Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I picked this up in a charity shop in Aberdeen: I’ve been in that shop a dozen times and bought nothing. Then, I go in on a rainy September morning, on the way from one meeting to another, and find not one, not two, but three books. I’m reading all three at once; this one I have finished already.

“Dark Eden” explores what might happen a few generations down the line, if a very few people – in this case, just two – found themselves having to scratch a living having landed with little or no equipment on a deeply unsuitable world. Stephen Baxter covers similar ideas in his “pendant” short stories “Earth II” and “Earth III”. Heinlein touches on it in a brief aside in “Time enough for love”.

Beckett neatly side-steps the science. It is not necessary to explain the biology and geology of his strange sunless world, quite literally enlivened by bizarre geothermal trees. But we’ve seen the life on geothermal vents on the seabed – such things are more than plausible. His forests are islands full of life and light, in a sea of darkness, snow and ice. In the story, the protagonists travel from one such island to another, to make a new life where there is more game, more space, more resources. It is an ancient story, going back a million years on our own world.

Where the story excels, is in dealing with human relationships. It deals head on with the very serious consequences of inbreeding several generations in from just one man and woman. Many of the population have cleft pallettes, hare lips and club feet – and are looked after by their healthier, luckier siblings. Truly a dark Eden, but with the warm light of compassion only now starting to flicker. The primitive society that has formed from the original couple is matriarchal, and the heroine can see that the time for this is ending, and that “the time of men” is coming. The hero, John Redlantern, as well as being a visionary, a Moses who leads his people through the wilderness, is also the first to commit murder, a destroyer of tradition and stability, and also inherently self-centred – it’s all about him.

Wikipedia describes the novel as “Social science fiction” which may not be flattering. But, “social science” is all over the story. Many important ideas are discussed. We see how hunter-gatherers can lay waste to swathes of forest over generations. We see how a matriarchal society can work where there is plenty – but how such a society begins to break down when resources are scarce. We see the effects of inbreeding. We see the importance of tradition in retaining knowledge in a society where there is little or no learning.

What I liked is that this is no dystopia: though things are going wrong, though things are changing, from beginning to end, there is a positive dialogue with what is happening and what has happened. In a genre where so often we find stories focusing on the negative – the very dark but excellent work of Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds are just two examples – it’s refreshing to see a positive outlook.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.

A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark

Delicately, beautifully written.  Rather like Wilfred Thesiger, she draws attention to an Arabia that no longer exists, an Arabia she may have, however inadvertently, contributed  to the end of.  She writes of hidden pools hardly visited by anyone but Bedu shepherds, of strange castles on the dusty, arid, windswept plateau of what is now Yemen.  Of villages where few if any of the villagers have seen a European.  Of casual vendetta and war continued through generations, brought to a fragile and not entirely permanant stop by the “English peace”.  She writes of men with great vices and great virtues, of small men capable of much when tried; of big men who do mean and small deeds.

She is eminently quotable and copyable for inspiration in one’s own thoughts.  She writes, inter alia, “the fear of disturbing the peace tended to limit our plans more than the wars of the old days, when a casualty more or less could make no odds”

The point here being, war tends to collectivize us and dehumanize us, strip away our importance as individuals.  In war, the individual, at least ostensibly, matters less and less.  “One casualty more or less”, one more or one less dead person. But people do matter; individuals do matter.  One person dying matters.  “Jesus wept” – John 11:36.

Freya has a subtelty, a delicacy of tone, reminding me of the sky at dusk, that pastel shade that is so fragile and short-lived. She writes of Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, “a patient and pleasant people, not roused to petulance by the want of supper or by the fact that they had only a cotton shawl between them and the rigours of the night”.

How challenging for us in the west, to me, right now. In this respect for the bedouin she is also like Wilfred Thesiger, who acknowledged in the bedu true and deep nobility and greatness, to which he could not aspire.

 

 

 

Jet: when Britain ruled the skies

Nostalgic, sentimental, patriotic, a little gushing, perhaps. These programmes are redeemed, for me, by the presence of Lord Tebbit. Tebbit is one of the few politicians who actually worked for a living before going into politics. We’ll learn a lot by him; when he goes, we shall not see his like again.

These programmes look back at the UK’s all too brief period of air supremacy in the ten years or so after the second war. It can be exemplified, distilled, as it were, by that image of a Vulcan bomber flying alongside a Lancaster. Two Avro machines, separated in design by a dozen years at best, but worlds apart. One, a creation of the late Thirties, the other, of the Atomic age.

We might look back on that period in the early 1950’s with a sense of wonder and not a little unbelief. From the end of rationing, until Suez, something golden was happening. A short renaissance of Empire, perhaps. A final gleam of sunshine out from under lowering clouds. A last fling of power; a final throw of the dice. We might well look back and feel justified in saying, hell, what went wrong? The historians might give a blunt one-word answer: Suez. But, it might just be a little bit more complicated than that.

Notwithstanding that potential complexity, it’s fair to say that our embarrassing failure at Suez was a milestone in the fall of the British Empire. After Suez, post-Imperial Stygian gloom. Before Suez, you might have kidded yourself, were you thus inclined, that the British Empire and it’s Commonwealth might have endured.

Directions were taken in those years that might have been otherwise. Were there really “cusp”points in those years? Could it have been different? Given the financial and economic reality – the Marshall Plan – post WWII, it seems unlikely.

But what, they built some magnificent flying machines.

Cool Hand Luke, by Donn Pearce

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When set against the wider genre of prison literature, “Cool Hand Luke” is perhaps somewhat tame. This isn’t “Papillon” and it certainly isn’t in the same category as anything coming out of the prison-based suffering that took place in the Soviet Union. This story has nothing of the human privation and suffering shared with us by Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago” or “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”.

In spite of this book being made into to a classic film about torment and suffering in prison, it doesn’t really deal with the full horror of man’s inhumanity to man in prison.  To learn about that you’d be better off listening to Joan Baez’ wonderful song “Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose)”, and then weeping.

What we do have here, is prison guards and prisoners as real people. We get stories within stories. The author introduces his hero only gradually, delicately, subtly.  Even the narrator doesn’t tell the story but puts it in the mouth of one of his characters, “Dragline”, all of whose teeth were brutally kicked out by Miami detectives. “Dragline” is played in the movie by George Kennedy, in one of his best roles.

The story is an interesting reflection on post-war Florida. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the story is set.  At one point, the narrator (the prisoner called “Sailor”) uses the term “diesel locomotive” making it clear that this is new and unusual.  He refers to a train called the “Silver Meteor’.  Most of the convicts are under thirty; some seem to have been WWII veterans. In the end, we learn that Luke’s experiences in the war have by no means left him unchanged.

There are hostages to fortune which may offend the modern liberal reader. Twenty-first century sensibilities will not take kindly to the frequent use of certain words describing African Americans. And then there is the passage describing “The Girl” – a schoolgirl of sixteen.

But in the end, this book was a thought-provoking, worthwhile and entertaining read. Have you got your mind right? That deep underlying question can keep some of us awake at night, for there’s a little of Cool Hand Luke in us all.

Off the map, by John Harrison

John Harrison’s “Off the map”, is an account of an eccentric Englishman on an Amazonian journey.  I am never in the mood for English eccentrics, particularly when they are – as they do tend to be – not really eccentric at all, but just opinionated un-original anti-American lefties.

In Deorla Murphy’s foreword to Harrison’s “Off the Map” she writes “the Harrisons wanted to remain in touch with…life as it was lived…before technology rendered our survival skills redundant”.
This is the purest nonsense.  Technology has not rendered our survival skills redundant; it has only changed what those survival skills are. These people would reduce us to hunter-gatherers, and they should be stamped on from a great height!

Harrison writes of garampeiros (gold prospectors) “they are a different breed from the Brazilians who opt to stay at home. They are sharper, harder working, more adventurous and less tolerant of hierarchies and bureaucrats” [there is more.] This is a profound and powerful truth. It goes to the heart of what R.A Heinlein writes, that those who emigrate are inherently cleverer and more able than those who remain behind.  This description of the Brazilian Amazon frontier is most instructive.

Harrison can surely write the most excellent English, but he comes across as someone I’d not want to meet.

Radiant state, by Peter Higgins

This third novel of the “Wolfhound Century” trilogy manages to stand alone – as all good novels ought – and is entirely readable without first reading the other two. Higgins has created a weird alternate reality. I like this kind of “genre busting” – except that it is no longer true to say that the work busts genres. It can be labelled in more than one way, perhaps. Opening as hard sci-fi, it alternates thereafter between political thriller (an assassin trying to kill the president) and weird pure fantasy (archangels and witches and dead bodies wandering through the trackless woods).

Others have done work like this. It owes much in concept to the work of China Mieville.

One thing I do like, though it sets my teeth on edge as someone who loves the explanation, the reason, the exegesis in detail – is that he has not explained himself. He makes no explanation of the strange happenings on what is clearly just an Earth with a place that is, whilst never referred to as such, just Mother Russia. He does not account to the reader for their being two moons, or for the dead yet walking the earth, or for archangels and sprites and other strange creatures coming into the story with no more ado than a ticket inspector on a train or a shop-keeper.