Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Arthur C. Clarke, The Deep Range

I'm going to have to get off the retro science fiction eventually, but it's just so cool! So earnest about environmental crisis, and such manly men (if often embarrassingly girlishly women to match), and such a blend of hope and anxiety.

Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 The Deep Range, for example, is about a man who'd been a wildly successful space engineer until a serious accident left him with astrophobia so intense that he's not able to return to his wife and sons on Mars, let alone to keep working. His wife and sons had been born on Mars, too, so Earth's gravity would crush them, so he divorces his wife and can't see his sons. The time lag on the visiphones, too, means that there's no way to see or talk to them, so they're reduced to writing letters.

But Walt Franklin's engineering talents mean that after some intense psychotherapy, he's able to start a second career with the Bureau of Whales, one of the two major units in the Marine Division. In this version of the late 21st century, humans have figured out how to farm the seas to an almost unimaginable extent, with sonic fences allowing for the segregation of whales from their predators (mostly sharks) in order for the human race to get much of its protein intake from whale meat. It's incredibly humane, and the wardens have a deep respect and even love for their whale charges, but still: it takes a lot of dead whales to generate more than 20% of the protein needed to feed 5 billion people.

Buddhism is the only viable religion left, since the others all foundered in one way or another on the rocks of science, which is a problem. Its insistence on causing only the smallest amount of pain and the fewest possible deaths means a collision looms between Buddhist ethics and technologically advanced industrial whaling. Plus there might be sea serpents (no spoilers here, though!), and links between futuristic whaling and historic practices of ranchers and farmers (with plankton farming as a parallel to wheat farming). And explorations of suicidal ideation, electronic direct-democracy initiatives, media obsessiveness, uncapped undersea oil wells, and several other topics.

And in only 175 pages, amazingly!

Possibly the most interesting character, though her role isn't central, is Indra Langenburg, who we first meet as a 20-year-old graduate student "busily hacking away at the entrails of a ten-foot tiger shark she had just disembowelled" (p.26) as part of her research project on the vitamin content of shark liver. When we get into her thoughts later, it turns out that she's always expected to marry, but she's never wanted to give up her career. She does marry, and she does give up her career, but she remains current with the research anyway, and among other things, she publishes a piece on the evolution of the goblin shark that leads to her being "involved in an enjoyable controversy with all five of the scientists qualified to discuss the subject" (p.101). An awfully long way from postmodern feminist politics, certainly, but I liked that even in this brief book, Clarke made the effort to imagine the additional complexities of a woman's life - even if it's almost painfully studded with 1950s assumptions about family structure and femininity.

The world would be a better place if we all just read more pulp fiction. I heartily recommend judging books by their covers, I really do!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

I think I'm done with reading the Dune series, with this third one: since 3500 years elapse between the conclusion of Children of Dune and the opening of God Emperor of Dune, it's a natural break, and I found myself increasingly uninterested in the complicated (and mystical) politics of this novel. I'm going to insist that I'm reading it as a full trilogy, even though there are three more novels (plus notes for a seventh, which was in the end written by Herbert's son).

Not that I'm not interested in the implications of the politics, but I prefer my scifi to be either more purely speculative (like thought experiments), or closer to Earth. The multivolume interplanetary epics without much link to Earth do rather less for me than I'd like. I appreciated the Fedaykin death commandos' key principle that "humans can endure only in a fraternity of social justice" (p.324), for example, and Farad'n's insightful remark that "the influence of a planet upon the mass unconscious of its inhabitants has never been fully appreciated" (p.194), but I would rather have seen Herbert work with them in a less purely hypothetical context. I'm not sure whether I'm resisting the sense that I need to read these novels as allegory, or resisting the idea that I need instead to treat my own life as allegory, but resist I do.

But the further it got from the preoccupations of my own planet, and my own planet's assorted ecological crises, the more unnecessary it felt for me to spend the time on it. I've got more immediate concerns both philosophic and ecological than these, unless a Dune-ite wants to explain otherwise in the comments below....

Friday, May 27, 2011

Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert

Now this is what I call nature writing!

I'd only read single essays by Joseph Wood Krutch before happening upon his 1954 The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist's Interpretation at the recent TC book sale. Already, I'm in the process of adding every single Krutch book to my unofficial wishlist that family members draw on at birthdays and Christmas, because it's just wonderful, wonderful stuff.

It's the kind of book that you just want to wave at people and make them read, rather than offering up selections, but this might be a kind of motto: "It is not ignorance but knowledge that is the mother of wonder" (p.149). Krutch is defending the theory of evolution against its opponents at this point, but it applies to so many of his discussions, whether it's the mysteries of lichen, the speed of a roadrunner, or the slow growth of saguaro.

To some extent, much of the information in the book is common knowledge now, but 1954 was a different epoch, scientifically speaking. For example, we now know that lichen (one of Krutch's many minor passions) is a synthesis of fungus and algae: this wasn't experimentally proven until 1939, though it had been theorized in the middle of the 19th century. For another example, his discussion of dispersed plant and animal populations keeps foundering on inexplicable gaps between locations, such as Africa and North America, but again, he's writing in 1954: the theory of plate tectonics was barely a glimmer until the key research was performed and published between 1957 and 1967. Krutch is writing conversationally and accessibly about contemporary, cutting-edge research, and he's even doing some of it in his desert home. Self-deprecatingly, he describes his own research as if it's merely the pottering about of some random retired gentleman.

And really great prose style, too. There's something so appealing about nature writing of that era, even where the science has been superseded, and even where the sociopolitics are dated. Krutch's politics seem okay to me, at least in The Voice of the Desert, and his science is up to date for 1954, so it all comes together beautifully.

One regular point of interest for Krutch is how to distinguish between the human and the non-human. He has no patience for exceptionalism that places humans at the pinnacle of anything: intelligence is a muddy thing to locate or define, given the complexity with which insects live their independent lives; heroism has no logical connection with intentional action, so he sees as especially heroic the first beings that/who crawled or jumped from the water to see if maybe they could survive on land (rather like soldiers drafted into service whose instincts drive them to actions subsequently labelled "heroic"); and human courting, or "love," is less complex and more utilitarian than the courting behaviour of many other species.

For Krutch, the land comes first. Everything that lives in, on, under, above, or through the land has a fundamental equality, and he's no shy about objecting to exploitation, to anthropocentrism's consequences, and to changing the desert into something more useful (by which he means fertile for crops useful to humans). He's writing a long time before the first Earth Day, but he's engaging with and extending the insights of Aldo Leopold, who has had so much more press than Krutch has ever had.

Okay, I'm just going to interrupt myself at this random place in the discussion. My point, quite simply, is that everyone should read some Juseph Wood Krutch. My first book-length encounter was with this Voice of the Desert, but maybe there are better options. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gary Paul Nabhan, The Desert Smells Like Rain

I don't remember when I first heard of Gary Paul Nabhan: possibly something Keith Basso said or wrote, possibly in one of Michael Pollan's books, I don't know anymore. His most recent books have focused mostly (though not entirely) on food in the modern world, so I'm really pleased that I started instead with The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country. Reviews like this one, of his Coming Home to Eat, come across as awfully naive when Nabhan's comments are read in relation to their original context, so I'm pleased to have accidentally started at the beginning.

This short book, only an overture and ten brief chapters, manages in spite of its brevity to comprise a few different books. Nabhan's a very perceptive naturalist, so in the discussion of oases, for example, we get enough detail about bird counts (both species and individuals) to understand his point about the relationships between birds and humans: there are more birds where there's some human use of the land, because humans generate additional diversity both in landforms and in vegetation. But he's also a talented ethnographer, so he offers up some nuanced comments from children, from elders, from outsiders, and from insiders. But then again, he's outside his home space, so he's got to take us travelling with him, getting the thorns into our own sleeves, so to speak.

Dating from 1982, The Desert Smells Like Rain feels a little bit dated now, but it's a gem of a book. Nabhan's description of the ceremonial drinking and vomiting of saguaro wine carries particular weight, encapsulating and complicating as it does so many stereotypes of First Nations peoples, but I was also really impressed by his description of how the traditional Papago diet may connect with Papago genetics to predispose these people toward diabetes.

Through it all, though, I felt like I was kind of there. Nabhan's experiences there remain inaccessible to me, and I can't imagine I'll ever be fortunate enough to have enough time on my hands to do what he did, but Papago country - materially, psychically - is within my imagination now, and that's the mark of a really good nature writer.

Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

I've been reading me some Frank Herbert lately (see here and here for others), in preparation for a student whose project on Dune I'll be supervising between September and April. Pretty fun stuff, and it's been interesting to read the Dune novels that made his reputation in relation with more speculative, one-off pieces.

In part it's fun because the prose of the Dune novels is stodgy, classical, heavy: since The Green Brain uses a much more conversational, contemporary prose style, it's obvious that it's not just Herbert's writing style that's at issue. This is important because I heard from more than one person who said that Herbert's books were slow to read, not engaging, distant, which are just the sorts of things that prevent a person from even trying out a new author.

So anyway, it's clear that in the Dune series, Herbert purposefully aimed at a prose style that defamiliarized the reader somewhat. I feel some stylistic connections with different sacred texts, which makes sense given the novels' representation of an overlapping religion and government across many years. It's not a Genesis story, by any means, or Revelation either, more like one of the middle Gospels where things bog down a bit in the minutiae. It's vital to the story arc of Herbert's represented world, much like Philemon or 1 Timothy are vital to Christian Bible, but when was the last time you heard a less from First Timothy discussed at a funeral or non-core church event? When was the last time you heard Philemon discussed at church, period?

You may be wondering what all this has to do with Dune Messiah, the second novel in Herbert's trilogy, and the alleged subject of this review. Not much, but really I don't have much to say about this one. I know I should be more interested in the shape-shifting and genetics and disguises and so on, especially since I'll be teaching ENGL 478 in January 2012 on roughly this subject (special topic: "Splicing Genes, Splicing Genres"), but the ghola, dwarf, and Tleilaxu/Face Dancers left me a little cold.

The eponymous first novel of the Dune series saw Paul Atreides rise to power, drawing on his genetic heritage, his Arrakeen environment, and his mother's Bene Gesserit psy training. This second novel sees Paul Atreides, now generally known as the religious icon Muad'dib, unhappily administering a vast Jihad occurring in his name but against his will, as well as a vast bureaucracy. Intrigues occur, favourites come into disrepute, visions of the future collide: space opera, without the singing. Meh.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Frank Herbert, The Green Brain

OK, you science fiction lovers, you know as well as I do that an overwhelming number of sci-fi books, even classics and experimental triumphs, contain clangers of one kind or another. Retrograde politics, howlingly irredeemable gender relations, racism cloaked as alien/human conflict, characters not complex enough for Harlequin, a plot interrupted right at the point where the author would have to do the first interestingly complicated thing with the implications of whatever innovation or twist has been driving the novel: you name it, and we'll be able to find dozens of examples.

So yeah, Frank Herbert's 1966 The Green Brain, his first novel after Dune, has some of that stuff. I'll generally defend science fiction as real fiction, whatever that term might mean, but you've got to admit that even the good examples aren't always good examples, if you see what I mean.

The gist of The Green Brain is that roughly a hundred years from now, and following China's example, South America is attempting to eradicate all insect life except for genetically mutated bees that'll continue to perform whatever tasks might be deemed necessary for continued human existence. The goal is to eradicate disease altogether, and to remove insect as a competitor with humans for food. Since the Chinese have maintained the specifics as a state secret, no one knows all the details, but things haven't gone nearly as well in China as has been advertised. And in South America, somehow, the insects have figured out what the humans are doing, what the consequences for the planet might be, and how to respond, including how to fight back.

The collective response of the insects is really the story of the novel, and it's an audaciously speculative concept. There are some human characters, three of them in particular, just the right number for a movie IMHO, and their nationalities are interestingly and usefully varied, but they're representative figures. (I'm fine with that, incidentally. How much more sensitive introspection do we need, honestly? Give me something to think about, rather than someone else's thinking or - shudder - feeling.) This novel is about the big question of how far humans should intervene with the non-human, or how much effect humans should have on the non-human.

It's a bit muddled, though, by the sense that the over-reaching seems to be the exclusive province of socialist governments rather than capitalist ones (or corporations, such as Monsanto, the "evil corporation in your refrigerator," as some would have it). Given everything we know about capitalism's role in food speculation now, there's no justification anymore for unilaterally demonizing both the Green Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Sure, demonize both movements if you like, but you can't let capitalism off the hook when it's similarly demonic.

Anyway, I always get tangled up with the terminology. Natural, cultural, human: use what works for you. Herbert's proposing a richly non-binaristic view of nature and humanity, anchored in the minutiae of ecology (to which he refers only sparingly in the novel, mind you), to imagine some valuably self-imposed limits to human actions or achievements. It's a little weird, though, how he sets this philosophic problem beside a spectacularly complicated biological problem that he chooses not to explain (the mechanics of the collective insect response), so in my reading I find at best an uneasy fit between the engine driving the drama and the engine driving the ideas.

And gender relations are just plain odd, too, notably everything to do with entomologist and noted Irish beauty Dr. Rhin Kelly, about whom I'll say only that it's convenient when a spy's habitual sexual drives are so powerful that they can't help but make her effective. (Oy.) If you read the novel, please do watch out for repetitive strain injuries from your regular eye-rolling.

But after all this carping, I have to end by saying that I rilly rilly enjoyed The Green Brain! Fascinating ideas, even if the plot and characters and structure might have been different: valuable and worthwhile speculative fiction, though not for everyone.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mark Kingwell, Catch & Release

I'm glad for several reasons that I've now read Mark Kingwell's Catch & Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life, one of which is simply (and selfishly) that I'll now find it much easier to remember that he and Malcolm Gladwell are in fact two separate people. (There was a time that I had the same trouble with Elton John and Billy Joel, for some reason, but I'm older now.) It's kind of an odd book, and I'm not convinced that he and Penguin, his publisher, ever really got a handle on who their target market was and what consistent approach might best be taken, but I greatly enjoyed pieces of it even if I found it strangely variable in its approach and subject(s).

I'm guessing that this book has found its way into the Christmas stockings and under the Christmas trees of many a fisherman over the last few years, and that many a fisherman has given up reading it fairly early, if they weren't deterred altogether by the back cover, on which Kingwell complains to his family members dragging him along on a fishing weekend, "I will sit in the back of the boat reading The Critique of Pure Reason, but I will not fish." When Kingwell uses the phrase "the meaning of life" in his title, we are not talking here about the philosophizing practiced and promoted by David James Duncan and lesser writers (Richard Bach, Robert Pirsig, and their ilk). We're talking about Kant and Hegel and the rest of them, the luminaries whom even most intellectuals try to learn about rather than to read directly. Sure, there's plenty of talk about catching small rainbows by dry fly or wet fly, stories about Royal Coachmen and green nymphs and whatnot, but there's also Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein.

You'd be right, I think, if you imagined I was roughly the target market for this sort of thing. But even I wondered where Kingwell was off to, more than once, with his digressions and perambulations.

There were some great lines, though: the time spent at night clubs the evening before the fishing begins, for example, had me laughing out loud at a couple of points. Kingwell's regular insults against his brothers, who don't get to respond in print, were often very funny indeed, partly because of the extra joke that he gets to write about it and they don't. Possibly worth the price of admission all on its own, even though the section might have been dropped randomly into this book from some entirely separate project, is his reasoned discrimination between the painfully closely related categories of boredom, procrastination, and despair (up to the point of mental paralysis), because it's exceptionally thoughtful and well-written, and because it speaks to so much of my life as a university instructor.

Of course, if you've read as far as this into this commentary, you're probably thinking that this is a pretty scattered sort of review. And you'd be right. It's a scattered sort of book, and it turns out I'm unable to respond otherwise to it.

This book purports to be about The Weekend, an annual event at which the Kingwell boys and their father (and also Fred) get together and fish. It really is about that, but it's also about the consolations of philosophy, the urban/rural divide, the awfulness of baseball caps and risotto (separately), New York versus the rest of the world, and the value of male friendship among men whose acquaintances are mostly female. Excellent ingredients, but an odd cocktail: maybe you'll love it, though. Who am I to say?

Monday, May 16, 2011

John McPhee, Basin and Range

Earlier this year I remarked briefly on my surprise that I hadn't commented on John McPhee's wonderful book The Pine Barrens, even though I'd enjoyed it immensely. It's kind of a combination between environmental history, near-home anthropology, and memorial to an almost Cracker way of life in a forested region of New Jersey. It's well worth your time, for McPhee's engaging prose style (and personal style, for that matter), and it prompted me to read more of his catalogue.

Up next was Basin and Range, since I thought that at one-third the length, it'd be an easier read than his 700-page Annals of the Former World, even though I knew both of them were about geology, loosely organized around US highway I-80. Turns out that it's actually the first third of the longer book: complete in itself, but part of a larger whole. Obsessive as I am, I'll have to wade through the remaining 500 pages this summer, but I'm okay with that. It's a terrific read, almost enough to make me think I should have considered geology more seriously as a career!

And as it happens, that's part of McPhee's mission in the book. Well, no, actually it's the classroom mission of Kenneth Deffeyes, at that time a geology prof at Princeton, and now one of the leading prognosticators of the "peak oil" theory (to which I subscribe, so those aren't scare quotes, just regular quotation marks giving a phrase a hug). Much of the book recounts McPhee's journeys with Deffeyes, sometimes in search of silver, sometimes merely observing roadcuts and other access points to geology in the western US, basically from Great Salt Lake west. The book's goal is to give its readers an overview of geological theory, including a sense for how the theory developed over time, along with some place-specific descriptions of specific geological features to help make sense of it all.

The writing isn't for everyone, I should say. The paragraphs get long, as the book rolls on, sometimes lasting for two full pages. There are lengthy lists of specialized terminology that it'd be madness to pay close attention to. McPhee's persistent recursion to the marvellous concept of geological time is off-putting, if you think you're okay with the concept.

But it's written this way because McPhee wants to remind us just how new some of geology's thinking was in 1981, when Basin and Range came out. It was less than 200 years since serious people thought the planet was less than 6000 years old, for example; people born in the 1970s and after don't realize, either, that the whole theory of plate tectonics developed during the ten years between 1957 and 1967. The newness of plate tectonics as a theory is what I found shocking, not the sense of geological time, but I suppose that in 1981, a lot more of his readers would still have been far newer to plate tectonics and its associated effects than someone my age or younger.

(I wonder what McPhee would do if he wrote about evolution and/or intelligent design, speaking of theories about which people can go mad.)

For much of the book, McPhee explains how different locations earned their shape today as a result of successive, cataclysmic change. Tectonic plates crash into each other, blocks of the earth's crust turn slowly on end or upside down, seismic faults open up in the earth as visible cracks, the floor of the ocean is swept clean, and so on. New crust grows at the edges of plates that are crashing into their neighbours, on the opposite side from where they're being stretched thin. Low ground is raised up, and high ground is brought low. Everything changes, absolutely everything. A metaphor for geological time: look at the palm of your hand, from wrist to fingertips. Use a nail file briefly on the end of your longest finger. Well, you've just deleted the portion of the hand corresponding to the duration of human history.

It's a brilliant work of natural history, not unchallenging but remarkably clear and personable nonetheless. There's a sense throughout Basin and Range of John McPhee as just some guy trying to put words to ideas that he adores for their remarkable fitness to the material, non-imagined world, and he can turn a sentence beautifully. Read the book, if you have any interest at all in the remarkable western US landscape, or in geology more generally, or if you'd like to see how natural history is done by someone prepared also to write about the writing of natural history:
"If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone." (p.183)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 15, Times-Colonist book sale

Always a most pleasant time, attending the Times-Colonist book sale. I've learned now to take a pocketful of cash rather than rely on credit or debit, but it's been a few years since I've been tempted to spend all of it, in part because I now attend early on the second day. No first-day crush, but also no post-breakfast or post-church johnny-come-latelys, so it's pretty calm for the first 90 minutes or so.

So with the occasional hint from one blurb or another, and excluding books for my daughter, here's the day's haul:
  • Poul Anderson, Twilight World ("The time is shortly after the Great Nuclear Spasm")
  • Poul Anderson, The Winter of the World ("First came the ice, and a magnificent civilization collapsed beneath the glaciers")
  • BC Motorist (14 issues between 1963 and 1970, the magazine of the BC Automobile Association)
  • British Columbia Digest, a 1965 issue (now BC Outdoors)
  • Arthur C. Clarke, The Deep Range ("...a future when submarine patrols harvest the water's wealth to feed the world")
  • Capt. J.Y. Cousteau with Frederic Dumas, The Silent World (Cousteau's first book)
  • Garth Coward, Tree Book: Learning to Recognize Trees of British Columbia (great little pocket guide that I'm hoping will let me practice enough to distinguish between the assorted firs and spruces that continue to plague my best environmentalist intentions)
  • Richard Ellis, Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury ("at once an astounding ode to one of nature's greatest marvels and a serious examination of a creature and world at risk")
  • Finnish Forest and Park Service, Forestry Environment Guide ("This booklet has been printed on the high-quality Finnish paper necessary to do full justice to the fine paintings and photographs used to illustrate it")
  • Erna Gunther, Northwest Coast Indian Art (awesomely, the catalogue for the Fine Arts Pavilion at the Seattle Word's Fair of 1962)
  • Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah
  • Frank Herbert, Children of Dune
  • Frank Herbert, The Green Brain ("His masterpiece of ecological horror!")
  • Robert Hunter & Rex Weyler, To Save a Whale: The Voyages of Greenpeace (tales and photos from leaders of the mid-70s anti-whaling adventures)
  • Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist's Interpretation
  • Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold, ed. Luna Leopold
  • Lisa McGonigle, Snowdrift (documenting a few years spent snowboarding etc in the Kootenays, after this young Irishwoman "abandoned her scholarship at Oxford")
  • T.C. McLuhan, The Way of the Earth: Encounters with Nature in Ancient and Contemporary Thought
  • Jonathan Raban, Old Glory (boating solo down the Mississippi, in a 16-foot skiff)
  • David V. Reddick, Ma-Kee: The Life and Death of a Muskellunge (um, yeah, actually an imagined biography of an individual fish, which might be the clincher in assessing whether my nerdishness is in fact redeemable: it's not unlike Fred Bodsworth's wonderful Last of the Curlews, if that helps)
  • Andy Russell, Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer: Memoirs of a Modern Frontiersman
  • Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher, Driftwood Valley: The Northern Frontier ("Together, a trapper and a naturalist set out for the wilderness to the North"-published in 1946)
  • Gene Stratton-Porter, Freckles (one of the Limberlost novels, but about a logging company: thanks to Nancy Holmes for telling me about it!)
  • John & Mildred Teal, Life and Death of the Salt Marsh
  • Susan Vreeland, The Forest Lover ("A lavish historical novel about a pioneering woman artist and the untamed country she loved"-meaning Emily Carr)
  • Fred Wah, Diamond Grill (a recent recollection of Nelson in 1951, organized around the city's newest Chinese cafe, owned by Wah's father)
  • Sheila Watson, Deep Hollow Creek (the Cariboo of the 1930s, written at that time)
  • Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia

Oh 1970s, how on earth did you manage such naivety - and in so many areas - in the midst of such political complexity, scientific advances, and artistic experimentation?

I've meant for years to read Ernest Callenbach's epochal novel Ecotopia, and I've finally made the time for it. The back cover blurb's emphasis on the narrator's "relationship with a sexually forthright Ecotopian woman" wasn't a good sign, especially with the blurb's closing words of "startling climax" punning openly about the sex and the narrative structure, and definitely its politics are dated. Gender essentialism has come back into a certain fashion, though in a limited way and presumably among limited demographics, but it's rarely defended openly, and racial essentialism feels now like something your least predictable great-uncle might espouse while half-cut, and for no good reason, at a wedding reception.

Race isn't particularly important to the book, so maybe one could simply overlook it, but gender is crucial. I'll have to think harder about how Callenbach uses sex and sexuality in the novel, before I could say something particularly cogent about it, but I will simply note here that Ecotopia seems to enable, if not to be based on, some of the standard gender essentialist elements to environmentalism, the ones that mean ecofeminism needs to counterbalance mainstream environmentalism just as thoroughly as it does consumer society. Chicks aren't just there for the dudes, in environmentalism or anywhere else. It's not good enough to specify that women in Ecotopia (the fictional place) have much more power of sexual choice than they do in the real world (or the fictionalized America), or even that they've got more political power than men do. I'm not sure what WOULD be good enough, mind you, but this isn't it.

I was trying to make excuses for it all, or at least to stick my fingers in my ears long enough to make it through the novel, but I gave up when it turned out that the nurses often have sex with patients for therapeutic reasons. Oy.

Basic plot: during the early 70s oil crisis, a secessionist movement managed to carve out a new country consisting of Washington, Oregon, and northern California, and over the last few decades they've developed a steady-state economy without any diplomatic relations with the rest of America. A reporter for the New York Times-Post named William Weston gets an unofficial mission from the US President to explore relations with the new nation of Ecotopia, under the guise of a series of newspaper columns, and he becomes the first American to enter Ecotopia openly since secession. The book's written in alternating form across about a six-week period, with a newspaper story followed immediately by diary entries about the same experiences.

I'm giving nothing away if I mention there's plenty of sex (though not explicit), regular references to marijuana consumption, and lengthy disquisitions on the dubiousness of Ecotopia's steady-state economy and community-driven social structure (all of which we're meant to see through). The Ecotopian experiment could only have happened on the United States' west coast in the 1970s, because of its climate and terrain, and because of the oil crisis, and frankly I'm convinced that only at that time and in that place could the book possibly have been written this way.

It's a fascinating thought experiment, to imagine a nation with such different principles but the same basic roots, and I'm always ready to give time to someone imagining a better way for us to live sustainably and ethically. Ecotopia should keep being read, and widely. It's a cool book, with lots of valuable ideas, but wow, does it ever need updating. Wow.

Up, Cascadia! Arise! Or, I don't know, something actually stirring.

Charlie Connelly, Attention All Shipping

Four times daily, BBC radio broadcasts the shipping forecast, naming thirty-one separate regions in about three minutes and providing both current and projected conditions of sea and wind for each one. The forecast has been running (with different frequencies and regions and so on) since 1924, so I imagine it to be rather like a place-based version of the CBC's 10 a.m. Pacific use of the National Research Council time signal (Wikipedia: "Canada's longest running but shortest radio programme"). The names and the rhythm and the music snuggle down deeply into British psyches, at least among households that have the radio on much, or the ones that used to etc - insert lament here about pace of modern life.

Three and a half years ago, I picked up a copy of Charlie Connelly's Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why I kept not reading the thing. That's not because I'd heard such good things about it: I bought it on a whim and had never heard of it before. And then when I loaned to a 70-ish Englishwoman who I thought might appreciate something about this BBC institution, she wasn't the least bit excited about it afterward. "Hmm," I thought, "must not be as good as I hoped." As it happens, it isn't as good as I'd hoped, at least not all the way through, but even if it was excellent, she wouldn't have liked it anyway. Too much time spent in pubs for her, and too much late-30s angst from our humble narrator: never should have loaned it to her.

Anyway, there are good things about this book, and I enjoyed it, but I'll open with the bad news and get it out of the way: Charlie Connelly here comes across as something of a cut-rate Bill Bryson, and the book's achievement is distinctly inconsistent. I love a little good self-deprecating humour, for example, or "self-depreciating" as more than one student inexplicably wrote this year in essays for me, and Connelly can play that note well at times, but the book could stand to have a few other notes to it. Some of the chapters had precious little hold on me, too, without enough intimacy with the places and people he encounters, and yet also without the interestingly complicated history-telling that makes some chapters so very pleasant.

At his best, Connelly shows a genuine passion for the places and people, made more compelling because it seems so unlooked for. He goes at the project of touring all thirty-one regions within a calendar year in a quite cavalier manner, not unlike that of Tony Hawks's surprisingly enjoyable Round Ireland with a Fridge (apparently a most UNenjoyable film, though I haven't seen it and hence shouldn't say anything about it). Connelly's self-castigating rant on the Isle of Man about his unprepared bicycle tour of the island's often-fatal motorcycle racing loop applies equally well to the book as a whole. He didn't take the project seriously to begin with, and this comes back to bite him with depressing frequency, but this means you believe him when he gets impassioned about something, and he often does get passionate, geekily so. I really liked that contrast, even if I wanted to punch him occasionally for making yet another predictably, damnably stupid travel decision.

From Attention All Shipping I've learned a startling amount of stuff about remote, nearly uninhabited chunks of rock around the fringes of Great Britain, and I've got even more respect than I did previously for lighthouse keepers, marine rescue personnel, and small-town folk generally. It's a fun book if you've got any interest in any of those things, or if you like your travel-writing to feature as many pubs as possible. Not what a 70-ish respectable Englishwoman might want to spend time with, but how many people reading this blog are likely to fit that description, anyway?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Honestly, I didn't expect this from Dave Eggers, though I should have. I've read several issues of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and I'm a regular visitor to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, so I'm familiar with the jocularity, bathos, and mock-heroic diction of same. Plus just this spring I taught Eggers' first book, the stirringly titled Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which I seem NOT to have commented upon here in March, what with all the marking), so put those together, and they're collectively the source of whatever expectations I came in with.

But what I should have remembered, instead, were the fairly humble, heartfelt, and reasonable yet passionate videos I've recently seen of him discussing his volunteer work, such as at the 2008 TED Talks, where he received a significant grant to make the world a better place. That's what seems genuinely to drive him, this desire to make the world a better place, and it's this which should have tipped me to expect the form in which Zeitoun appeared.

The book's earnest; it's straightforward; it skews toward reportage. There's anger, sure, and this is after all a portrait of a family and a couple and two people who go through something very painful, but Eggers does a really great job of staying out of his own way. Overall, it's a very successful portrait of a family that should by all rights be ordinary, but is treated as extraordinary - and turns out to deserve to be treated that way, though not quite in the way that it happens.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced "Zaytoon," Eggers helpfully explains early on) is a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans running a very successful house-painting business, when the city's brushed gently by a little rain-shower called Katrina. Zeitoun's wife Kathy (an American convert to Islam) leaves the city with their girls, and Zeitoun stays to look after the jobsites and assorted properties, several of which they own. One thing leads to another, and Zeitoun experiences the best and the worst of what happened in New Orleans while it was underwater. The family, afterward, both recovers - somewhat - and suffers.

I'm not giving away any of the plot details here, but this book's both uplifting and heartbreaking, maddening and encouraging. Give it to people who might be interested in how people respond to externally imposed crises, either natural disasters or family trauma. Give it to people whose character means they need a personal view of someone unlike them, either brown of skin or religiously other. Give it to people comfortable with America's fraught political and racial landscape.

And give it to anyone who might have voted for Stephen Harper, because Zeitoun illuminates fully half a dozen planks in the execrable Conservative platform, and this is absolutely NOT the kind of country I want to live in. (Yes, I am cranky about yesterday's election. No, my mood isn't going to be improving any time soon.)

As editor, satirist, and all-around man-about-town H.L. Mencken memorably put it in 1919, in relation to poetry, of all things, "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats." Zeitoun's not about that. But the sentiment's in the air, throughout the book and throughout its readership, and across Canada after yesterday's Conservative election victory and across the United States after the death of Osama bin Laden, and it all makes me more than a little anxious.

One wonders what the world's coming to: or one would simply wonder, if one wasn't feeling rather more committed today to not just waiting to see what the world comes to.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

I'm fortunate enough to be teaching ENGL 200B in September, and one of our texts will be Jane Austen's semi-satiric faux-Gothic novel Northanger Abbey. (The BBC version is okay, but its additional plot twists and timeline manipulation are unnecessary and unhelpful, even if the changes relieve the filmed version from having to account for all the novel's metafictional commentary on novels and readership.) I've always liked this novel, this being approximately my fifth reading of it over the last two decades (call me Grandpa!), and unsurprisingly I continue to like it.

Not a lot of point to throwing additional e-ink at Northanger Abbey, really, given the vast amounts of material out there on it, and given the scary persistence of Jane-ites the world over, but a few things come to mind.

First, I'm going to be interested to see how the novel's bookish in-jokes come across. Much of Northanger Abbey's humour has to do with books that the main characters, especially Catherine Morland, have read, and that the novel's initial readers would be expected to have read as well. The conventions of eighteenth-century Gothic fiction aren't as current for young readers as they were in Austen's time, and while the novel version of Twilight touches on many of those conventions, the movie strips away some of the useful ones (replacing Edward's mildly creepy old house, for example, with an airy modern glass confection). Maybe the Goose Bumps series will help, I don't know yet.

Second, it's going to be interesting to see how ready students are to separate social commentary from personal qualities, representative characters from complex characters from actual people. Catherine Morland is basically a decent young woman who nonetheless goes off the rails in some ways and is corrected for it; Henry Tilney appears a bit flighty in some ways but turns out to be more serious than that; General Tilney, well, what's up with that? It's not a novel about the silliness of girls, though several of them in the novel are silly. It's not a novel proposing a naturally sober seriousness among men, though the good men in the novel are mostly that way. Determining the precise target of humour isn't always easy for newer readers, and it's harder when satire's involved.

And third, Austen is so superb at drawing the rotten little characters that they can be unpleasant to spend much time with. For my money the most horrifying character in Austen is, from the BBC Pride and Prejudice, the version of Mr. Collins played by David Bambers. Here, the Thorpe siblings give Bambers' Collins some competition, and I look forward to seeing how students respond to them.

Great book, but you've probably heard that already. The plotting's a bit peculiar, and the moral of the story inconsistent, since Austen can be assumed never to have quite finished it up the way she might have wanted to, but really a fun little book.

Jack McDevitt, Time Travelers Never Die

I don't read a ton of science fiction*, but I tend to enjoy it when I do. It's more often a smaller pleasure for me than I find in most other genres, or other modes of fiction, but it's good stuff. Engaging, appealing, that sort of thing, but not often more than that.

And that's how I felt about the current book club selection, Jack McDevitt's Time Travelers Never Die. I appreciated the main characters, Shel and Dave, one of whom's fairly geeky and the other of whom's an overworked university instructor - ways of being which felt unaccountably familiar, not that I identify in any way with either one - and their mostly healthy relationships with women (especially Helen Suchenko) were refreshing. But, well, it didn't make much of an impression on me, and I don't see how it's going to make much of an impression on casual readers, on McDevitt's fans, or on science fiction more generally.

Of course, it doesn't need to make such an impression. Mild pleasure is a good thing, and the reading experience doesn't always have to be "shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet," in Douglas Coupland's memorable phrase for how intensely we remember events from our childhood and teens (Life After God, p.48, if you need to track it down).

I will say, though, that I liked that the main characters don't understand the technology that permits their travels through time, that they decide to trust people they meet in the past with their limited conceptual understanding, and that these trusted past people don't seem to do anything that mucks up the timeline. It's nice to find someone else who thinks that we can indeed get a long way forward just by mucking along with good intentions.

Summary: best as light reading for the already confirmed McDevitt fan, or for those who prefer their sci-fi without much sci- (or indeed without either politics or philosophy).

*While I don't read a ton of science fiction, sometimes it slips in anyway: Ursula Le Guin, Alastair Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson (twice!), and Frank Herbert.

May 1 - Value Village

A quick jaunt for a used lightweight jacket, leading inevitably to a few books at $3.99 each:
  • Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces (essays about her adopted home of Wyoming)
  • Mark Kingwell, Catch & Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life (the one-weekend conversion of a philosopher who starts a fishing trip by saying, "I will sit in the back of the boat reading The Critique of Pure Reason, but I will not fish"), and
  • Anny Scoones, Home and Away: More Tales of a Heritage Farm (great little book about the author's very small farm on southern Vancouver Island).