Monthly Archives: December, 2020

Olive and Mabel

Like literally millions of people around the world, I have been highly amused by Andrew Cotter’s sports commentary of his two dogs, which began earlier this year (if you missed it somehow, the first one is here: https://youtu.be/vPhpJuraz14). When I heard that he was writing a book, I was amused; and looking forward to reading it; and a bit worried, because what on earth would it be about?

The answer is that Cotter does actually go on remarkable adventures with his two dogs – bagging Munros in particular (that is, climbing mountains in Scotland over a certain height) – and he has a way with words that makes sense given his normal living as a sports commentator. (Yes, it may have been ghost written, given how quickly it came out; no, I wouldn’t blame him; if someone did help write it they did a very good job of capturing his style and tone, or at least the style and tone that come across in the videos.)

The book starts with how the videos came about in the first place – boredom – and then deals with the global reaction to them – which was completely out of proportion to anything he expected, but completely in line with people going spare during lockdown. I really enjoyed the way he discussed having to deal with the unexpected fame, and the pressure to keep creating content, when that wasn’t something he anticipated. Also the way he talked about aaallll the “marketing opportunities” that came his way and he rejected (except for commentating the Phillip Island penguins, which is utter genius and I’m glad it’s in the world – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIIvTm5xTF0 ).

The rest of the book is about getting Olive, and then a few years later Mabel; a discourse on the Labrador as a breed; and then a lot of descriptions about going hiking in the mountains with two dogs. Which shouldn’t work, but does. This is a gentle, amusing, refreshing book – both an excellent advertisement for having a dog, and an excellent explanation for why having a dog is a terrible idea.

The sort of book you buy for someone in your family and then when everyone’s read it you pass it on to someone else and you know that many people will have had a few hours innocent joy. Much like patting a dog.

Infomocracy

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago… some failure of mine or the system, I guess. Anyway, I finally read this (and the rest of the trilogy) last year, and felt a hankering need to reread this year. And apparently I didn’t review it last year, so now’s the time!

There’s no specified year that this book happens; it’s two decades after the near-global institution of micro-democracy, and it’s still a fairly recognisable world aside from that, so mid to late 21st century makes sense. Micro-democracy means that most of the world has been divided into ‘centenals’ – areas of 100,000 people (or is it voters? that’s unclear, I think) – and each centenal votes in their chosen government. The biggest are Heritage, which seems like an ordinary conservative party, and Liberty, which is theoretically all about citizen freedom… then there are some old-nation-based parties, like 1China; and most terrifyingly, there are military-based parties and corporate ones, the largest being PhilipMorris. In the long run I’m not sure which of the latter two are most scary. And then, the party that gets the most centenals over the whole world is the Supermajority and they get… some unspecified powers.

This entire book is about the lead-up to the third global election. I know, it doesn’t sound like it should be riveting. But oh my goodness, it is.

Firstly, this isn’t just a world with micro-democracy. It’s also a world with Information. Information is like Google, I guess, but made a public utility that is genuinely meant to be working for the good of everyone. There’s a touch of cyberpunk in that most everyone can access Information via a handheld device if they must, or via optical implants if they can; depending on your Information settings, you can walk around anywhere and get facts about the construction of buildings, names of plants – and the public Information of the people you’re around. Older begins to explore the consequences of Information here (and I know it’s ‘begins’ because that’s something that continues throughout the trilogy, SORRY SPOILERS). And what happens when Information isn’t available?

Secondly, of course something nefarious happens, and it needs to be rectified. The two focal characters are Mishima – absolutely my favourite – and Ken. Mishima works for Information doing a variety of things, which sometimes involve a stiletto and shuriken and climbing furniture. She also has a ‘narrative disorder’ which is never fully explained but helps (usually) to sort through a mass of data. Ken is a campaigner for one of the middle-tier parties, Policy1st, who ends up finding out some of the nefarious things and gets pulled into the action. Ken’s fine; he’s an interesting mix of altruistic and self-interested that makes sense, and his doubts and angst are portrayed sympathetically but not at annoying length. Mishima is awesome; she is splendidly capable but not all-knowing, and I basically love everything about the way she acts, reacts, and thinks.

This is seriously awesome book. I guess it’s on the ‘techno-thriller’ side of things although exactly what that means I’m a bit hazy on. I would be confident recommending this to someone who doesn’t love SF, because it could almost be tomorrow; the tech’s not that outrageous. It’s fast-paced but not ludicrously so, there are a range of characters who show a range of issues, and it’s just great.

The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson continues to be one of the great voices of climate change fiction – particularly, the consequences of, and how humans might mitigate them (since no way are we avoiding).

The Ministry of the title is the use-name for a small international organisation set up under the auspices of the Paris Climate Agreement, kind of but not entirely associated with the UN and based in Zurich. Their remit is to basically to represent future generations, who currently don’t get a say in what they will inherit, and therefore to advocate for policies that will be good for those future people. It’s a clever way of showing that current decisions have downstream consequences, and of having people whose job it is to focus on that.

Part of the book, therefore, focuses on the Ministry: policy and the struggles of international collaboration. Another large part isn’t even really narrative so much as a series of vignettes from individuals who are either directly affected by some aspect of climate change – like the devastating heat wave that opens the novel – or by people who are involved in climate change mitigation, like farmers in Kerala who are doing awesome things with agriculture. The scope of the book is a couple of decades, thus showcasing the problems as they develop as well as the myriad and varied attempts to deal with the issues.

It’s not a standard linear narrative, therefore; but it is recognisably a Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, New York 2140 had several characters to follow and a few clear narrative threads, which sometimes intertwined, plus the narrator who dumped info on you. This is more experimental, I think, but feels like an extension of what was going on in 2140. I guess there are two main characters, although they probably don’t get quite enough space to really legitimate the title: the head of the Ministry, a middle-aged Irish woman who is awesome; and an American aid worker caught in the Indian heatwave who continues to suffer the repercussions of that for years. If it’s anyone’s story, it’s theirs; although having said that really it’s the planet’s story, and that of the entire population. Which feels so right for a book like this. It makes sense to hear from farmers in India and glaciologists in Antarctica! Less so the bits from the sun, and a carbon atom; but I’m prepared to indulge Robinson’s whims.

I trust Robinson to generally have his science right, if slightly on the outlandish side – that is, his suggestions probably match known science, but they may require more time / other resources than is considered feasible… although actually, this is something that he addresses in the book – that what seems like a large amount of money kinda isn’t when you set it in context. I do wonder whether a copy of this should be sent to people at the UN, and glaciologists, and agriculture people…

This book won’t work for everyone. The structure will annoy some, for sure, because it decentres characters and because it doesn’t really have much of a narrative. It just… covers a period of time, and what happens to the world in that time. So if you like a neat open and close, this probably isn’t for you; if you like really strong characters driving the story, likewise. But I really do recommend this as an exploration of the next few decades on our planet… it’s both optimistic on some levels but also devastating.

Station Eleven

The first question to ask here is, how did I not read this book when it first came out in 2014? And then how did I not read it when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award?

Those of you who have already read this are now possibly backing away in dismay, and reflecting my second question:

How could I read this book this year: did I not know that it involved a… y’know… flu-like virus??

The answer to the second is no, actually, I didn’t. It came as quite a surprise. And it’s a bit of a spoiler I suppose to those who haven’t read it yet but I figure that’s a community service at the moment. Because the thing is, this is a fantastic book and I want to recommend it to everyone… it’s just that, at the moment, such recommendation requires a little delicacy.

“Mum! You should read this book!! … how do you feel about reading about pandemics?”

(That’s not quite verbatim, but close.)

(For the record, she said she was fine with it.)

At any rate, I bought this in one of my spates of book buying this year, as a title I’ve had hanging at the back of my mind for five years and knew basically nothing about. And then I read the whole thing in a day. I would have read it faster than I did but I had to keep stopping to eke it out just a little bit longer. Yes, it’s one of those.

There’s a lot to love about this book. The writing is wonderful, easy to read and utterly absorbing. It takes a particular style to get away with declaring “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” In the first part of the book, in particular, this felt a lot like one of the best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stories (and yes, just to be clear, that’s definitely a compliment from me).

The narrative goes back and forth between times – pre- and post-pandemic – filling in character histories, drawing links between people, giving detail to the world. The two central characters (I would argue) are introduced at the start of the novel – both actors, one old and one a child. Their lives and the people they interact with largely inform the rest of the story. The child, in particular, grows up to be a focal part of the future story, traveling with a group of actors and musicians across an America utterly devastated by pandemic (see? this is why recommending it requires a certain delicacy right now!). These artists use a Star Trek quote as their raison d’ĂȘtre: “because survival is insufficient”. And I love this for many reasons.

As well as flitting between times, the narrative also shifts between characters – all of whom end up having some connection with the two actors, deep or glancing, which is a neat device that Mandel manages to make neither cheesy nor just too convenient. The range of people (rich and not, pleasant and not, etc) allows Mandel to explore multiple human experiences and reactions to disaster – which, let’s face it, is often the point of writing post/apocalyptic narratives. Another sign of a narrative that is well-paced and features multiple characters is that I never got impatient in reading about some new character, wanting to get back to an original – they were all engaging and, especially as the threads started to come together, I always wanted to see what the new character brought.

There’s not that many books about which I can confidently say “I will read you again.” This is one of them.