After the climate catastrophe – review of The Wall by John Lanchester

In a short, pared-back story of a dystopian Britain, John Lanchester hammers home where climate change might be leading us.

The book’s narrator is Kavanagh, who is just beginning his two years guarding the wall, a defence around the whole of Britain that has been erected to keep out the Others – the migrants who are braving the seas in order to get in to Britain.

[Spoiler alert] He begins as a terrified rookie but gradually builds up his skills and becomes friendly with his shift, particularly Hifa who he strikes up a relationship with, and another guy called Hughes. They do OK for a while, but when a horrific attack occurs they are put out to sea, and embark on a new part of their life, not as Defenders but as Others. Adrift in a small lifeboat, they become part of a community of Others for a while, before finding an odd, lonely and, probably temporary, sanctuary.

My recollection of the other book I’ve read by John Lanchester, Capital, is that its a thought-provoking, state-of-the-nation kind of novel about post-financial crash Britain. The Wall is similar in this respect, though slimmer, harder, more focused.

Like Capital, in The Wall it’s the message, the overall idea, that’s driving the plot, not the characters. Kavanagh has a bit of depth, and his narration style is simple, to the point, and enjoyable to read, but he is really telling the story of a society, not his life. Hifa, despite being the second major character, is almost unknown to the reader. The Captain, whose life and back story ought to have been the most interesting, is unexplored.

But that doesn’t matter. You read The Wall because of its theme, and in this it’s a very impressive book.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture sea levels rising, millions of people fleeing their homes in search of land, and Britain setting up a defensive wall and conscripting people to spend two years of their life guarding the wall. That we’re already seeing mass migration due to climate change, the talk of a wall from the US president, and boats of migrants looking for asylum arriving on European shores weekly, make Lanchester’s dystopian vision alarmingly close. You can’t escape from the realism of what ought to seem a fantasy.

It’s the details of how such a society might function that really give this book it’s depth. The two years on the wall that everyone does. The sense of the Others, the migrants, risking their lives to get over the wall. The terrifying and thoroughly effective fact that if, as a Defender, you let one Other over the wall, then you’ll be put out to sea – one out, one in. The way people might choose to become Breeders, whose job is to have kids. Or that people like the Captain will opt for multiple tours of the wall in order to get better accommodation or food.

Perhaps the most effective – and, again, realistic – part of the book is the sharp divide between parents and children – the guilt the parents feel at having let the world burn in their time, and the anger the children feel at their parents for condemning them to a tough, hopeless life.

And what you can’t help wonder, all the way, through is what else is going on in this horrific world. What else is happening inside the wall, inside Britain? What kind of a country is it? What is the government like? And what’s it like in other countries? Similar, or not? How many people are migrating? What kinds of lives are they living on the seas trying to get in to Britain?

They are questions that Kavanagh never thinks about or addresses. The implication being that he, like everyone else, hasn’t the brain space or energy to think about them; on the Wall, on the seas, everywhere, there’s no time to think about anything other than survival. But for the reader, it’s precisely because the world Lanchester describes is so close to ours that we can’t help but wonder about what else is going on outside the narrow confines of the bare life of Kavanagh.

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer

Borne really is a piece of dystopian joy, with wildly imaginative beings mixed with a compelling story and characters.

It’s a first person narrative from Rachel, a scavenger in a world that has been ruined, as far as we know, by the now destroyed ‘company’ and the biotech entities it created. She lives with the ambiguous Wick in their hide-out, Balcony Cliffs, and together they try to stay alive in a savage city populated by dangerous creations and ruined humans.

The city is in the grip of a power struggle between Mord, a humongous powerful bear with an army of proxies, and the Magician, possibly a human, who has gathered supporters and possesses biotech-enhanced powers.

It is in this context that Rachel discovers Borne, an entity of some kind that she takes home. Borne is a piece of biotech we think, a sort of gelatinous creature that has consciousness, or at least intelligence; it grows and grows, learns to communicate through language, absorbs people into itself, is able to shape-shift and resemble others. Borne becomes like a child to her, but one she cannot always understand or trust; Borne eventually becomes a source of conflict between Rachel and Wick, and Borne leaves Balcony Cliffs, though he is always present, lurking close by in the city.

The story gradually shifts from Rachel and Borne to Rachel and Wick, as they come under attack from Mord and the Mord proxies. Gradually Rachel learns more about Wick’s life before her, when he was with the company, and how their meeting – that of Rachel and Wick – was nothing like she believed she remembered.

What I liked most about Borne was Jeff Vandermeer’s spectacular imagination, his ability to conceive of things that are thoroughly beyond our world, describing conscious non-human beings in ways that do not anthropomorphise them too much, but instead allowing them to be completely other. There’s Borne itself, but also many creatures and bits of biotech too – Mord, Mord proxies, Wick and others (in my copy there was a fantastic bestiary at the back cataloguing the biotech).

Like this description of Borne:

“Borne’s clothes fell away, and he was again a six-foot hybrid of squid and sea anemone, with that ring of circling eyes.”

And later this:

“Across the vast sea of him, in amongst the ripples, human heads appeared, like swimmers treading water. Animal heads, too, and the heads of mutant children and Mord proxies…”

Though it is hard to imagine animals and, even more, plant-matter having a complex inner life of some kind, the materialist view of the mind tells us that consciousness insofar as it exists is a consequence of nothing more than physical properties, and so it’s not inconceivable that the biotech of Vandermeer’s world would have consciousness – in fact, it’s likely they would do, but often a consciousness and way of being that is different from our own, and that’s what Vandermeer gives us.

I’d like to hear from a completely non-human perspective, to hear from Borne unmediated by Rachel somehow, but that wasn’t the book. What Borne is, apart from a piece of incredible speculative fiction, is a meditation on what kinds of consciousness and being might evolve next as we develop and doctor the natural world and ourselves.

“Across the vast sea of him, in amongst the ripples, human heads appeared, like swimmers treading water. Animal heads, too, and the heads of mutant children and Mord proxies. A dozen proxies at least. These shiny, dark heads with holes where their eyes should be. Staring.”

Jeff Vandermeer, Borne

On the beach – Nevil Shute

In a time of climate emergency and fear of global pandemics, On the Beach is an unsettling and understated read.
Written early in the Cold War it portrays the world after a nuclear war has taken place. Human life in the  northern hemisphere has been destroyed and radiation sickness is gradually creeping across the rest of the world. There are only months left for the those who remain.
The story is set in Australia and centres on a few people. Dwight is the last US naval captain, his boat now based in Australia. His family is back in America, all dead we can only assume, but he talks longingly of getting back to them, buying them presents while away, while knowing there’s no hope.
Peter and Mary, and their daughter Jennifer, are Australians. Peter ends up working with Dwight. And like him, they continue their lives as if they have decades ahead of them, planning their daughter’s future and planting the garden.
Moira is a single woman who befriends Dwight. A heavy brandy drinker (obviously), she’s also kind and great at making things happen for herself and others. She lives a life of leisure but chooses to work on her family’s farm as well as party regularly.
John Osbourne is a scientist who works with Dwight and Peter. He becomes obsessed with a Ferrari. Fuel supplies are short, people don’t drive any more, but a race is organised. He joins tens of other amateur racers in a Grand Prix in one of the most intriguing and disturbing scenes – a race in which most of the competitors crash and die because they are novices, but do it willingly because they only have weeks to live anyway.
With the background of worldwide nuclear destruction we get the minutiae of their lives, and how their stifled lives and relationships are changed – or not – by their imminent death. It’s the wanting to carry on as normal, to pretend they have their lives ahead of them, that is most insightful and, ultimately, sad.
There’s an odd treatment of women in this book – Mary is portrayed as a helpless housewife unable to face reality without her husband and Moira the independently wealthy, bolshy younger woman. In this respect the book is very much of its time.
But in others – it’s portrayal of nuclear holocaust, the details of what that means for everyday life, the emotional responses people have – it was very much ahead of its time.

“It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

Nevil Shute, talking about nuclear holocaust but channelling climate dystopia in On the Beach

Why are dystopian films so popular?

From The Road to Hunger Games to the Batman franchise, dystopian films are often the biggest movie blockbusters. I guess I’ve always thought their popularity lies in what they tell us about our world.
I’ve just watched Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Talking about a similar theme, he explains why this is the case. Zizek draws on the critical theorist Walter Benjamin who says that we don’t perceive what is going on in the world, our place in history, until we see bits of our world that are crumbling or falling into ruin.
That’s precisely what dystopian films do – they show the ruins of our world, overtaken by environmental catastrophe or hyper-capitalism or authoritarianism. There remain the fragments, remnants of our world, which allow us to see what we’re doing and where we’re headed – an insight that really helps explain the popularity of dystopian movies and fiction.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

This is a beautifully written tapestry of a novel with a host of characters‘ lives intersecting in the story of the end of modern civilisation and the beginning of a new one, after a flu epidemic wipes out almost the entire world’s population and everything we associate with modern life.

The core character that ties all the others together is Arthur, a famous actor who in fact dies on stage just hours before the ‘Georgian flu’ begins to affect people.

We meet a woman who acted with him as a girl, Kirsten, who two decades later travels the devastated world in a travelling symphony playing Shakespeare and classical music to the scattered townships that have emerged.

We meet Clarke, his friend, who finds himself trapped with a couple of hundred others in an airport on the way to Arthur’s funeral, and makes his post-apocalypse home there, eventually setting up the Museum of Civilisation that collects objects from the old world – iPhones, laptops, medicines, magazines etc.

We meet his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler who are initially at the airport but leave, with Tyler becoming part of a religious cult, one of many, which claim they have answers, that the flu happened for a purpose, and attempt to wrestle control or at least take power, wherever they can.

And we meet Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife too, who dies early on in the flu epidemic but whose hobby is creating a comic, Station Eleven, which Kirsten has a copy of and which finds its way to the Museum of Civilisation.

What’s the book about? Mostly, I think, the distinction between the contingent and the vital. What we think of as essential are really just the trappings of modern civilisation – air travel, nations, technology, healthcare… yes, no doubt they make life more comfortable – mostly anyway – but they can disappear, and when they’ve gone life is stripped to back to what is vital: human relationships, co-operation, selfishness and selflessness, art, and of course the flourishing of non-human life like animals and flora and fauna. It’s complex and difficult, and the book offers no simple solutions about what matters in our existing civilisation or afterwards, but it’s thought-provoking and haunting in equal measure – and, it’s worth saying, a highly readable if exploratory plot, with characters that you want to know more about even whilst you might not fully like them. Ambiguous and interesting to the last.

Books I’ll never write #4: desolation fiction

As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.

It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.

Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.

The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.

Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.

The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.

JG Ballard – High Rise

This is a fantastic and disturbing story, as well as a meditation on the base urges that are only partially hidden by the veneer of modern society.

The novel focuses on the minutiae of social breakdown in a suite of high rise apartment blocks populated by well-to-do professionals – academics, doctors, journalists, marketers, entrepreneurs. The 1000th apartment had just been filled and gradually the deterioration begins. First there are minor fall-outs over the elevator or waste chutes or swimming pool access. Next there are loud parties where the upper floors taunt and begin to physically intimidate those from below.

Eventually all conventions breakdown: dogs are killed and eaten, people physically attacked, there’s no lighting or food or hygiene, people are murdered, family units are given up, women are raped. Eventually there is nothing left but unfiltered desires for basic urges: violence, sex, food.

The book tells the story through three characters. Laing, a young doctor, recently divorced, who loves the high rise, seems to some extent able to view it objectively whilst also being entirely implicated in its degeneration, and who gradually becomes more and more depraved. Wilder, a TV journalist who wants to make a documentary about the high rise but is unable to maintain his objectivity and degenerates into no more than a savage. And Royal, one of the architects of the high rise living in the penthouse, who is as little responsible for its demise as the others or the building itself.

As well as a gripping story, High Rise is a powerful allegory. Partly it’s of high rise and city living, of the way that by living close together people will inevitably give way to basic selfish urges. But as much as anything it’s an allegory for how human culture, norms and civilisation obscure a host of basic animal drives that are a the core of what it is to be human. In a way it’s another example of ‘desolation fiction’, writing about the basics, the essentials, of life once all the unnecessaries of modern life have been stripped away.

I do love this book, though it is somewhat essentialist about what makes humans human. In part it is essentialist about human drives. But also about gender. The men, as they degenerate, become lone hunter gatherers, intent on getting or protecting women, on violence, on sex. The women work together in packs, maintain a semblance of a home, look for men to please. Whether Ballard’s commenting on what underlies men and women’s roles in modern society, or saying it’s something more enduring than that, it’s hard to say, but either way it seems to reflect a kind of stereotyped view of men and women.

But that aside, High Rise is a superb study of how modern life is no more than a veneer pasted over the reality beneath.

Spare and Found Parts – Sarah Maria Griffin

This is a fine piece of science fiction, rich in detail, that slowly subverts ideals around work and family.

It focuses on Nell, a teenage girl, in a world where advanced technology is no longer allowed after it caused an epidemic resulting in people losing lives and, significantly, limbs.

After ‘the Turn’ – as its known – Nell’s Dad becomes a revered doctor / scientist who has created prosthetic limbs that allow people to live as they used to.

Everyone needs to make a ‘contribution’ to the city, to get it back on its feet. Neil’s friend Ruby is focused on fashion, her irritant-stalker-friend Oliver on prosthetics too, but Nell is unsure. Then she stumbles across a mannequin hand that gives her the idea to build a boy; and, after finding computers from before the Turn, she rigs up a functioning android called Io.

At the heart of the book appear to be two very conservative ideas – the nuclear family and work – but both are subverted by the end. Nell’s Mum has died and her father looks after her when not working. But it appears that actually her Dad, Julian, is a duplicitous plagiarist and a thief in his work, and her Mum, Cora, was so obsessed with scientific work that she effectively brought on her own death. Neither work nor family come out of this too well.

It’s a good plot, a nice subversion on the themes, but the book’s really brought alive by the detail of Nell’s cobbling and creations – limbs, wires, screws, all the stuff of basic electronics and (I guess, fantasy prosthetics) that give it a real hands-on feel.

Mediated reality: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

maxresdefaultA gripping read that not only keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also highlights how our self-understanding is often mediated by and defined by how we are viewed.

The plot of Hunger Games doesn’t really need restating, so famous it is. It’s a dystopian future where, each year, two young people from each of the 12 Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle in which they fight until only one of the 24 is left alive. It’s organised by the Capitol as a reminder to the Districts of the Capitol’s power, and as spectacular entertainment that is broadcast across the Capitol and is mandatory watching for the Districts.

Katniss’s sister Pim is picked to fight for the poor mining District 12, along with the baker’s son Peeta, but Katniss stands in for Pim, so Katniss and Peeta go into the Hunger Games. The book covers the build-up and preparation for the first third, and the Games themselves for the latter two thirds.

It’s told entirely from the first person perspective of Katniss, which is interesting, not only because we never fully understand what Peeta and others are thinking because we always see people through Katniss’s eyes, but also because she appears quite a poor judge of both what she feels and others feel throughout. It’s a powerful contrast with the film. Whereas in the film Katniss appears cold because we only see her from the outside, in the book she appears to be sensitive and struggling to convey feelings without giving too much away, making her a far richer character than she is on-screen.

There are two strong themes that comes through in the Hunger Games, the book anyway. The first is quite a sophisticated take on ideas around ‘performativity’ and what Baudrillard called the ‘simulcra’ – the way in which our ‘self’ is defined by performing certain roles and the perception of that among others, and the way in which our reality is so mediated by representations that we understand reality through representations of reality rather through direct unmediated experience.

This is a real struggle for Katniss in the games itself. She and Peeta are encouraged to win the support of viewers and sponsors by feigning a romance. Throughout Peeta is able to do this apparently honestly and convincingly whereas Katniss is never able to distinguish what she herself feels from what she thinks others are seeing when her performance is broadcast. Repeatedly she does things in order to appear the way she wants to be perceived but as she does it she realises it might actually be what she wants to do – whether helping one of the other competitors, Rue, appearing ruthless or kissing Peeta, she does what she wants only by performing it for the audience.

This, I think, is one of the strongest elements of the book: this complex interplay between ‘real’ feelings and performance, reality and its mediation which in fact shows that self-understanding is determined in part by how we are perceived and represented, not some a priori self that exists outside of that gaze.

The second strong theme is perhaps less sophisticated: it’s a hard distinction that is drawn between the honesty and vitality of the life Katniss leads in District 12 and the duplicitous and decadent life lived by the people in the Capitol. Katniss spends her time hunting, harnessing her skills, at one with the land and the people she lives with, despite the poverty and struggle and hardship. Capitol residents spend their time eating exquisite food in pampered luxury alienated from nature and the hard realities of life. This leads to a contrast between the ‘poor but happy’ district dweller and the ‘disconnected, cosseted elite’ which is probably too much of a caricature – though it does make for good reading!

Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.