thing is, I was the on-site host for that conference, which was a curse and a joy, as was the job of ASLE's organization host, and one of my favourite small memories is about Luanne Armstrong.

You see, one of our evening lectures featured Klah-hisht-ke-is (a.k.a. Chief Simon Lucas) and Jeannette Armstrong, and it was amazing. (You can watch their lectures online here.) I mean, it was just fantastic, transformative, mind-opening, all the rest of it: not all the American academics seemed ready for it, so maybe there's something special about the Canadian version of blending literature and environment, but plenty of attendees were clearly entranced.

And one of those was Luanne.

She approached Jeannette Armstrong after the lecture had ended, after a group of well-wishers had departed, so overcome with emotion she could barely speak. They spoke for a time together, not about overly consequential matters, but such things as the accident of sharing a last name while from different cultures, but genuinely and warmly, as writers and thinkers and humans in British Columbia. This one moment, I knew right then, encapsulated everything I'd wanted to achieve with this conference. I hadn't achieved it, indeed I'm sure that I've never quite understood what on earth I was trying to achieve, really, but still. This little interaction, I carry around still as kind of a defining memento for my career. I've never told that story before. But ever since, I've smiled every time I've seen Luanne Armstrong's name on something!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Charlie Higson, The Enemy

I'm not quite at the point where someone's going to have to bring me warm milk and watch over me as I sleep, but Charlie Higson's The Enemy is seriously scary. I avoid parties, because they're fine without me, and a popular-genre-with-a-twist novel usually deserves some mockery, but this The Enemy series? Yikes. Also, whoa.

Our scene is London, round about now: 18 months ago, everyone over fourteen years of age developed some kind of disease that turned them into zombies. No one knows what happened, though there are lots of theories, and all we see are isolated groups of kids with no future, no plan, no real defenses. They're Lord of the Flies hard on each other, but internal conflicts are a long way from being important enough to matter in this reality.

The kids still struggling to survive call the zombies "mothers" and "fathers" (so awful!), and the kids' lives are entirely consumed by avoiding or killing the grownups. The killing is gory and detailed and gruesome, plus nearly constant, but the grownups are so grotesque and blood-thirsty that you don't really mind. Well, sure, problems arise when you remember that you're a grownup yourself, but come on, they're zombies, so.... And when the kids die, and lots of kids do die, there's far less detail: this may be what Higson means in his interviews when he says it's tough to get the gore balance right.

The Enemy is a popular-genre-with-a-twist novel, and like I said, this sort of thing deserves mockery, but I just couldn't step reading. If you start, and if you're okay reading about massive disasters and violence against children and appalling darkness, you're not going to stop reading this novel. I don't know that I need to read the next one, unless somebody tells me it's somehow life-changing, but I don't see that happening. Good stuff, but so many books, you know?

Incidentally, there's a pretty great YouTube teaser video, noted in the book as perhaps the first clue that something was happening in the world: check it, if you dare! It's meant to be taken as real, inside the novel's world.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Brian Clegg, Armageddon Science

Disaster nonfiction is a genre unto itself, sometimes called disaster porn, and Brian Clegg has provided a very handy reference guide to the principles behind such disasters in Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction.

Nanobots! Aaah!
In general, Clegg argues that we shouldn't worry much about scientists, because they mean well, and we should be able to remediate most of their most serious future screw-ups. He's reasonable, and logical, but in the end I don't know if I trust his comfort with science. Maybe I'm just not inside the circle of trust, science-wise, or I'd see that the safeguards really are potent enough, but this particular English prof has some commitment issues in this area.

With nanobots, for example, Clegg chillingly describes the (hypothetical) experience of being flayed alive by grey goo flowing over your body, as well as the risk of military nanobots being far more efficient at massacring civilians rather than military targets (since soldiers would presumably have countermeasures). It's terrifying, but Clegg simply presumes that "nanobots [would be] programmed with a limited lifespan--otherwise it's not clear why the destruction would ever stop" (p.188). Right, I say, right: that's what I mean by the term "armageddon," that the destruction would be absolute.

Without a qualm, Clegg thinks they'll be utterly banned, writing confidently that "the international community would act to suppress their use" (p.188). How did that work out with landmines, I wonder? Did they become a problem?

The extrahuman causes of disaster, though, I agree with Clegg about: a supervolcano would almost certainly end the human experiment, and we're in serious trouble with climate change assured to continue. (Climate change is anthropogenic, so it's not truly extrahuman, but it's not a single event, like a catastrophic bioterrorist attack would be, for example, or Rise of Planet of the Apes.)

Overall, it's a good book to spend some time with: it didn't hook me the way I expected it would, but I'm not sure why. Oddly, I felt almost entirely meh about Armageddon Science, even though it seems useful. So … yeah. Browse before buying, I guess!

Clegg's interview with Salon is a good way to get short hints at several of the issues addressed in Armageddon Science. Not exactly a substitute for the book, but useful.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam

Was ever the end of the world so calming?

Except for the last few chapters of MaddAddam, the novel with which Margaret Atwood concludes her trilogy of the same name, this novel occurs within striking distance temporally of the events in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. This makes the three of them much more of a piece than they might have been, with many of the same characters recurring, so it's helpful if you remember what happened with the earlier novels.

Honestly, I don't think there's any point to reading this novel if you don't read the others first. There are a few pages of "The story so far" at the beginning of MaddAddam, but it's barely enough of a reminder for those who've read the other novels. Too many mysteries, if this is your entry point to the trilogy: you'll enjoy it, but it won't have the weight or the warmth that left me appreciating this novel so very much.

Probably the key line for me was Toby's speculation about whether Pilar (who died in an earlier novel) ever believed what she said about whether we can speak to the dead. In the end, Toby recognizes, it doesn't really matter:
however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void. (p.154)
MaddAddam, more than Oryx and Crake or Year of the Flood, is a novel about literature, which will of course delight the SF Atwood-naysayers no end. (No, it won't. They'll hate it.)

From the Six Cent Press
Or at least, it seems in some lights to be about literature, to the point that I started wondering how much there is in common between Graham Greene and Zeb, since Atwood herself has some things in common with Toby. Really, though, this is a novel about community, and about how community can survive the extinguishing of that community's light. Given that this particular community might be the last human community (maybe, who can tell, no spoilers here), Atwood's exploring whether human extinction is really the end of the human: and what the end of this particular iteration of human culture might look like, from after the collapse.

It's cheerful, that's the maddest thing about this novel: it's funny, to the point that I laughed out loud, no lie, at the exchanges between Toby and her Craker audiences. Atwood only gives us Toby's side of the story, but she gives us exactly enough that we can imagine how the Crakers are responding, because of how Toby gets dragged off-track from her stories. They want to sing, they have questions, sometime they start crying: it's like what happens when I tell stories around here!

My favourite part, as it will be for many readers as shallow as I am, was the mythology that has to develop around the powerful spirit Fuck, after someone influential swears in front of the Crakers:
He could be in many places at once. If you were in trouble and you called to him--Oh Fuck!--he would always be there, just when you needed him. And as soon as you said his name, you would feel better. (p.164)
I know, not that funny here, but in context, and with the extra gravy that Atwood loads into the scene, it's brilliant.

For me, MaddAddam was a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. Was it the best novel, or the most enjoyable? Not sure, but I don't care. Loved it.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

M.T. Anderson, Feed

Outside my comfort zone: M.T. Anderson's Feed is hardcore YA dystopian fiction, with a strong cult following. I'm more of a dabbler with this kind of thing (cults, YA fiction, even dystopias), but it's a very powerful book.
From Dig Boston

Still, I didn't really enjoy Feed the way I wanted to, so let me speculate a bit about why not.

For some reason, this decade-old novel seems to have inspired more than the usual number of YouTube reviews and English-class film trailers. The use of video, both to express your own thoughts and to imagine a way to represent someone else's, doesn't feel normal to me, doesn't come naturally. In other words, I'm a consumer of this kind of technology, of most kinds really, not a producer, and this means that I'm uncomfortably aligned with Feed's generally despicable characters even more firmly than is usual with a dystopian novel.

And this feels a little bit like a cheat. I'm not offended or anything, because honestly, we all deserve to be pushed unwillingly into alignment with villains more often than we are. You're no hero, especially if you think you might be. Still, if one doesn't make much use of the technologies being challenged, because one isn't a fan even of their pre-dystopian versions, then the purpose of the compelled alignment is a little suspect for me. Yes, it should strengthen my resolve, but I don't like feeling nagged.

Anderson playing Twister, alone
I know, too, that I shouldn't need to be happy while reading a novel, to be coddled, but I kept carping silently but disruptively to myself during the reading of Feed. The characters are mostly a bit dim or unpleasant, with the brighter ones you might self-importantly like to identify with either hiding their lights under bushels or acting out arrogantly. The environmental devastation is more intense than the represented technology should be able to handle (boiling lakes, smog-driven skin lesions deep enough that people's teeth are exposed through the cheeks, no trees…), but apparently the society either isn't yet admitting collapse or is managing.

So, you know. The positive reviews out there all make proleptic fun of me for my inability to sing the body electric for Feed, and yeah, maybe I could've forced a different response, but instead I just admire the book. Its target market loves Feed, and it doesn't need me anyway.

(Here's a link to a very good review: shorter and more insightful than mine, and also positive rather than whinging.)