Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘M. John Harrison’

Best Books 2020

When I sat down to select my favourite books of 2019, the east coast of Australia was ablaze, and Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne had been swathed in smoke for weeks on end. Twelve months later Sydney’s Northern Beaches are in lockdown, restrictions are being reimposed across the rest of the city, and the other states have closed their borders to New South Wales again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, a number of the best books I’ve read over the past year engaged with this sense of accelerating and multiplying catastrophe. Some of them do it by tracing the crosscurrents of dissonance and denial that inflect our culture in the way Jenny Offill’s Weather or Madeleine Watts’ The Inland Sea do. Others, like Anne Charnock’s terrific Bridge 108, explore the effects of displacement and social breakdown. And some explore the processes of resistance, violence and dispossession that underpin the larger crisis as Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem does.

But the most significant was undoubtedly Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. The final book in the dazzling cycle of novels that began with 2312, and it simultaneously draws together and transcends many of the questions that are explored in those previous books, illustrating not just the scale of the crisis we inhabit, but mapping out a path toward a sustainable post-capitalist future. Like all Robinson’s novels it’s exhilaratingly dense with information and ideas, but it’s also deeply affecting. That’s partly because so much of what it depicts is so horrifying, but it’s also because while it insists on the imperative of hope, it doesn’t shy away from rage and despair. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and a book I wish everybody would read (I also highly recommend Ezra Klein’s interview with Robinson, which is one of the most consistently intelligent 90 minutes of media I consumed over the past twelve months).

One of the other highlights of my reading year was The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. The consensus seems to be that the final quarter is the best bit, but I have to say I thought the depiction of the aftermath of Anne’s execution in the first 100 or 150 pages was simply astonishing, and captures the mute trauma and terror of a community that is suddenly inescapably aware that none of them are safe with great power. But part of what I found so compelling about those sections was the way they also expose the uncanny terror of state power. Mantel has explored the connections between violence and terror and death and undeath before, perhaps most notably in Beyond Black, but in The Mirror and the Light they take on a whole new set of resonances. And those opening sections are only one element of a genuinely remarkable creation.

Despite a lot of will-she won’t-she angst in the British media about the prospects of Mantel pulling off a Booker hat trick, The Mirror and the Light didn’t make the shortlist for this year’s prize, which instead went to Douglas Stuart’s terrific Shuggie Bain. As I said in my roundup of the Booker shortlist in The Weekend Australian, Stuart’s novel is notable not just for its refusal to sentimentalise Shuggie’s mother’s alcoholism, but for the astuteness of its portrait of the effects of addiction on children and, perhaps most remarkably of all, its immense capacity for forgiveness. I found it an enormously affecting and quietly devastating novel, and it’s been wonderful to see it finding such a wide readership.

Other novels I loved included the final instalment in Ali Smith’s remarkable Seasons Quartet, Summer, Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful Mayflies (a book that felt micro-targeted at me and my interests), Anne Enright’s Actress, Deb Olin Unferth’s wonderfully off-kilter novel about chickens and activism, Barn 8, Emily St John Mandel’s brilliantly structured The Glass Hotel, Daisy Johnson’s splendidly unsettling Sisters, Lily King’s lovely, warm, wise Writers and Lovers, Vigdis Hjorth’s merciless Will and Testament (make the time), Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and Sigrid Nunez’s follow-up to The Friend, What Are You Going Through. The two story collections I most enjoyed were Emma Cline’s Daddy and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ fabulously compressed Sleepovers (seek it out: I promise it will be worth it).

At the more speculative end of the spectrum, I was blown away by M. John Harrison’s compellingly strange The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, a book that elides boundaries of all kinds, so reading it makes the world around you feel uncertain in all sorts of ways. It’s also a novel that invites all kinds of readings, but the one I kept coming back to was the way its emphasis on the watery, floods and transformation echoes Amitav Ghosh’s description of the “insistent, inescapable continuities of the Anthropocene”. I also loved Garth Nix’s delightfully playful and effortlessly entertaining The Left-handed Booksellers of London, a book that might well be my favourite of Nix’s novels, Paul McAuley’s emotionally expansive and affecting reworking of the Samurai and Western in the far future, War of the Maps, and William Gibson’s terrific follow-up to The Peripheral, Agency, a book that plays with our assumptions about the future and contingency with sly wit and deadly seriousness. Wit is also available in abundance in Natalie Zina Walschots’ hugely entertaining reworking of the superhero genre and the modern workplace, Hench, and Lev Grossman’s delightful excursion into children’s fantasy, The Silver Arrow, whereas Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a strange conjuring trick that draws upon many of the tropes and preoccupations of classic fantasy while also taking them somewhere that feels startlingly new. And I hugely enjoyed both Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians and Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild.

Although there are a host of things I still haven’t got to (Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron! Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile! Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s! Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People!) I read a lot of Australian fiction I hugely admired, perhaps most notably Laura Jean McKay’s gloriously weird and feral The Animals In That Country, Chris Flynn’s delightfully deadpan deep time comedy, Mammoth, Lauren Chater’s beautifully constructed and expansive reworking of the silences in Swift, Gulliver’s Wife, Kate Mildenhall’s gripping The Mother Fault, the next instalment in the historical sequence Jock Serong began in Preservation, The Burning Island, Kristen Krauth’s terrific Almost a Mirror and Luke Horton’s terrific debut, The Fogging (if you’re interested, you can hear me and Luke chatting on The Book Show).

Of the non-fiction I read, I loved Julia Baird’s elegant and wise Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder And Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark, a book I read at just the right moment, David Farrier’s marvellous and intellectually peripatetic investigation of deep time, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, Stephanie Convery’s heartfelt and unsparing dissection of violence in sport, After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne, Tegan Bennett Daylight’s elegant and moving The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, Danielle Clode’s study of the remarkable life of Jeanne Barret, In Search Of The Woman Who Sailed The World, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World in the Whale, and David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, and Craig Brown’s often hilarious One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. I also very much admired two shorter books of essays: Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers.

And finally, two more books of poetry: Felicity Plunkett’s A Kinder Sea and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, both of which offered reminders of the power of language to console and reveal, something I suspect we’re all going to need more of in the months to come.

The End of Nature and Post-Naturalism: Fiction and the Anthropocene

One of the most interesting things about watching a novel go into the world is discovering what other people think it’s about. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s always fascinating, not least because the book people seem to read is never quite the book you thought you were writing.

In Clade’s case this process was complicated by the fact a lot of people didn’t seem to know quite how to categorise it. For my part I tended to say it was science fiction, simply because that’s easy and relatively uncontroversial. A number of reviewers, especially in literary outlets, called it dystopian, which it isn’t, or not quite, while a couple of reviewers with an interest in science fiction described it a slow apocalypse or breakdown novel, which I suspect it is, at least in one sense. Others have called it cli fi, or climate fiction, a term that has some utility as a marketing category but seems to occlude more than it reveals when deployed as a critical tool; elsewhere some people have called it Anthropocene fiction.

Interestingly though, several reviewers registered the inadequacies of the terminology, and went on to ask about how exactly we should be describing the growing number of books engaged directly or indirectly with climate change and environmental transformation.

The most substantial of these discussions was in Niall Harrison’s characteristically thoughtful and perceptive review at Strange Horizons, a review that ended with what he described as “a coda about categories”. Noting first that Clade was only one of a number of recent novels “that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis”, he went on to note that while many such novels are “kinds of science fiction … there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves”.

Like others, Harrison thinks it’s possible to distinguish such novels from other kinds of science fiction because “climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared” (a point Dan Bloom has also made). But he also – rightly – points out that acknowledging this distinction then demands we recognise the existence of novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which are engaged with these questions but are not science fiction in any meaningful sense.

Like me Harrison is unconvinced of the utility of the notion of “cli fi” in this context (as I have also done he notes its troubling tendency to elide the long history of environmental science fiction), and similarly sceptical of trying to group such books together as dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, even though many books in this area deploy tropes and strategies associated with these traditions, before acknowledging that while he doesn’t have a solution to the question he believes it deserves further attention, if only because “this is a vital literary area, and … we need to get better at describing and discussing it”.

For what it’s worth I agree with Harrison that this is an area in which our conventional terminology fails us, and that none of the options on offer seem to be able to make sense of the work that is being produced, its relationship to traditional genre categories like science fiction (and indeed non-fictional and essayistic forms such as nature writing), or the various strategies it deploys to open up the realist novel in ways that let it embrace and engage with environmental questions.

That’s partly because of the sheer diversity of such books, and their tendency to elide traditional genre boundaries: certainly there’s almost no meaningful family resemblance between a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the affinities between the two means they can (and should) be usefully discussed together.

At one level this diversity reflects the many and complex ways in which writers and artists are engaging with these questions, and more deeply their ongoing attempts to map out an imaginative language with which to make sense of what’s happening to our world (and indeed ourselves) in the 21st century, a point I’ve made elsewhere in the context of what might be best described as the new nature writing. Certainly it’s not accidental so many writers fall back on stories about lost parents and missing children when they seek to articulate their feelings about climate change, devices that capture something of the rupture and grief which suffuses the contemporary condition (something that has prompted the writer M. John Harrison to talk about “loss lit”, and which is also present in articles like this, or this). Nor is it a coincidence that so many of these books employ fractured structures, and borrow devices from science fiction and elsewhere to talk about time and deep time (I suspect all the lost parents and children are another way of getting at these questions as well), or that questions of landscape, and our solastalgic sense of loss about its erasure intrude over and over again (in an excellent piece earlier this year Robert MacFarlane made a similar point about the rise of the eerie in contemporary British culture).

More importantly though, this diversity suggests why thinking of these books in terms of genres or categories is to miss the wood for the trees. Because these books aren’t a genre, they’re expressions of the deeper and more pervasive transformation of the world and ourselves we have taken to calling the Anthropocene in exactly the same way novels like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses reflected and embodied the transformative effects of modernity upon our culture and our selves. As Mckenzie Wark quipped on Facebook earlier this year, all fiction is anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn’t realise it yet.

To my mind the benefits of thinking about the question in this way are considerable. Not only does it allow us to step away from fruitless arguments about generic definition, but it allows us to see climate change as simply one (if still a very considerable) part of a larger process of transformation, one that embraces, amongst other things, genetic engineering, virtuality, over-population, species loss, habitat destruction and the broader disruption of natural and social systems by environmental change and capitalism.

And, perhaps more deeply, it recognises that we inhabit a world in which we ourselves are being altered, not just by technology and social transformation, but by the shifting terms of our engagement with what we would once have called the natural world. If one wanted to define when this change became apparent perhaps you might point to the floods and fires that tore through Australia over the summer of 2010/11, or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the droughts in the Middle East in 2008, or any one of the flooding events or hurricanes or droughts or heatwaves that have struck countries around the world in recent years, but perhaps the really significant moment was earlier this year, when average CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400ppm for the first time since the Pliocene. As Virginia Woolf might have put it, on or about March 2015, human character changed.

What we call the literary expressions of this condition is an open question. The obvious choice is Anthropocene fiction, although I’m resistant to that term, both because like cli fi it suggests a set of generic boundaries, instead of emphasising the degree to which this transformation leaches into everything, and because it emphasises human agency when, to my mind at least, what many of the books and stories we wish to discuss are attempting to find ways to talk about the non-human in fictional terms (I also think it’s worth making the point that while the idea of the Anthropocene is usually assumed to embrace the effect upon the natural world by human activity, but it also – and importantly – embraces a different and more interstitial kind of ecological awareness, one that recognises the presence of wildness and the natural world within the fabric of the human world).

Yet still, given that this idea of the transformation of the natural world, and of the end of a particular idea of nature is central, I wonder whether it mightn’t be simplest to begin to speak of the post-natural, or post-naturalism, and to begin to think of it not as a fad or a fashion or a genre, but as a tangible condition, something shaped and defined by the transformation of the natural world by human agency that is going on around us, and which helps determine the nature of the way we see the world, the questions we ask, and perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell.

 

World War Z and the River of the Dead

World War Z

The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).

But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.

There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.

Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).

Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.

Coode Street and Me

the-coode-street-podcastA little after the fact, but if you get a chance you might want to check out Episode 154 of the Coode Street Podcast, which features me chatting with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe about subjects ranging from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Paul McAuley’s Quiet War series to Margaret Atwood, Tolkien and the future of science fiction.

I’m a big fan of Coode Street, which I think is necessary listening for anybody interested in science fiction or fantasy, so it was great fun to be a part of it. You can download the episode from Podbean or from iTunes.

If you’re interested I’d also very much recommend taking the time to check out M. John Harrison’s recent appearance on the show (available via Podbean and iTunes), in which he demonstrates he’s exactly as brilliant in person as on the page, and the conversations with Graham Joyce (whose new book, The Year of the Ladybird, is a delight (again, Podbean, iTunes)) and Ursula Le Guin (Podbean) from a while back.