Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ecotopia - Ernest Callenbach

Last year I reviewed Rachal Carson's book Silent Spring. This work is very influential in environmental circles and although it clearly shows its age, it is in some ways still a relevant book. Where Silent Spring is a scientific work, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach (1929 - 2012) is fiction. It nevertheless has a reputation of being very influential. The novel first appeared in 1975 and more than forty years later, it is still in print. Callenbach published a prequel titled Ecotopia Emerging in 1981, which didn't do nearly as well. Calling it a novel is probably a bit generous. My edition is 182 pages long. This includes an afterword and an essay by the author. The introduction by Malcolm Margolin is in roman numerals. It would probably be considered a novella by today's standards.

In the near future (as seen from 1974) the states Washington, Oregon and northern California has seceded from the union. After a brief war, a new nation is founded by the name of Ecotopia. Its policy is to create a sustainable society. A stable state as they like to put it. All ties with the United States are broken and for almost twenty years, nothing but disturbing rumours reach Washington. Now, for the first time since the founding of the new state, Will Weston, an American journalist is granted access to the country. His columns swing between disbelief and admiration. His private journal on the other hand show a man very much hit by a culture shock. Ecotopia profoundly alters his view on the world and before he knows it, he is faced with the most difficult decision in his career.

Callenbach was a staff of the University of California Press in Berkeley, California for many years. In the 1970s, Berkeley was a bubbling cauldron of social experiments and it is not surprising that such an environment produced a book like Ecotopia. While the novel is usually praised for its vision on sustainable living, the story goes much beyond just the environmental aspect. Reaching what Callenbach calls a steady state is not possible without a complete overhaul of the economic and social structures currently in place. The society he depicts has changed many of its core concepts such as family, community, government and ownership. It is a large version of what many of the communes in the 1970s were experimenting with.

The story is told entirely through the rather dry and thoroughly biased columns Weston sends back east, alternated with the more personal journal entries. There is quite a sharp contrast between the columns and the journal entries. While in the first he keeps the worst of his prejudice to himself and makes an attempt at being diplomatic and impartial, in the second his true opinion is related in more direct terms. The image that emerges from these pieces is that he is, to put it mildly, a bit of a prick. The plot is more or less based on the idea that is he is unwilling to face up to his own preconceptions and faces a serious personal crisis because of it.

In his columns Weston covers a variety of topics. From the exuberant cultural life of the Ecotopians to their peculiar government and from their unusual economics to their alternative educational system. In the columns he portrays  a society that would be completely unacceptable to the average American. I haven't looked into it too deeply but I would not be surprised if every concept Callenbach mentions was a real experiment at some point. Consumption, corporate ownership, energy generation and healthcare are all designed to support the steady state Ecotopians aim for. A free market capitalist would have nightmares about this level of government intervention and Weston, at least initially, agrees with that low opinion of Ecotopian society.

Callenbach combines a number of very interesting environmental and social theories into this novel. The major turn the Ecotopians make is letting go of the idea of perpetual growth. The idea is that the land can only produce so much sustainably, so that is what society can use. A decline in population is even considered desirable to reach this goal. Despite the common perception  that environmentally friendly living means returning to more primitive modes of existence, there is a lot of technology in this novel. It is very selectively applied however. A lot of it goes into public transport, energy production and development of biodegradable materials. Callenbach has managed to predict the available technology (which is set around the turn of the century) quite well. None of it sounds impossible.

From an environmental point of view there are two very obvious weaknesses in Callenbach's vision. The first is that an ecosystem is never completely stable. Some oscillate rather wildly, most are always in the process of changing into something else. That is not even taking into account outside influences on the system from places that do not practice ecological principles. Basing a complete, stable and mostly selfsustaining economy on that, in a society that is still very much in flux strikes me as nearly impossible. The second objection is simply that in many places on earth the human population has overshot the carrying capacity of the ecosystem by such ha huge margin that reaching the desired state would take generations. A simple revolution won't do. Callenbach seems to recognize these problems but doesn't address them in the novel.

That being said, there is something very appealing about the society shown in the novel. Despite what some would see as an insanely high level of government influence on every aspect of society, there is a freedom for the individual that is hard to match in any existing economy. The extreme differences in income we see in modern society is eliminated, women seem to be much more in control of their own bodies and even dominant in politics. Weston himself still shows a worrying level of sexism, another reason why he clashes with Ecotopia. I can see why people would want to give this a try.

Surprisingly, the issue of race is not dealt with in the novel. In fact, segregation is taken a step further by the creation of semi-independent black city states. Something similar appears to be going on with a group of Japanese. Many other groups are simply not mentioned in the novel at all. It also includes a few rather problematic references to Native Americans (the novel shows its age by calling them Indians) that reduce them to an inspiration for sustainable living based on the image of the noble savage. Ecotopia may have made progress but it is clearly not utopia yet.

In the essay included in the back of my copy titled Epistle to the Ecotopians, written in 2012 shortly before his death, Callenbach doesn't seem optimistic about the state of the world. He seems to think society is moving away from the conditions needed to bring his Ecotopia into being. Between the lines you get the idea that he thinks the window of opportunity seems to have passed. He may well be right in that assessment but even if his vision will not become reality, it may still serve as an inspiration to move towards a more sustainable society. I suspect the book will remain popular for some time to come.

Ecotopia is very much a novel of its time. I suspect that if it had been published as little as five years later it would have sunk like a stone. This is likely true for many successful novels though. As a novel I wouldn't rate it too highly. The characterization in particular is not very well done. His struggle is obvious from the beginning and not particularly well portrayed. The society Callenbach describes, despite the obvious problems with it, is a fascinating one though. I can see why people would want to try it. I can also see that with a world population of more than seven billion - that's 3 billion more than in 1975 - it would not stand much of a chance. So read it as a source of inspiration and you may well get something out of it. Look for a roadmap to Ecotopia and you'll be disappointed.

Book Details
Title: Ecotopia
Author: Ernest Callenbach
Publisher: Heyday
Pages: 182
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59714-293-9
First published: 1975

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Not Dark Yet - Berit Ellingsen

Berit Ellingsen is a name that has been cropping up in various magazines and anthologies over the past few years. She is a Korean Norwegian author writing in English who prefers to spend as much time as possible on Svalbard. I first encountered her writing in The Apex Book of World SF 3 (2014), which includes her story Dancing on the Red Planet. It is a humorous vision of the arrival of the first humans on Mars. It's one of the better stories in a strong anthology. In November last year Not Dark Yet, her second novel was published by Two Dollar Radio. I completely missed it of course, but under the motto better late than never I got a copy recently. It's a near future science fiction novel with a strong environmental theme but also one with a lot of attention for character development. I liked it a lot but it is one of those novels that are not likely to get the attention they deserve.

Brandon Minamoto is a man with a military past. He has left service however and now makes a living as a photographer. The world around him is feeling the impact of irreversible climate change and Brandon is ill at ease with all these changes. Meeting the scientist Kaye, who hires him to take photographs for his research project, ends in a violent drama that brings back his past. Bandon leaves the city and moves into a cabin in the mountains. He applies to the space agency for a position on a proposed manned mission to Mars. But ties to family and lovers are not that easily severed. They keep drawing him back in.

One of the first things many readers will notice is that Ellingsen is very careful to hide where the story is taking place. Names of cities are abbreviated or not mentioned at all, continents are mentioned as northern, southern and so on, the local language is never named. The story could take place in just about any place on earth. Bergen in Norway seems like a reasonable fit, but so does San Francisco. Or any number of other cities around the world. Where many authors would use the setting to create a specific atmosphere, or to confirm or challenge people's preconceptions, Ellingsen keeps it as vague as possible. Maybe to make the story as universal as possible? The theme of climate change is a global development after all.

In the background climate change is always making itself felt. Reports of natural disasters on other continents, the ever rising food prices, the unusual weather and lack of snowfall and eventually a hurricane that will hit Brandon's home town. Part of the world is trying to pretend it is business as usual, but here and there people are trying to adapt as well. Brandon is drawn into a project that attempts to grow crops at an altitude where it would have been impossible in the past. It is a risky venture but he is soon caught up in the optimism of the initiators. There are other currents working their way into his thoughts too. From the temptation to leave it all behind and try again somewhere else, to forcibly changing the world's economic system. The world is not a simple place and Brandon has trouble making sense of it.

The main character is exposed to various moral dilemmas over the course of the novel. They range from very personal, obligations to friends, lovers and family, to larger social issues like how to treat his newly acquired land and the earth in general. He is constantly distancing himself from certain people and then being drawn back in. Brandon, in other words, is not a man at ease with the world. Ellingsen examines this through a series of decisions Brandon has to make. Pull the trigger of his sniper rifle or not? Kill the research owl attacking Kaye or not? Allow the agricultural project to use his land or not? They are decisions with far-reaching consequences for Brandon and the people around him. He spends quite a lot of time unsure of whether or not he got it right.

The author pushes the character to consider extreme and often mutually exclusive options with these choices and the character's indecision. There is the impulse to leave it all behind sign up for the Mars mission (a long shot, the selection criteria are tough) but also the temptation to (literally) put down roots and try to adapt to climate change. He could let himself be drawn back into his familiar circle of lover, friends and family or join Kaye's radical movement and go underground. It is not an easy choice.

Not Dark Yet is a novel that emphasizes character over development of the plot. Various events in the novel are not so much part of one story arc but rather examined in the light of how they influence the main character. As such, this novel is probably not a good choice for very plot oriented readers. Personally I found Brandon to be a highly interesting character though. Every time you think you have a handle on him, Ellingsen explores a new facet of his personality. What the outcome of Brandon's soul searching will be remains uncertain until the very end of the novel. All things considered I think it is a very successful novel. I'll definitely keep an eye out for the next one.

Book Details
Title: Not Dark Yet
Author: Berit Ellingsen
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Pages: 209
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937512-35-4
First published: 2015

Monday, May 16, 2016

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Some time ago I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and it is, in my opinion a masterwork. Anansi Boys is set in the same world and appeared four years after its hugely successful predecessor. I hesitate to call Anansi Boys a sequel though, both books have very little to do with each other. In fact, you need not have read American Gods to enjoy this novel. It is more of a spin off really, following the son of one of the minor characters in American Gods. Most people seem to feel this novel is the lesser of the two. I'm not sure I agree with that. They are very different works so for readers looking for more of the same, Anansi Boys will be a disappointment. Judged on its own merits however, it is a very good novel.

Fat Charlie is not actually fat. It is a nickname he got from his father of all people. His father is, to put it mildly, a constant source of embarrassment. It is no wonder Charlie has put an ocean between them and went to the UK to live and work. Now he is engaged to Rosie who, not fully understanding Charlie's predicament, insists on inviting his father to the wedding. When Charlie relents and phones one of his father's neighbours to make inquiries, she tells him he has just passed away. At the funeral he learns that his father died in a karaoke bar in a most embarrassing fashion and that he was in fact the spider-god Anansi. To make matters even more confusing, Charlie finds out he has a brother named Spider. When the two meet, it quickly becomes apparent his bother is everything Charlie is not.

Although the novel is very dark at times, Anansi was a trickster god and not a very pleasant one at that, it is a comedy at heart. Poor Charlie is at the receiving end quite often. He is a bit of an anti hero. I'm not too fond of that type of characters. Dutch literature is overflowing with losers of all kinds and in the few years my teachers tried to instil some appreciation for this type of writing in me. I'm afraid they achieved the opposite. Keeping that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I'm a bit more tolerant of Charlie because of the way Gaiman uses him in the novel. The contrast with his brother enables Gaiman to move the narrative from Monty Python-esque absurdity to deeply tragic moments and back again. 

Spider is the one that got all the god stuff, as one of the characters puts it. He is a trickster, a player of confidence games. He is also completely hedonistic and not one to take other people's feelings into account. He feels no remorse at taking over Charlie's life including his fiancée. Having a fiancée is new to him however, women were never more than temporary entertainment. Rosie makes him think Charlie might be on to something. Charlie on the other hand, is finding out that standing up for himself, makes him appear more like his brother. The drifting from complete opposites to men who could in fact be related is one of the things I liked most about it. Gaiman builds it up very well.

There are a number of secondary characters in the novel that contribute to it being hilariously funny at times. Charlie's future mother-in-law Mrs. Noah, the embodiment of everything negative people say about their mother-in-law, and Mrs. Maeve Livingstone, a very British vengeful ghost, are the two I enjoyed most. Gaiman doesn't stop there though, the cast is very colourful as a whole and he makes excellent use of them. They include Charlie's sociopathic boss, four voodoo practising old ladies and a disappointed police woman who refuses to give up on a murder case. Their characteristics are a bit exaggerated for the comical effect of course, but Gaiman is careful not to overdo it.

Gaiman's work is often infused with fairytales and mythology and this novel is no exception. In American Gods he borrows liberally from a number of different mythologies. In this novel it is more contained to Anansi stories. Anansi is a Caribbean deity of West-African origin. Other than that he is a trickster, not unlike Loki in American Gods, I don't know that much about the mythological figure, but he is so widely known that there are probably many variations for Gaiman to borrow from. I'd be interested in hearing what someone more familiar with the material makes of Gaiman's treatment of the myth.

Anansi Boys is a fast and very entertaining read. I wasn't sure if this book would work for me but despite the lighter tone of the novel, it is a complex piece of writing. Gaiman juggles the characters and their individual stories expertly and finds a good balance between the comical and darker parts of the stories. The tone of the novel makes it easy to read, without making the story seem simple. Gaiman delivers his tale as confidently as Spider must be feeling when he bends the world to his will. It is perhaps not quite the book readers who loved American Gods were hoping for. He simply takes his writing in an entirely different direction. It is a very well written novel though, one that certainly encourages me to read more of his work.

Book Details
Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Review Books
Pages: 348
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-7553-0507-8
First published: 2005

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Spider's War - Daniel Abraham

The Spider's War is the fifth and final installment of Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series. It is Abraham's take on traditional epic fantasy. It has all the ingredients: dynastic struggles, an ancient wrong to be set right, unlikely heroes and heroines, war on a large scale and the fate of the world itself hanging in the balance. He didn't aim to be startlingly original with this series - although he can't help but subvert a few fantasy tropes here and there - but rather do epic fantasy exceptionally well. In the previous volumes I always had the feeling it was indeed well done but not exceptional. Time to find out how he handles the climax of the series.

The armies of the Antean Lord Regent Geder Palliako have overextended themselves. Exhausted, poorly supplied and only kept from mutiny by the power of the Spider Goddess, they face almost certain annihilation when the fighting resumes in spring. The desperate state the empire is in hasn't penetrated the court in Camnipol yet, but it  is only a question of time. In the city of Carse in the mean time, Marcus Wester, Cithrin bel Sarcour and Clara Kaliam have gathered to find a way to bring the war to an end. Preferably without razing Antea to the ground. It is a formidable challenge that requires innovative financing, military excellence and intimate knowledge of Antean politics. And a dragon of course. Can't save the day without one.

Once again it is obvious that Abraham knows exactly where he is taking the story. Where series like these sometimes get away from the author and move in unexpected directions, Abraham keeps it nicely on track. Apart from a number of brief interludes, he resists the temptation of adding more point of view characters, drawing more parties into the conflict or exploring other parts of his world. It is focussed on the four point of view characters who have been with us from the beginning. As epic fantasies go, it is tightly plotted. Abraham leaves himself the option of more stories in this setting but the main conflict is resolved. Given how busy The Expanse is keeping him, the television series based on these novels is going into the second season, I very much doubt we'll see more on this world any time soon.

The one thing that Abraham does that seems to go directly against the current in epic fantasy at the moment is the relative lack of violence, blood and gore. There is fighting for sure, people die in horrible ways. They starve, freeze to death, get stabbed, are thrown off cliffs and fried by dragon fire but none of it is described in unnecessary detail. Sexual violence is almost completely absent. One or two references that it might have occurred during the war is all this book contains. It feels like a deliberate choice by Abraham, a comment on the direction Fantasy has taken in the last decade or so. One well worth thinking about.

Economics is again the most innovative part of the novel. Abraham describes the transition from using gold as currency to paper money only partially backed by gold in the national treasury. Nobody in the novel fully understands the consequences and risks of this move but in the short run (even fantasy bankers seem to be short-sighted) it works surprisingly well. Cithrin also seems to think that monetary compensation can slake the thirst for blood of Antea's enemies. Somehow I don't think that is going to work out very well. It strikes me as a bit of a fantasy version of the treaty of Versaille, but the story doesn't take us that far. None of the characters feel their plans can prevent all future military conflict though. They are wise enough to realize that.

Despite Cithrin's innovations, in previous books I felt Geder was the more interesting character. The dark streak in his personality, the doubt and rejection that are always gnawing at him, is seemingly at odds with his desire to do what he believes is right. In all the time he is regent it never occurred to him to get rid of the heir to the throne for instance, but he is ruthless with his enemies. There is a contradiction in his actions that keeps building and eventually has to lead to a crisis. In this novel his behaviour reaches new extremes. He strikes me as a full blown manic depressive in The Spider's War. The spiders can only do so much to keep him going it seems.

The other character that is clearly headed for a crisis is Clara. After all she has been through there is simply no going back to her old, comfortable life among the Antean nobles. Too much has changed. Of course facing up to the fact that her old life is a closed book takes courage. This is something Clara doesn't lack but for the final step she needs a push.  Geder and Clara are the most dynamic characters in the book. By contrast, Cithrin and Marcus more or less keep doing what they've been doing for most of the series. She keeps banking, he keeps campaigning even past the climax of the book. It is as if they don't quite know what to do with themselves after the end of the conflict.

Their response to the events in this final volume of the series is not unlike my own. Abraham wraps up his story neatly, if a little predictably here and there. It is well executed for sure but it does leave me with the feeling that it didn't quite achieve what it set out to do. Abraham tried to do something different with his Long Price novels and, commercially at least, they were not as successful as his publisher hoped they'd be. He bounced back with this series, among other projects, and delivered a well written, entertaining, traditional epic fantasy. It does not, however, have that one ingredient that lifts it above the mass of epic fantasy published today.

The drama of Khaiem, their unique culture and language supported by poses, added something to the story that the Dagger and Coin books lack. They were more risky in the sense that these books contained elements that made as many readers bounce right off these books but for readers looking for something a little different, they worked very well indeed. Taking this risk made them stand out for me in a way that the Dagger and Coin series does not. While I enjoyed reading these books, I wouldn't mind seeing Abraham try something a little less traditional for his next project.

Book Details
Title: The Spider's War
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 489
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20405-7
First published: 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Year of Our War - Steph Swainston

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, which has recently appeared in Dutch translation. It was my introduction to the world of Castle. While a short story can't possibly convey all the nuances of Swainston's creation, it was more than enough to convince me to try a full novel. The individual titles in the Castle trilogy are a bit hard to come by at the moment, but an omnibus edition is readily available. Besides the trilogy there is a fourth book called Above the Snowline (2010) available. A fifth novel, Fair Rebel,  is expected later this year. In an interview I did with her earlier this year, Swainston confirmed that she is working on a sixth Castle novel.

Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals lead by the emperor, tasked with watching over the world until the creator returns. His role is that of the Messenger. Being the only immortal capable of flight, he uses his wings to get around the world quickly, delivering messages and reporting on what he sees. The world has come under increasing pressure from an insect invasion. Where previously they seemed content behind their wall, recently they have been pushing deeper into lands held by humanoid species. Their advance seems unstoppable and soon it becomes clear the insects won't stop until they've colonised the entire world. On top of that threat, Castle has to deal with internal conflicts as well. As the insects advance, Jant becomes ever more desperate to find a way to defeat them and restore some semblance of order in the world.

Although the author doesn't particularly care for this label, Swainston's novels have often been characterized as New Weird. Whatever you may think of that, her books  are definitely not run-of-the-mill fantasy. The world is populated by several humanoid species and interbreeding is possible. The technology level in the novel is mostly fairly modern but such things as internal combustion engines and gunpowder (or other heavy explosives) are missing. Wars therefore, are still fought with swords, pikes and crossbows and transport depends on horses and sailing ships. I had to adjust my mental image of what this world looked like several times because of this curious mix of older and modern technology.

The book is written in the first person. We see the entire story through the eyes of Jant. He is something of an anti-hero. Where in The Wheel of Fortune, set chronologically some two centuries before the bulk of The Year of Our War, Jant is just dealing drugs, by the time we meet him again, he is heavily addicted. The only thing that has saved him from an overdose is the fact that he is immortal. At times, his constant craving for his next shot makes him intensely annoying and rather pathetic. On the other hand he is well aware of what is going on in the world and, while not always completely voluntary, he does put his life on the line during the insect onslaught in more ways than most of his compatriots are aware of. He has, in other words, quite a complicated personality. Some readers might be put off by the whiny side of him and his constant worries about where his next shot will come from. I thought it was a very good bit of characterization though.

Deeply flawed yet heroic is a pattern we see with other immortals as well. Swainston portrays them as larger than life. They assume a kind of Olympic quality if you will. There is a definite parallel between Jant and Hermes in fact. The immortals' internal bickering sends shock waves through the world and ends up killing a great many people. The members of Castle are very human in some respects. Pettiness, power struggles and jealousy are part of every day life at the court of the emperor.The various currents at court adds to the complexity of the tale and gives the world more depth. Throughout the novel there are hints of the politics in the various nations as well, leaving quite a bit to be explored in further novels.

While I liked the worldbuilding and what Swainston does with the main character, structurally it is not a particularly strong novel. Not to put too fine a point on it, it rambles along here and there. Swainston uses flashbacks to give us an impression of Jant's past in some places that do more to disrupt the flow of the story set in the present than enlighten us. Throughout the story you can also feel the strain of having only one point of view character. Jant is constantly lost in the fog of war. Events in some places in the world simply outpace Jant and he frequently  has to adjust to developments he neither foresaw or was present to witness. It's reasonable when looked at from Jant's point of view but for the reader it is not always a satisfying experience. I also felt that the ending of the novel was fairly abrupt and left an awful lot of story lines open for the next volume.

In some ways The Year of Our War is a rocky start to the trilogy, but also one that shows a lot of potential. The setting is absolutely unique and after reading this book you can't possibly not want to learn more. The story is a dark one, but it doesn't overly rely on shock tactics to keep the reader's attention. Swainston is clearly interested in the darker side of human nature and her main character is a big part of that. His addiction and personality make him a character that is guaranteed to provoke a reaction in the reader. Probably not a positive one in all readers but if you can stomach a main character you can't always sympathise with, he is bound to take you for quite a ride. I'll be reading the second volume in the not too distant future to see where he will lead us and of course to find out if he can get the monkey off his back.

Book Details
Title: The Year of Our War, part one of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 267 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2004