From The Stone Sky by N K Jemisin, p210.
Against a backdrop of ongoing ecological and social collapse, one woman—a security consultant of sorts, though not that sort of security—loses her grip on her job, family and life after she responds to the provocation of a note pressed into her hand as she exits a coffee-shop. The note points Jane toward Silvina, the somewhat shadowy scion of a South American family business empire cum crime syndicate, who seems to have at some point turned the tables and switched sides from wildlife smuggling to ecoterrorism and informing on her former associate… hard to be sure, though, as information is scarce, besides a brief obituary in Argentina. For reasons she can’t entirely understand or explain—at least not at first—Jane follows Silvina’s first letter to a run-down self-storage establishment at the foot of a mountain, in one locked unit of which awaits a taxidermied extinct hummingbird.
The hummingbird is the first in a long chain of mysterious enticements into a story never entirely revealed, yet nonetheless teeming with violence, paranoia, psychosis, revelation and despair. The story is Jane’s final confession, we find, and that form of narrative—as well as the particular circumstances and situation of its being written—mean that we are left trying to trust the account of someone who, by their own repeated admission, went through periods of manic delirium and serious injury in the pursuit of her own great white whale, trailing up and down the Pacific coast of the United States, her former life—lives, plural, even—left long behind, but nonetheless clattering in her wake like tin cans tied to a stray dog, simultaneously seeking the solution to the mystery and revenge for a slow murder committed in plain sight, namely that of the planetary ecosystem.
Or, more plainly: Jane has confessedly become somewhat (more) mad, making her something of an unreliable narrator. This, plus the noirish thriller dynamics of the plot, are something of an echo of the work of Vandermeer back when he was a rising star in the sf/f firmament (and the then-contemporary “New Weird” scene), but not yet the author of a series of books that were turned into a Hollywood hit (the Southern Reach / Area X trilogy, which became the move Annihilation): unreliable and unwilling (and unhinged?) protagonists with detective-like instincts connect Hummingbord Salamander to Finch, for instance, though the latter’s creepily organic surrealism and fungal leitmotif has here given way to a style and affect that I repeatedly found myself thinking of as somewhat Gibsonian.
Which is not at all to say that Jane’s escapades herein read like a late-phase William Gibson novel, but rather that there’s something sufficiently similar about them to provoke the comparison: not just the short cut-scene chapters, but the sense of a protagonist who skips desperately like a flat thrown stone across the surface of a society whose depths, beneath a calm and glossy surface, are soon shown to be ever less placid, teeming with monsters and polluted by capitalism; protagonists with agency, of a sort, but nonetheless caught up in (and living at the sufferance of) the money-backed agencies of others, and those in turn caught up in the diffuse agency of the ultimate in (un)preventable disasters. The big and obvious difference would be that Gibsonian endings have lately become increasingly easeful (if not exactly happy, as such) for their lead characters; Jane’s end, by contrast—even as her mystery is solved and her revelation achieved—would be hard to describe as satisfying for her (though it is perhaps the ending that she, and we the reader, most deserve, given our complicity in the contextual conflict for which the plot is mirror and metonymy).
It is, to be frank, bleak as all hell—and the one chink of utopian hope seems to me to have been set up precisely to undermine the concept of utopian hopes in both the technological and the critical mode (as well as, I think, to echo some images deployed from another point of vantage entirely in the more recent novels Borne and Dead Astronauts). This is not a complaint, to be clear: after the wholesome but exhaustingly naive techno-utopianism of a recently-read solarpunk anthology, it’s almost a relief to read a book so unflinching in its diagnosis and extrapolation of the metabolic rift, and of the institutional and social architectures behind which we’ve tried so hard, individually and collectively, to conceal it from ourselves. It’s also far more on the nose with its critique than the more metaphorical Southern Reach books: Hummingbird Salamander leaves a lot less room for interpretation, at times feeling a little heavy-handed in its channelling of Jane’s descent into ecological guilt from an (uncomfortably familiar) initial position of wilful myopia and refusal to consider the systemic consequences of the late-capitalist lifeway.
But there’s a deal of subtlety here, too: Jane’s work in the marketing and management of corporate data security places her far closer to the pinnacle of the system she eventually turns to tilt quixotically against than she ever seems to consciously realise, and the fragility and fictionality of the security she used to sell (not to mention the confection of the threats it is sold to protect against, a very C21st superimposition of poachers and gamekeepers, all in the name of a profit not merely parasitic but saprophytic, fed by death and decay) mirrors the fragility and fictionality of the sense of security with which we surround ourselves, while beyond the windows of our air-conditioned cars and our centrally-heated homes, birds disappear from their continent-spanning migratory cycles, and amphibians fail to return to the long-since-developed-over ponds and rivers where they had hatched and mated for tens of thousands of years.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the sense of how Jane’s descent into darkness might be seen to stand as a miniature of (and/or a final coda to) that greater deep-time decline of her world, our world—which is of course also the world of hummingbirds and salamanders and pangolins and tigers and many many more—is not so plain as it might have been. But to bridge the systemic and the intimate in such a way is a big ask for fiction in general, and perhaps particularly for a fictional form chosen to quite literally embody not only that collapse of certainty and security and buried mistakes presumed moved on from (always already the most ubiquitous of the fictions we tell ourselves), but also that abyss of existential despair that is revealed when the illusions are finally punctured beyond repair. To have made it any more obvious might have broken exactly the most important illusion.
In that sense maybe we might say that Vandermeer has in fact achieved what ecocriticism has long asked of authors, albeit perhaps not quite in the way they hoped it might be delivered: in Hummingbird Salamander, he has managed to make the experience and revelation of systemic climate collapse under capitalism horrifyingly, inescapably personal. And in doing so, individual resistance is depicted as futile, self-destructive and effectively impossible, ultimately unable to deliver even a sense of one’s own sins absolved—a depiction all the uglier for its uncomfortable ring of truth.
A fine, fast read, but really not a happy one.
Shikasta was not entirely what I expected—or even partly what I expected at first, to be quite honest. Lessing’s first “science fiction” novel starts off as something of a clunky jumble, but eventually clarifies into a variant of the Shaggy God Story, the trope where the state of the modern world is explained as being in part down to alien intervention in deep history, and/or other cosmic malarky. On that basis I’m tempted to compare it to Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles, but the comparison is not hugely flattering to Lessing’s book, for reasons of technique (to which point I shall return below) as well as coherence and scope.
Perhaps most surprising to me were the distinctly New Age undertones. I’ve always pictured Lessing (on the basis of an admittedly slight familiarity with her work: The Golden Notebook, and a few collections of the later short stories) as a bitterly disappointed idealist-turned-realist/pragmatist… and there’s a lot of that in here, certainly, but the more wooish stuff still seems strange until you situate it historically. Written in the late Seventies, Shikasta is thus contemporary with the long boom of post-Sixties political cynicism, and the compensatory surge of pseudo-religions, occultism, UFO theory, and alternate megahistory: the age of Erich von Däniken and his ilk, of attempts to explain some of the stuff that archaeology had started to unearth, but which the rather sober positivist science of the time wouldn’t engage with at all through anything other than dismissal.
And so Lessing depicts deep history from the earliest days of life on Earth, an Edenic paradise of millennia-long lifespans and chummy megafauna, through to a a cataclysmic and dystopian end to what would be the C20th (by our own “Shikastan” count), as a derailed colonial experiment started by benevolent and superior aliens. The people of the Canopean empire (centered on Canopus) turned up first, with the aim of bringing on an already promising planet by introducing some alien chums as caretakers of the burgeoning biosphere, while a lesser and stranger allied empire (the Sirians, centered on Sirius) were permitted to play evolutionary games in certain parts of the southern hemisphere. All was going well until the worm-in-the-apple arrival of the agents of Shammat, the Manichean-caricature “evil” player on the galactic-imperial scene, who took advantage of an unexplained cosmic misalignment that disrupted the connection of earth to the Canopean good-vibes-and-plenitude network, resulting in a general slide into decay and degeneration. Canopus gets most (though not all) of the caretaker “giants” off-planet in preparation for the apparently inevitable aeons of misery, but its own agents keep a perpetual if diminished presence in order to (try to) keep things from backsliding too much into Shammat-sponsored misery and conflict.
Thus it turns out that legends of giants and other magical forebears, and of gods that come and go in flying chariots, are less myth than corrupted cultural memory, and that many of the great religious figures of human history were in fact Canopean agents trying to keep a lid on human affairs—but the cosmic bad vibes (or rather the surfeit of good ones, due to the “misalignment”), and the concomitant degradation of human minds and bodies (as well as of the web of life more broadly) resulted in said doctrines of good behaviour being twisted into dogma and hierarchical hegemony: ethics ossified into instrumentalised morality, if you like.
So far, so Seventies, I guess? That cultural-temporal distance shows up in more subtle ways, too; for instance, Lessing is clearly (and justly) concerned with the horrific legacy of racial and colonial exploitation in late human history, and at pains to depict this (in relentless and often horrifying detail) as indicative of our slide into misalignment with the cosmic good… but at the same time, the Canopeans are themselves ostensibly benevolent colonisers and meddlers in the fate of lesser beings, and there is much talk among them of “eugenism” and the preservation of “good genetic stock”, not on the basis of race, but rather on the basis of beneficial traits like psychic “capacities” and empathetic behaviours, implied to be the (very much intended) , legacy of the early colonial blending of native hominids and the caretaker aliens. From the vantage of 2021, this feels a little queasy, if clearly well-intentioned: it’s like watching someone try to argue their way out of the structures of racism, but using only the master’s tools in their attempt to dismantle the master’s house. The unintentional irony of a savage indictment of colonialism which is framed by a megahistory of earth as a benevolent colonial project intended to ensure the right mixtures of genetics and behaviour is… well, I don’t think it would float in the current publishing landscape, outside of the presses for whom toying with outdated ideas has become something of a badge of “anti-woke” pride and defiance. To be totally clear, with this book Lessing was on the right side of history in her own time; if anything, Shikasta should probably seen as stridently progressive in its own temporal context. But it also serves as something of a yardstick for how much change there has been in how we think about these issues.
That manifests in another way, namely her portrayal of the practice of politics. For reasons well-known to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lessing’s personal history, Shikasta is informed by her fervent rejection and ridicule of post-war organised leftism, here portrayed as a caricature of empty factional posturing and the ritual exchange of shibboleths that, in some respects, wouldn’t feel out of place in contemporary neoreactionary and conservative polemic. To be fair, fascism and capitalism and colonialism do not get any favourable coverage in Shikasta—far from it!—but nor do they get as much time on the stage. Rather, they are positioned as the backdrop, the perpetuation of Shammatean corruption and degeneration: an ever-more-chaotic context against which left activism throws shapes and spouts empty phrases that merely recapitulate and perpetuate the individualist mores of capital. But given Lessing’s experience, and further given the terror and turbulence of the Seventies, the caricature surely has some root of truth in it; indeed, there are still some leftists like this today, as a quick visit to the birdsite will ably confirm, and probably always will be.
But at the same time, the differences in contemporary left thinking—shaped, no doubt, by the increasing normalisation of post-colonial and intersectional thinking, and the internalisation of the postmodern rejection of grand projects of top-down liberation through force, framed in an increased awareness (and critique) of history and historiography—are thrown into relief by these caricatures. Things are far from perfect, to be clear, but in a period of prevailing left melancholia, it is oddly reassuring to see that lessons have been learned over the course of my own lifetime. Not yet enough, and not yet so thoroughly as is needful, perhaps… but nonetheless, it’s plain that four decades ago, the general grasp of sociohistorical dynamics in general, regardless of political alignment, was considerably cruder than it is at present. (Contemporary denial of these dynamics, while frustrating and damaging, is in effect a testament to the way that they’ve invaded the discourse.)
So, yes: an interesting (if very of-its-period) big picture story, told mostly through the experiences and observed actions of one Canopean agent incarnated as human, like some latter-day Christ. And therein lies my biggest gripe, from a purely literary perspective—or rather from a paraliterary perspective.I’m long past the stage of special pleading for genre-qua-genre, but Shikasta is a very clear demonstration of the extent to which a literary writer who decides to play in the speculative sandbox will often find themselves either reinventing the wheel in terms of technique, or—if you’ll excuse the overextension of the metaphor—relying on sledge-runners because they’ve never seen a wheel deployed effectively.
The first quarter of the book is basically one huge cascade of as-you-know-Bob, in which Johor (the Canopean who will later incarnate as George Sherban) rambles on about his first missions to Shikasta/Earth, back in the days of the impending misalignment of cosmic whatever-it-is, explicitly for an audience of other Canopeans who have at least a passing familiarity with the topic… but in which he steadfastly declines to use Shikastan names for places. This deliberate omission continues in other Canopean-drafted interjections all through the book, with the result that not long after you’ve had the minor piecing-it-together pleasure of working out that “the Isolated Northern Continent” is North America, and “the Northwest Fringes” are Western Europe, you’re rolling your eyes at what has become willful obscurantism that isn’t even justified by the narrative frame. Or, more plainly: if you were writing a history of the C20th for other members of your benevolent colonial empire, in which said empire had spent literal millennia being intimately involved as it attempted to prevent things going too tits-up, and you were doing so at the ridiculous lengths implied by the framings of these archival excerpts and “suggested further reading” links, you would surely have started using the native placenames for your own convenience as much as for the reader’s. (As I’ve already used a few terms from the Turkey City Lexicon, I might as well identify this as an unusual variant on “calling a rabbit a smeerp”.)
Things are much improved once Johor/George gets incarnated, because from then on events are mostly recounted through the epistolary or journalistic point-of-view of characters around him. (Johor-as-George doesn’t get to narrate himself, perhaps to avoid showing off his awareness of his being-in-mufti and his precognitive abilities.) Lessing’s superpower was always character through voice, and so the actual human narrators are variously vivid, tragic and infuriating (or some mixture of all three). The continued insertion of Canopean reports on particular subjects or people, meanwhile, seem to use a sort of polite incomprehension as a proxy for the alien positionality, which (as noted above) becomes frustrating and a little absurd after you’ve considered how long they’ve been involved with their accidentally and tragically botched colony… and it’s perhaps this issue of technique that really drew my attention to the unintentional irony of a critique of colonialism written from the perspective of benevolent alien colonisers. (Of course, we can’t help reproducing the ideologies in which we are embedded—that’s what makes them ideologies—so I don’t mean to rag on Lessing here; I just think it’s a really striking illustration of that phenomenon, made all the more particular by the lack of the standard sf-nal narrative toolkit.)
If you’re willing to take the annihilation of the majority of humanity in mutual all-out war on a ravaged planet, followed by the survival and return-to-harmonious-living of small enclaves of the formerly institutionalised and/or downtrodden, as a just desert—and given the catalogue of human failings and sufferings that Lessing stuffs into this book, I have to presume she was—then there’s a happy ending here, of sorts. On that basis, one might level an accusation of Malthusian dystopia at her, and there’s definitely some of that in the mix—again, this is a book of the mid-to-late-Seventies! But my feeling is that Lessing’s less concerned about the raw numbers of population than the inherently fallen or “degenerate” nature of the humans that make up those numbers. Interesting, though, that the cause of that fallenness is posited as a combination of cosmic misfortune (quite literally the wrong planet in the wrong place at the wrong time), and the meddling of a black-hat empire whose portrayal is so glancing a caricature of evil that it makes Frank Herbert’s House Harkonnen look like a a longitudinal sociological study into the unintentional reproduction of emotional damage and cruelty. In other words, it’s a very religious, and indeed quite a Christian way of looking at humanity’s original sin… which again brings us back to that Seventies surge of alternate belief systems, as people searched for a new prime mover on which to hang a re-badged but nonetheless comfortingly familiar moral-teleological system.
(It occurs to me that the Shammat caricature is so thin, so much like a pantomime villain forever off-stage, that one might very easily do for Shikasta what Kirill Eskov’s The Last Ringbearer did for Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings… though it’s not such an interesting proposition that I actually fancy writing it, and I dare say it would be a pretty hard sell even if you did. But if you like the idea, go for it—just credit me with the idea when you collect your Hugo, OK?)
All that aside, an interesting and unusual read–and the sort of thing that I’d probably have fallen for very hard as a younger reader, particularly during my own Graham Hancock/von Däniken phase. I had some hope that this first volume of a five-book series might just be setting the stage for further adventures in the utopian future of Shikasta/Earth, but a friend who’s familiar with it tells me that Lessing uses the other books to trundle off into more distant corners of her imagined universe, and into escalating levels of New Age weirdness and woo… which might be fun some day, but it’s not what I’m looking for right now.
“No imagination whatsoever,” remarked the scientist. “It’s the same with all you service people. ‘That can’t happen to me’.” He paused. “But it can. And it certainly will.”
“I suppose I haven’t got any imagination,” said Peter thoughtfully. “It’s—it’s the end of the world. I’ve never had to imagine anything like that before.”p89
Shute is one of those authors that I’ve always been aware of. He was part of the canon when I was doing my GCSEs at private school—for reasons that, in light of On the Beach, are now very obvious—and I’m pretty sure we read A Town Called Alice for GCSE study, though it’s remarkable that I can remember almost nothing about the book beyond its title.
(It may seem a strange thing for a writer to say, but I frequently bounced very hard off of the assigned Eng Lit texts at school, despite being an enthusiastic reader outside of the curriculum. This was less to do with the critical analysis that always seems to get blamed for putting kids off literature, and more to do with the books themselves seeming boring—perhaps because a thirteen-year-old is not in the best position to appreciate the subtle nuances of angst as portrayed in the bourgeois novel, no matter how notionally or aspirationally bourgeois their upbringing and circumstances. But why generalise? All I can say for certain is that I found a lot of it to be tedious tosh, taking up valuable time that could have been spent on Terry Pratchett, David Eddings or the endless unspooling of the Dragonlance franchise novels, which was about the extent of my sophistication at the time. I found Shakespeare to be a mixed bag, too. It probably comes as no surprise that a class privately-schooled of teenage boys loved Macbeth, me included—and our teacher had the savvy and the guts to show us the Polanski movie when we’d finished the play, which was memorable to say the least—but The Merchant of Venice went way over my head, perhaps because of a studious avoidance of the topic of antisemitism in that and every other subject taught at the school, history included. Selah. I should really read Shakespeare properly as an adult, I suppose. That might be a good project for a summer.)
Anyway: digressions upon unsuccessful educational tastemaking aside, I’ve long felt I should probably read some Shute, if only because he counts among the surprisingly generous list of authors that Portsmouth can claim among its famous sons, even if the majority of them, from Dickens onwards, made a point of getting the hell out of the town as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Shute was involved in aircraft engineering projects between the world wars, and ended up in special weapons development with the Royal Navy during the latter conflict, after which he emigrated to Australia, where many of his novels are set, On The Beach among them. What makes OTB unusual is its being set somewhat ahead of the time of its writing; I’ve seen it described as Shute’s “science fiction” novel, but that would really be to do both Shute and sf a simultaneous disservice. It does, however, share something with what Brian Aldiss famously dubbed the “cozy catastrophes” of John Wyndham and others—perhaps more so than the canonical examples of the category.
For Aldiss the cozy catastrophe was a novel of disaster and/or apocalypse in which “the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off”; OTB, very much a novel of disaster and/or apocalypse, is thus notable for the fact that while its protagonists might have all of these things, they actually indulge in relatively few of them, or even actively decline and resist them. In the less-often-quoted part of Aldiss’s diss, he observes that the cozies were “anxiety fantasies” whose popularity was rooted in the ongoing fall of the British Empire—and in this sense OTB is perhaps the coziest catastrophe of them all, perhaps because written by someone very much on the side of that collapsing (or rather, as we now understand, already collapsed) empire, while Wyndham et al were a little more critical of it.
Enough preamble. The plot is pretty simple: at some unspecified date, which we might guess to be the mid-1960s, a multilateral international exchange of nuclear weapons has wiped out the entire northern hemisphere. Due to certain aspects of meteorological physics—the scientific veracity of which I am inclined to doubt, but leave that aside—the lethal fall-out and contamination is slowly and steadily making its way over the equator and into the southern hemisphere over the course of the year after the conflict itself, creeping steadily toward the Antarctic in a predictable and unhurried fashion. Our focal characters—for this is a book written in the now less fashionable omniscient third-person mode—are based in the Australian city of Melbourne, and are drawn mostly from the naval officer and landed gentry class. Most are citizens of what at the time was still considered a colony of the British Empire (to the extent that, at one point, the naval officers refer to themselves as British rather than Australian), though the closest thing to a central protagonist is a USian submarine captain, Dwight Towers, whose boat somehow avoided the nuclear war and ended up in the antipodes. The novel follows the characters as they go about the work of trying to keep the aspidistra flying in the face of a doom which is never in any serious doubt at any point: the war happened, the north is a wasteland devoid of human life, and the fallout is coming.
And for the most part, maintaining an increasingly absurd normality in the face of their impending deaths exactly what they do for the whole damned book, which is basically a paean to the imperial stiff upper lip, and to the not-unrelated sang froide and emotional discipline of naval officers in general—a behavioural stereotype which, as Shute would likely have claimed with pride, was quintessentially British in origin (and, as Shute might not have claimed, is about as close as you can get to a reification of the British class divide as seen from the vantage of the upper half thereof).
So, a cozy catastrophe in many regards, albeit absent any obvious sfnal trope playing the role of concretised metaphor. Though of course the concretised metaphor is there all along, at least for a modern reader: the nuclear war and its fallout, while almost certainly representing nothing-but-itself on one level, is also figuring the erasure of the world that empire(s) made thanks to the failure to sustain said empire(s). This is made very clear in a number of passages, notably this one near the end, in which Commander Peter Holmes explains to his wife Mary, as they both experience the escalating symptoms of radiation sickness:
“Newspapers,” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,” she said. “It’s been so much nicer without them.”p302
(Shortly afterward this passage, as they prepare to take their suicide capsules, Mary exhorts Peter not to forget to turn off the electricity at the mains. At this point I was tempted to wonder if I’d been misreading all along, and perhaps OTB was a satire… but no, no it is not.)
Earlier in the book, a discussion between other navy types reveals that it is assumed that the international exchange of nukes was kicked off by (of all things) the Egyptian airforce deciding to drop one on New York, resulting in a cascade of assumed-enemy-identification that sees the US and Russia going full defcon-1 at one another, followed by the Chinese pitching in at Russia—or is it the other way round?— in the hope of depopulating some potentially useful territory for later; the cascade is apparently sustained by the early wipe-out of military top-brass on all sides, with strategic and tactical decisions thus falling to more junior (and hence inadequate-to-situation) officers. “Ah, a lament upon the tragic foolishness of nuclear weapons, then”, you might be thinking—but you couldn’t be more wrong. The error was not nukes themselves, you see, but rather the post-imperial error of allowing little tinpot nations to have them, not to mention peddling them military hardware that they just weren’t capable of playing with like the adults.
The premise is thus profoundly reactionary, and that sense of it being an artefact of a (gratefully) bygone era is maintained by the dialogue, which is full of stiff British archaisms, the tonal shibboleths of the last generation of the old officer class; it feels almost parodic, though it was clearly written with complete sincerity.
The action, such as it is, is likewise a stiff conservative fantasy of going out with dignity, with the last representatives of Anglo civilisation keeping up appearances and sustaining the rituals as the clock runs relentlessly down. Towers’s submarine, tacitly seconded to the Royal Navy on the basis that there is no other command structure to fit into any more, is despatched first on a short recce of Australian ports further north, which the fallout has already reached—conclusion: nothing’s moving, everyone’s dead—and later on a grand tour of major population ports in and around the North American landmass, with a particular focus on Seattle, from whence a sporadic and unexplained morse transmission has occasionally been received. On investigation, this is of course an unmanned comms station with its generators still running, the morse key being periodically nudged by a loose window frame. While in the area, one submariner for whom it was once home goes AWOL, and is later seen to have commandeered a motor launch, in order to get one last day of fishing in his home town at the expense of shortening his life expectancy by a few months. This is disapproved of, but—in a gentlemanly way—left unpunished.
(I feel this is the strangest note in the book, in that there was the opportunity here to contrast, favourably or otherwise, the officers’ dutiful sustaining of order and routine with the more wilful fuck-it-life’s-too-short attitude of the boys below decks… but it’s just kind of shrugged off as one of those things. I mean, sure, what punishment could you administer that a) didn’t involve getting his rad-soaked body back onto the boat, and b) would be any more horrific than leaving the guy to die from the radiation poisoning, just a few months before everyone else got to go the same way? But nonetheless, it feels tonally very strange to me, even within the context of a novel whose overall tone is buttoned up tighter than a colonel’s uniform. The same applies to the passage quoted at the top of this piece, which again suggests an awareness on Shute’s part, through his proxies on the page, that there’s something almost pathological about the refusal to think things through, but accompanied by the seeming assumption that the pathology is a worthy and noble one. And, now I come to phrase it like that, I suppose it’s something of a piece with the imperial-hauntological attitudes underlying Recent Political Events In Britain. Hmm.)
Once back in Melbourne, Towers’s boat—and indeed pretty much all substantive operations, naval or otherwise—is laid up, and he joins in with the general winding down of all things, which is where we start to get the full conservative cozy experience. To be clear, some folk are going off the rails: the streets of Melbourne are furnished with people spending the whole of their last months of life drunk, but they are mentioned only in passing, as if to illustrate the patrician generosity of the officer class in letting them indulge their weakness in the face of annihilation. (The old boys at the gentlemen’s club, making their steady way through the sherry cellar, are viewed with something close to approval; they’re getting on a bit, after all, they’ve earned it.) But mostly it’s a crescendo of extreme normality, with farmers fixing hedges and ploughing fields, new mothers planning next year’s flower borders, a vein-popping clutch at the pearls of continuity. That said, it’s not denial, at least not on the part of the chaps—here’s Holmes, indulging his wife’s insistence that they should really get a lawnmower:
She lived in the dream world of unreality, or else she would not admit reality; he did not know. In any case, he lover her as she was. It might never be used, but it would give her pleasure to have it.p261
The closest thing to a counterpoint to all this is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is implied to have been not just drinking relentlessly but shagging any man who will lay still for long enough, but who throughout the book—after having encountered the stolid practicality of Captain Towers, with his calmly sustained refusal to internalise the annihilation of his wife and children in a navy town back in the States, and naturally fallen head over heels for the chap who doesn’t want to sleep with her—gradually cleans up her act and adopts the appropriate stiff upper lip, right to the point of driving out to a headland beyond the city, incipient radiation sickness symptoms be damned, so she can wave goodbye to Towers as he sails off into the sunset to scuttle his boat and go down at the helm. The final weeks do feature some devil-may-care behaviour from various chaps, much of it revolving around a motor race standing in for a barely sublimated death drive: much more manly to mangle yourself and others in a pile of twisted metal at 100mph than to wait for the inevitable arrival of the radiation, to which you can’t even raise your fists! But otherwise it’s wall-to-wall keep calm and carry on, utterly devoid of irony, right to the end, fade to black.
As is presumably obvious, I found it absurd, risible and quite infuriating. It was interesting read from a technical perspective; as mentioned, few folk write in third-person omniscient these days, perhaps because it’s hard to do well without losing the reader (Gwyneth Jones is the only exemplar of this approach that leaps to my mind, though perhaps it’s more common outside the walls of genre?), and I feel I learned a few things about how to keep the reader on track during transitions from one POV to another without the use of line breaks or paragraphs. It’s also, as I hope I have shown, a fascinating work from a historical perspective: not even seventy years old, it feels like something from a far more distant epoch, though that sense of the alien can perhaps be ascribed to my own political positionality as the reader as much as to Shute’s as the author. I don’t regret reading it—life is too short for finishing books you can’t be bothered with, and frankly I’d rather rage-read something that pushes all the wrong buttons than plod through with something bland and unprovocative—but I doubt I’ll read it again.
I doubt I’ll be reading A Town Called Alice, either.
- Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Wangel, J., & Broms, L. (2018, June 28). Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.324
- Wangel, J., Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Broms, L., Kanulf, G., & Ljunggren, A. (2019). Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction. Futures, 112, 102440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102440
These two papers both deal with Vitiden, a speculative-design futures project whose final output (as a PDF) can be found here. This review, as is often the case on this blog, is more aimed at extracting useful and transferable conceptualisations and methodological frames than digging into the details of method, but if you’re at all interested in design research as applied to energy futures, or any futures-oriented work whatsoever, I recommend getting hold of both of them, along with the final document linked above.
Hesselgren et al. (2018). “Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design”
I’m going to start with Hesselgren et al., a conference paper whose full title uses the term “bridging practice”, which feels to me like a clear echo of Auger (2013; reviewed here) without Auger, so to speak; it may well be that the term is sufficiently canonical in design research that it can pass without the need for citing a source. But the real merit of this paper in light of my ongoing work is its concretisation of cognitive bridgework in the emergent (sub)discipline of transition design (TD hereafter), which is also defined and positioned herein.
(Note that the publicly accessible version of this paper has no page numbers, and that all page references here presume a count that starts from 1 on the title page thereof.)
Here Hesselgren et al. address the gap between emissions reductions pledged and actions actually taken, and refer back to earlier studies re: resistance/avoidance of addressing even locally obvious instances of climatic change; this is interpreted as showing that “it is not lack of information that upended action […] but that people tend to shut down information that makes them uncomfortable. Through avoiding negative emotions and refraining from thinking about the future, climate change is actively (although not consciously) made into a ‘back-of-the-mind’ issue” (p2).
[Supplemental note-to-self: there is presumably a literature concerned with the dynamics and side-effects of such subconscious repression of the immediately and environmentally obvious, which would be worth looking into, particularly if there’s a CC-oriented thread thereof.]
The authors also cite various sources for claims that an excess of “alarmism” depersonalises climate change (CC hereafter) in such a way as to prevent engagement and action; fear of CC consequences is noted as a potential driver of pro-environmental action, but “many people suffer from a perceived lack of agency and alternatives”, such that fear leads instead to “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and inaction” (p2).
While I have yet to finish and review it, it’s worth noting here that Garforth’s Green Utopias (2018) includes a strong swathe of citations counterarguing that climate dystopias (can) serve to breach the BAU-trap of “adaptation/mitigation” discourses, opening up imaginative space for radically alternative futures through the articulation of necessity. This is dystopia less as a goad, exactly, and more as the hazard whose envisioned presence encourages us to steer away from it—the Scylla across the strait from the Charybdis of technosolutionist ecomodernism, to use a metaphor I’m growing increasingly fond of.
Hesselgren et al. briefly try to thread that needle, marshalling citations whicha) favour of the “concretisation” of CC consequences made “more specific” and more spatio-temporally immediate, b) note the lack of “positive images of […] low-carbon futures”, and c) point out the parallelism of catastrophic dystopias on the one hand and, on the other hand, solutionist futures which are “devoid of loss”, which can also block or distract from efforts to instigate change (p2).
Thus this paper positions futures studies (FS) and TD as “empowering tools” for mitigation efforts, and seeks to “explore ways to identify and articulate what people see as lost and found in the transition to a low-carbon society […] ways to confront the lost, so this seems less threatening, and to mentally and emotionally invest in the found, to make the transition more appealing” (p2, authors’ emphases); in other words, something rather like the critical utopian modality in sf, navigating carefully (and contingently!) through the difficult strait of Messina invoked above.
The project is framed within the field of transition design, a transdiciplinary branch of design research aimed at “exploring and enabling transitions toward more sustainable futures”. Drawing on Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise (2015), TD positions the designer as a “change agent”, and relies on four main planks of practice: 1) visions for transition, 2) theories of change, 3) posture and mindset, and 4) new ways of designing. Regarding 2) and 3), Hesselgren et al. note that TD advocates for a precautionary mindset/posture, but also a participatory one, and this is linked to both the Geelsean MLP-based transitions literature and the Shovean social-practice (SPT) perspective:
[TD] could be used to mediate between sociotechnical transition theories, with their top-down hierarchical approaches, and social practice theories with their bottom-up focus on everyday life and flat ontology.p3
(SPT is noted as being particularly useful for TD due to the pre-existing orientation of design to libidinality; I parse this as a claim that the “use case” is always already a sort of speculative ethnography of the practice, albeit one with highly variable motivations and sophistication.)
Also in the frame is the practice of co-design, in which “bridging between pasts, presents and futures is often used” to spark creativity in participants; this, as mentioned before, feels rather like Auger (2013) without Auger, though that may be an artefact of my unfamiliarity with the broader (co-)design research literature. Hesselgren et al. further argue that co-design can help to “explore the connection between the tangible, present and local (such as dinner practices) with the more abstract, future and global (such as climate change impacts)” (p3), but also note the challenge inherent in this aim, and the lack of tools to assist participants in making these temporal and spatial “movements”.
(I note in passing that the medium of that connection, considered concretely, is infrastructure, though it is the conceptual connection and movement with which this paper is concerned; however, I suspect there may be a useful way to collapse that distinction.)
This leads us to a pair of paradigms or approaches to design, namely provocation and affirmation: the former is intended to destabilise/de-familiarise the routine and “taken for granted”, thus clearing the way for re-presentation and re-narration, while the latter “support[s] an exploration of the self [while] providing full preferential right of interpretation to the user” (p4).
I am by necessity skipping over a lot of the detail of the execution of the Vitiden project in this review, so going directly to the papers themselves is highly recommended: it’s a lovely, low-key and subtle work of energy futuring. My aim here is to extract concepts and methodological principles for use in projects with a similar intentionality, so I will simply note for now that Hesselgren et al. observe that the “source scenario” for the project—the ‘Legato’ quadrant from the Swedish Energy Agency’s Fyra Framtider report (2016)—provided descriptions of behavioural shifts, but that these “were quite detached from everyday life […] making it difficult for people who were not energy systems experts to engage in this future and understand how it would affect them” (p4-5); furthermore, some were “focussed on ‘production’ activities, such as how and where to go to work, and […] the rest mainly dealt with transport” (p5). Domestic practices were notable by their absence, and absence explained by the scenario’s mitigation targets being calculated primarily through efficiency measures in production and/or infrastructure (which is an inevitable consequence of the Geelsean perspective, IMHO); this necessitated the introduction of “eating and residing practices”, partly because it is plain that these would be affected by ‘upstream’ effiency measures, but also, crucially, because “previous experiences have shown that it is very difficult to engage people in discussions about everyday life while excluding large parts of it” (p5); this, then, is Haraway’s argument for situated knowledges against the (Geelsean) god-trick, borne out in the experience of design research.
In describing the workshop methods deployed, Hesselgren et al. discuss the use of pre-prepared props or “trigger materials”, which were intended to “[help] the participants to bridge the tangible-present-local to the abstract-future-global, and with particular emphasis on finding ways to balance the provocative with the affirmative” (p6); this is the clearest connection to Auger (2013) on the SD prototype, the notion of the “cognitive bridge”—and in particular, the strategies of adaptation, provocation and versimilitude.
In the closing sections of the paper, Hesselgren et al. note that the balance between provocation (i.e. estrangement of the mundane) and affirmation (i.e. refusing to frame the mundane of the participants as “wrong”) is tested through the production of the trigger materials. One example is a self-administered carbon-footprint assessment, as “sensitizing device” that “create[d] space for reflection” and provocation, thus linking the necessity and possibility of change to lived practices (p11); they cautiously conclude that the materials produced to this end “managed to, if not bridge, at least allow for a coexistence of provocative and affirmative approaches” (p12).
Wangel et al. (2019). “Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction”
Now to Wangel et al., which also deals with the Vitiden project, but approaches it instead through the process of converting—or “translating”—a top-down corporate scenario into a practice based “energy fiction”. Both the concept and methodology of this “translation” are of interest and utility, and as with the paper discussed above, I’ll be sticking here to the parts which are most useful to that end; do check out the actual paper, it’s well worth the time.
After noting the visual rhetorics of the original report containing the “source scenario”—heavy on stock photography, and the inevitable crude signifiers of “the natural” juxtaposed with technological innovation tropes and intimations of abstract velocity, and invariably portraying humans as solitary, distanced and faceless—Wangel et al. describe their ambition to take the Director General’s preface at its word, and to develop the abstracted visions therein into something more concrete:
We decided to […] develop what we felt was missing—a re-presentation of the future that takes its starting point in the activities of everyday life, and that invites to reflections and debate also for those [sic] who are not used to (or interested in) reading and interpreting reports.p3
Wangel et al. chose to describe these bottom-up futures as “practice-oriented scenarios (pos)” as a deliberate (and minor, in the Deleuzian sense of the term?) counterpoint to the design-oriented scenario (DOS), which is intended to support “innovations in and by design” (p3). Stated more broadly, then, the aim of the project, “to create more accessible re-presentations of energy scenarios, is accompanied by initiating an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of shifting from the more general scenario perspective to a practice-oriented design fiction” (ibid).
Theoretical frame, sustainability/practices
As mentioned in Hesselgren et al. above, the Vitiden project was built upon the foundation of the Shovean strand of applied social practice theory, which “changes the focus from seeing (and treating) people as individual decision-makers, driven by a (bounded) rationality, to addressing them as skillful social negotiators” (p3); in the process, research methodologies need “to appreciate what people perceive as the (their) normal ways of doing things, and how these ‘normal’ and ordinary routines are maintained, evolve and/or change over time” (ibid).
Also mobilised here (by drawing on work by the excellent Lenneke Kuijer, among others is the notion of the proto-practice, the nascent forms of of what Shove has called “innovations-in-waiting”; these are suggested as prime sources for prototyping probes, as through their experimental realisation, “these future practices can be made present (in the dual sense of the word), and experienced, examined and rehearsed” (p3); they are also related here to Levitas’s notion of the interstitial utopia, such that Wangel et al. here define interstitial practices (which are proto-practices with a sustainability orientation, in this case) as “practices that are based in and contribute to the production of alternative economies and counter-narratives” (p4, emphasis in original).
Theoretical frame, futures/speculative design
Much familiar material here, drawing on the FS tradition of the future as open and thus imaginable, and “a critical social-constructivist perspective on what futures are seen as probable, possible and preferable” (p4); likewsie the Twentyteens thread of ‘alternative futures’ with a focus on social practice perspectives and the “re-presentation” of scenarios through the use of creative/artistic methods, which the authors see as a democratising trend, “increasing the availability of alternative futures across societal groups” (ibid). Of particular interest and influence here are the “speculative ethonography” approaches of speculative design and architecture, wherein the speculation is fundamentally (though not exclusively) material in orientation.
Method, results, conclusion
The process of re-presentation used for Vitiden is explored in rich specific detail in the methods section; while not pertinent to this review, it is strongly recommended to anyone engaging with this sort of work, whether directly or indirectly. The results section, meanwhile, presents a simplified overview of “the process of transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practiced-oriented design speculation” as a three-stage schema of translation (p14) with the following steps:
- setting the scope of the transitions
- exploring practices and contexts
- re-presenting the future
This is unpacked as two parallel and interlinked translations: one focussed on the translation of content (i.e. from policy-orienting -> practice-oriented: the concretisation of god-trick abstractions), and the other focussed on form (i.e. policy/PR report -> design speculation: this might be thought of as a switching of narrative modality from the passive/corporate voice, which might be thought of as a sort of omniscient and disinterested third-person perspective, to first- or limited-third-person; also could be seen as analogous to the problematic but nonetheless useful distinction in practical narratology between “telling” and “showing”). This doubleness of the translation process is seen as crucial: doing the translation of content without also translating the form would forfeit the opportunity to reach wider audiences and thus provoke a more affective engagement with futurity (p14). The three stages are summarized neatly, along with some considerations and hazards to be kept in view throughout any attempt at implementation.
In the context of work done (and yet to be done) at LU, the paper by Hesselgren et al. is the next link in a methodological/conceptual chain from Auger, picking up the strategic concepts of provocation and affirmation and articulating them as a (sensitive and challenging) balancing act in execution, and orienting them toward the exploration of a pre-constructed (or pre-bounded) context or world in collaboration with (as opposed to for an audience of) publics. With reference to the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR hereafter), for example, it should be noted that the “future” it presents is much more weighted to the provocative, which explains some of the audience responses to the ‘standard’ version of the intervention; however, the version of MCR performed at the Anticipation conference in Oslo in 2019, with its Brechtian breachings of the temporal frame, flip-flopped between provocation and affirmation rather than attempting to hold them in balance, thus sustaining and troubling the cognitive bridgework of the performance as a whole. Whether this approach would have been viable with an audience that was not predominantly academic (and thus already more accepting of both CC complicity and the necessity for action, not to mention already familiar with the abstract practice of thinking about and re-narrating futures) is an open question, but one that can be cautiously answered in the negative; the Oslo performance was as much a meta-methodological demonstration as an intervention, and thus took the theatrical form to an extreme that might not be viable elsewhere. That said, as an edge case and proof-of-concept, it still stands as a useful case for thinking about the deployment of similar interventions aimed at a broader and less specialised audience.
Meanwhile, Wangel et al’s specification of the double-translation is particularly valuable, as it not only offers the possibility of wider engagement, but also frames that broadening as a necessity in practical terms: it’s not an advantageous extra step, but rather an extension of established techniques of futuring in such a way as to improve on them in substantive terms. The narratological equivalences applied above are my own, but—if you will excuse the shameless meta-movement of this claim—they act as a translation of the translation, enabling the movement of this double-articulation from design research into other futurity-oriented fields, e.g. sociotechnical and/or climate imaginaries, where thinking in terms of story is more established and flexible; the accessibility, relateability and immersive capacity of different media stand as affordances for futuring, and further research and experimentation will serve to identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Seen another way, the argument positions the corporate report as a particular medium with its own rhetorical affordances which, albeit unintentionally, exclude and alienate non-expert publics from engagement with the energy futures depicted therein; using the tools of design—or of literature, or cinema, or theatre, or comics, or music, or, or, or—not only opens up futurity itself, but also the possibility of participation in re-presentation thereof.