scifi


I came to The Iron Heel from a list of “Dystopian Fiction” I found on the interweb, a list also including such classics as 1984 and A Handmaiden’s Tale. It was interesting then to later discover that The Iron Heel is cited as an influence on Orwell, because the similarity in the authoritarian nations that emerge in London’s alternate-history USA and the industrialised world of Oceania is obvious, despite the two authorities being respectively Fascist and Communist.

The similarity in the nature of the authoritarianism depicted by London and Orwell reinforces for me the ease with which any imaginer can foresee their own system of government slipping into a future distinguished most strongly by control, with the machinery of this control only differentiated by favoured contemporary political philosophies. The potential to garner authority (and its exercise by an oligarchy or plutocracy) imagined by these authors is also exhibited the recently-read Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things (1987).

Of course, it is nothing new to claim that all dystopia are marked by authority-masquerading-as-utopia. What is interesting to me is the manner in which dystopia is so readily imagined to emerge as a consequence of contemporary events, and the suggestion that the here and now may, by virtue of being the opposite of that dreaded  future, in fact be the utopia we have long sought. This is especially the case when reading other contemporary fiction such as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003, which I’m currently in the middle of) and by Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009), where the marvels of the C20th and early C21st are remembered as halcyon days.

The placement of utopia in the here and now, instead of placing it as a future to serve in contrast to a dystopia we need fear, a heaven and hell, is an idea in which I have become increasingly interested. In a manner of speaking, we do currently live in London’s  “wonder-city of Asgard”, and our capitalists do operate an oligarchy in which a great many wonders are possible. It was strange therefore to be reading The Iron Heel as the Occupy Movement began to unfold across the US, and to see the authorities in Oakland begin to come down on protest. Part of me wondered if what London calls ‘standing on faces’ might not have continued and expanded had there been a different President in the White House.

While The Iron Heel degrades into a fantasy of class-, or caste-based warfare, the initial exposition of the failures of capitalism are very interesting, presenting as they do a critique of an economy in which monopoly and resource exploitation are rife, and in which competition to smother smaller players is both necessary and acceptable. While reading of absorption of the petite bourgeoisie by the corporations I was easily able to see the expansion of the mega-malls across the US, and the migration of the small-business-owner into minimum-wage jobs, and in the transformation of farmers to serfs I was reminded of the growth of gigantic monoculture industrial farming.

So does this mean that I think the US is slipping into authoritarianism, with London writing a vague script to a gathering revolution? No more than I think 1984 is likely. As it is The Iron Heel sits alongside the great dystopian works as a reminder of the paths on which no rational humanist would want to find themself. Moreover, what The Iron Heel and 1984 have in common is an imagined world in which resource-exploitation continues to be feasible. If you contrast those worlds to more recent works such as the aforementioned Oryx and Crake, Far North, or even Bruce Sterling The Caryatids (2009), all of which feature the collapse of the nation-state system under stress from resource shortages and environmental change, things start to get a little more real.

With its main premise the inhumanity of mankind to man, Never Let Me Go is perhaps the most prescient scifi I can remember seeing since The Road. Sharing with that story a bleakness of human spirit, Never Let Me Go is the tale of three clones bred for their organs by a near-past Great Britain.

The story begins with the children growing up together  in a stately home that looks and functions much like a boarding school in any Western country. Of course, this is no ordinary school, but instead a place where the children are kept in peak condition, in much the same manner as are well-treated free range animals. And it is this that makes the story so horrifying. These are of course human children, but humans intended as nothing more than mobile organ banks. Accentuating this horror is the knowledge that man’s inhumanity has created such injustice throughout history, be it in the greed that created slavery, the malice that worked Jews to death, or the myths of superiority that saw British invade and slaughter thousands of Australians.

A society where clones are bred for purpose is so likely, the setting so familiar, and the drive for self-preservation so hard-coded within each of us that such as place as these children grow, and learn, and love before they are dissected to extend the lives of their gerontologic masters could be occurring right now.

It’s a compelling film, an extraordinary example of the social critique scifi should actually serve, and one I heartily commend.

While much of the focus on The Road is used to highlight the supposed ‘environmental message’ of the film and the novel on which it is based, I was left wondering if in fact the apocalypse levelled on the fictional world was not more akin to the great devastation we so nearly faced during the Cold War. During The Road I was often reminded of that icon of the 1980s The Day After, and left the cinema wondering what that the latter film might have been if shorn of it’s propaganda (“we’ll make it, though it’ll be tough”), and humanity. I’ve also made a note to try and find it on DVD.

The similarity between the two films is of course the nuclear winter, and the key difference the willingness of humans to band together in the face of catastrophe. My memory of The Day After – seen in the eyes of a teenager scared of the holocaust, as we all were – is of people who have barricaded themselves in a hospital removing the mattress-screens once the radiation has dropped, and of the gradual decline due to radiation sickness of some of the individuals unable to hide. These scenes are of hope, that some will survive once the danger has passed, despite the misery they’re victim to. The Road creates none of these pretences whatsoever, and instead drops the two main characters into a world without ethics, morals, or future. There is nothing that can save them, and instead we watch perhaps the last two vestiges of our humanity picking their way through the utter devastation of a dying biosphere.

The question I was left with circles around why the author chose this world for his vision of our future. And most often I see his settling on the natural selfishness of man. The looming environmental catastrophe he is attempting to warn us of is one of our own making, and one which we propel ourselves towards despite the warnings of experts. We are told again, and again, that that future is an illusion, and if it is not, it is too expensive to change , and so it is that we continue to push ourselves towards an abyss. Contrast this message with The Day After, where it more or less a momentary ‘accident’ that almost destroys us, one that can be averted by the awareness of people that this future does not need occur. To reinforce the message the main character in The Road, the Father, often looks backward to the days of plenty, a time when he was surrounded by items, luxury and comfort. Food was cheap, colours abundant, light falling upon the face of an angel, his wife. The author is in this way both allowing us to see what it is we have now, while creating a contrast to what will be if this present is not changed. There is no way to turn off and dismantle the rockets. To live, we must leave the Garden, or the Garden will be no more.

Utterly harrowing.

What made this gut-wrenching message more prescient is a TV series of the 1970s we were made to watch in school (by a lazy social studies teacher). Connections was a major influence on a younger me, depicting as it did the holistic intertwining of science, art, and industry in the history of Western Europe. In one episode Burke, the host of the show, presents a world without a key resource, electricity. He begins in a modern, post-industrial city, and works his way out to the rural hinterland, the source of our other need, food. In a very simple description Burke made it very clear that you and I are entirely dependent on the network we support, and which supports us, and clearly demonstrates how simple it would be to collapse it all, with the flick of a switch. The Road epitomises that collapse in the most horrifying way possible, by turning humanity on itself in the search for food.

So what did this leave me with? A mild depression? Yes. A fear for the future, and Chef Du Plunge in particular? Absolutely. While Left and Right equivocate about the impending natural disaster we face, I sit and read of the collapse of civilisations throughout history, and take comfort in the knowledge that collapse is normal. All civilisations end, and almost always due to environmental exhaustion. The only question is whether the end of the Oil Age will bring so much damage to humanity that we regress to the horror depicted in The Road, or whether it is something more akin to the optimism of The Caryatids. And only time will tell.

Indescribably awful.

The story starts out with a semi-retired former-special-ops guy who’s disaffected and has lost his love for his nation because the regime has changed. He’s given a chance to get back into the action with what is most probably a trap. So, he sets out to some other world somewhere to snatch a female of some species and bring it back to a remarkably Baron Harkonnenesque evil dictator.

OK. So we’re pretty high on the cheese factor already, right? Then, he crash-lands on the planet he’s heading to, surprise surprise, and just happens to have the female wander into the near-crash zone. WTF? Nice concidence.

And naturally she’s up for a shag.

I quit not long after.

Pulp.

Pedestrian. Really seriously pedestrian.

I had high hopes after The January Dancer, but was disappointed and bored.

Sent it back despite only reading to p.193. Life is too short for tedious scifi.

WTF!! A space opera with a plot, and intrigue!

The January Dancer is a great little novel set around the events following the discovery of an artifact, the Dancer, by a ship captain named January. Largely taking the form of a narrative by a scarred man to a harpist (in a pub), the story weaves its way across one of the spiral arms.

Perhaps what I liked best is that Flynn has a huge back-story woven into the narrative, but it’s subtly written and doesn’t occupy the reader’s attention. Instead, it unfolds gracefully, and draws you in. Very nice indeed, and combined with the believable and likeable characters makes for a compelling read.

This book is very highly recommended, and could be one of the best reads of last year.

Zombie flick cum road movie/teen film.

Piss funny.

Do not expect plot or the absence of holes (for example, how the hell do they still have electricity, and where the hell is all the petrol coming from?).

Best end of the holidays, like, ever.

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