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Posts tagged ‘Ocean’

November update

I’m deep in the middle of two books, so not here all that often, but just a few quick updates.

The first is the wonderful news that my essay, ‘The End of the Oceans’, which was published in The Monthly in August, has been nominated for the Walkley Award for Feature Writing (Long). I’m thrilled for all the obvious reasons, but I’m also delighted because it’s a subject of the utmost importance that I care about very deeply. If you enjoy it please share it.

I’ve also had several other pieces of non-fiction published over the past few months. The most significant was ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, a long essay about Adelaide, extinction and the death of my father for Sydney Review of Books’ New Nature series. It’s a very personal piece and was extremely difficult to write, but I hope people find something in it.

Also in Sydney Review of Books I have ‘A Family of Disguises’, a long review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in The Australian (and staying with the oceanic theme), a review of Joy McCann’s terrific new history of the Southern Ocean, Wild Sea (possible $$$). And finally, I’ve recently uploaded a long review of the imaginary history of Australia Rodney Hall mapped out in the Yandilli Trilogy, The Island in the Mind and The Day We Had Hitler Home. It’s a few years old now, but they’re marvellous books, and it would be wonderful if they found new readers.

 

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2017: the year that was

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Because I’ve had my head down for a lot of this year I haven’t had much time for posting, but since it’s almost the new year I thought I might pull together some links and news.

The big news for this year was obviously the publication of my first YA novel, The Silent Invasion, which was released in Australia in April. It’s done well so far – it topped the bestseller lists in August and it’s just been longlisted for the Indie Awards (something I’m particularly thrilled about) – which has been great, especially since the second book in the series, The Buried Ark, will be out in April. If you’d like to know more about the series I wrote a piece about the inspiration for it to coincide with the publication of The Silent Invasion.

The other big news was the international publication of Clade by Titan Books in September. It’s had lovely reviews in various places, not least The Guardian and SFX, and I’ve done a number of interviews about it, most significantly for the fabulous Eco-Fiction and the Chicago Review of Books. I also did a long interview about climate change and fiction for Five Books, something that was doubly wonderful because I love the site so much (if you’ve never seen it I urge you to check it out: it’s an extraordinary resource).

I also published The Death of Neutrino Man, a comic I created with artist Melanie Cook from a script I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a project sponsored by iF Book (an experience I wrote about at the time). You can buy it for 99c at Comixology or read it online for free. I’ve got a couple of other comic projects cooking away, so hopefully there will be more soon.

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On the non-fiction front I wrote a couple of longer things, most notably a review essay of Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and a piece about the place of fiction in the Anthropocene, both of which were published on Sydney Review of Books. I also wrote about fish intelligence in The Monthly, which I’m delighted to say was shortlisted for the Bragg Prize for Science Writing and has recently been republished as part of Michael Slezak’s excellent Best Australian Science Writing 2017 (which would make an excellent Christmas present). And just a few weeks ago I published another ocean-themed piece in The Monthly, this time about the kelp forests of Australia’s other reef, the Great Southern Reef. And finally I’ve just written an appreciation of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career for The Neighbourhood Paper.

I’ll have more news about future projects, in particular The Buried Ark and my new adult novel in the new year. In the meantime I wish you all a very happy holiday season and all the best for 2018.

Fish have feelings too

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Steve Dunleavy, ‘Big Eyed Scad, Kona Hawaii’, cc by 2.0 2010

I’m delighted to be able to say my article, ‘Fish have feelings too’, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bragg/UNSW Bragg Prize for Science Writing, alongside pieces by Jo Chandler, Alice Gorman, Elmo Keep, James Mitchell Crow and Laura Parker. Originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Monthly, the piece is about recent research into fish cognition and intelligence. It will also be published later this year in The Best Australian Science Writing 2017, edited by Michael Slezak. I’m incredibly grateful to everybody at The Monthly and to Jodi Pini-Fitzsimmons and Culum Brown from Macquarie University for being so generous with their time and research. The winner will be announced in November.

 

 

Ghost Species

shell-219665_960_720It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on the beach beside the steel gantries and fuel tanks of Botany Bay’s container terminal watching my kids build a sandcastle by the water’s edge, a structure that keeps collapsing because the waves keep hitting it. But what I can’t get out of my head is the section of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, I read this morning, in which an unnamed narrator offers an imaginary account of the first sudden sea level rise in the 2040s. It’s a possibility I’ve also imagined in Ghost Species, the adult novel I’m writing (although mine is done from a more personal, experiential perspective), but simultaneously it’s a scenario that no matter how difficult it is for us to comprehend is now pretty much assured even if we do get emissions under control (as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently, “once feedbacks take over, the climate can change quickly, and it can change radically … It’s likely that the “floodgates” are already open, and that large sections of Greenland and Antarctica are fated to melt. It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen”). All of which means this beach, a lot of this city, most coastal habitats, mangroves and reefs and, I suspect, much of our world, are all already lost, swept away by the ocean, like the bathetically symbolic sandcastle my kids are trying to build against the backdrop of the engine of global trade. Is there a word for his prospective grief, this knowledge nothing here will remain? For all the species and ecosystems that still linger, although they are already lost? For the way I feel when I watch my kids, and know that however safe the world they inhabit seems the future holds dislocation and disaster, or for my own uncertainty about what I should be teaching them? In his book Orison for a Curlew the writer Horatio Clare talks about Greece’s economic ruin being a cenotaph for our society, I wonder whether this moment might be another.

Immense Heaven

1024px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaOur sun is one of the approximately 300 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of what is known as the Local Group, a formation of at least 54 galaxies galaxies spanning 10 million light years. The Local Group lies on the fringe of a much larger supercluster of galactic groups and clusters which contains more than 100,000 galaxies and spans some 520 million light years.

I’m not sure how many of us can really make sense of these sorts of numbers, or the idea that the universe is composed of a web of galactic clusters that shift and flow like water. Yet there’s something deeply fitting in the news earlier this week that the team responsible for identifying this vast supercluster have named it Laniakea, a Hawaiian word that means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven”, and was chosen to honour the Polynesian sailors who once navigated the great space of the Pacific by reading the stars.

It’s a name whose poetry extends beyond the obvious resonances with the ocean. It often seems there is something irresistible about our tendency to see the ocean infinite, immeasurable, trackless. There’s little doubt it’s an association that runs very deep, but it’s also at least partly a cultural construction, a legacy of Romanticism and the ways technology has progressively alienated us from the environment.

In fact the ocean is anything but trackless. As the achievements of the Pacific Islanders (and other pre-modern sailors) demonstrate, it is quite possible to read the sea, to learn to make sense not just of the stars but of patterns of wind and wave, the movement of birds and fish and driftwood (as several of the pieces in The Penguin Book of the Ocean attest).

The systems of knowledge, of fine-grained observation and remembered experience that underpinned this process were developed over hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Yet because the cultures that encoded them were largely oral, they were also vulnerable, and as the Pacific was colonised, and its cultures disrupted and suppressed, they largely disappeared. Indeed the fact that persist at all is largely due to the efforts of people such as the late Will Kyselka and David Lewis, who worked to preserve and recover as much of them as possible.

That systems of knowledge acquired over thousands of years should have been lost like this is strangely ironic: after all, the colonial project was spearheaded by the scientific voyages undertaken by explorers such as Banks and Cook during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, voyages that were themselves part of the extraordinary project of discovery and description that underpins modern science, and which has led, more than 200 years later, to us being able to map the flow of galaxies through billions of light years of space with such sophistication that it is possible for structures such as Laniakea to be identified and understood.

Lanikea isn’t the first astronomical object to be given a Polynesian name: astronomers have already chosen to name two of the dwarf planets discovered in recent years in the outer solar system MakeMake (for the creator of humanity and god of fertility worshipped by the Easter Islanders) and Haumea (the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii), yet it’s certainly the most significant. Nor should we be so naive as to think giving Polynesian names to heavenly bodies will bring back what has been lost: as Victoria Nelson has observed, “the death of a culture, like the death of a star, lasts longer than anyone can possibly imagine. The sadness, the echoes and ambiguities, persist for hundreds of years”. But reading about the naming of Laniakea I found myself wondering whether it’s possible that by incorporating the language and poetry of the Polynesians into the scientific endeavour we begin to acknowledge the repositories of knowledge embedded in their cultures (and by extension other non-Western and indigenous cultures), and just perhaps, go some small way toward recognising the injustices that have been inflicted upon them.

Laniakea. Immense Heaven.

 

Two of the most extraordinary things you’ll see this week

I’ve not seen Oceans, the most recent documentary from Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the creators of Travelling Birds, but after seeing the two videos below I think I need to. The first is of sleeping whales, and is just luminously beautiful, while the second is of one of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen, the Blanket Octopus (while we’re on the subject of octopi, you might also want to check out Sy Montgomery’s fabulous piece about octopi in Orion).

And in case it’s driving you crazy, that very sexy voice you can hear is Pierce Brosnan’s.

Thanks to io9 for the heads-up.

 

 

Moby Duck

I’ve got a review of Donovan Hohn’s Moby Duck: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them in this weekend’s Weekend Australian. As the review hopefully makes clear I liked it quite a bit, not least because despite the silly title (and the sometimes irritatingly digressive style) it’s a book that’s grappling in genuinely interesting ways with a series of questions about what Nature actually is, and perhaps just as importantly, how we should think about ideas such as wilderness and preservation in a globalised world.

These aren’t new questions, of course. There’s a growing body of theoretical work exploring them, and even in a more popular context recent years have seen the publication of books such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and Mark Lynas’ The God Species, but what makes Hohn’s book so refreshing is his interest in using the reality of the contemporary natural world to ask quite difficult questions about many of the assumptions underpinning environmental thinking. Some of these relate to what we actually mean by natural in 2011: there’s a great moment where he hikes through a rainforest only to realise when he hears a popping underfoot that it’s rooted in a great mound of old plastic bottles. But others are political, such as his argument the corporate-funded Keep America Beautiful campaign was less about cleaning up the environment than about transforming the public perception of litter and waste from a responsibility of polluting companies into something connected to personal conduct.

The book’s also interesting because it deliberately avoids the pieties of so much nature writing. Hohn isn’t interested in the chiselled prose and watchful reverence of Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen or Robert MacFarlane, instead he adopts a more contemporary (and more garrolous) style, one that allows him to write as lucidly about Chinese factories as vast, submarine gyres.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying there’s a lot to like about the book, and if you get a chance it’s well worth checking out. As I say, the review’s in The Weekend Australian, and you can find links to buy the book on Booko.