My Post-apocalyptic Top Ten  
Sunday, March 21, 2010, 03:21 PM
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I went to a dinner recently where I was sitting next to a theatre researcher who is working on a project about global warming and narratives of apocalypse more generally. We both liked some of the same sf novels on this theme and, inspired by our discussion, I thought I’d post my post-apocalyptic top ten. I found it impossible to rank them – so they are in alphabetical order.

David Brin, The Postman (1985) After the ‘doomwar’, in a fragmented and decaying United States, Gordon Krantz comes across a postman’s uniform which he starts to wear, becoming an icon of hope for people who desperately want to believe that, somewhere, an ordered government still exists. Much of the interest of the novel lies in comparing the different paths taken by scattered, isolated communities. Unlike some post-apocalyptic narratives, this is not a morality fable about the evils of science. Brin’s sympathies are firmly with those who are trying to keep science alive and against the misognynistic and brutal survivalists.

John Christopher, The Death of Grass (1956) A wonderfully bleak and British example of the genre. A virus strain attacks rice crops in China, and soon spreads to all grasses. Martial law and the breakdown of society are quick to follow. The novel compares well with John Wyndham’s better known, and similarly understated, evocations of disaster, such as The Kraken Wakes. There was a very good Radio 4 dramatisation of the novel in 2009.

John Christopher, Empty World (1977) This children’s novel is not so well known as Christopher’s Tripods trilogy but it’s an effectively chilling read. As in The Death of Grass, the apocalypse first seems to be someone else’s problem – the story opens with a mysterious plague hitting Calcutta. The novel’s child protagonists have to learn to cope by themselves as they live in an (almost) empty world. A bit like a much grimmer version of The Children Who Lived in a Barn.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980) Hoban is a very difficult writer to pigeonhole – among his other varied works are the charming Frances stories, picture books about an independent-minded little badger. Riddley Walker is very different. Written in a distinctively ‘debased’ (yet eloquent) English, the novel is set some centuries after a nuclear war has devastated England. Although the population has returned to a primitive way of life, certain fragments of culture (memories of Punch and Judy and a version of the tale of St Eustace for example) survive in a mutated form. A very literary example of the genre, which has been much praised.

Stephen King, The Stand (1978) This is a kind of horror/sf hybrid, and an extremely gripping and powerful book. The premise is standard science fictional fare – scientists are working on a destructive virus (known as ‘Captain Trips’) which gets released into the general population and wipes out 99.4% of mankind. What is distinctive about The Stand is its use of supernatural and religious elements and the novel turns into showdown between the forces of good and evil – the latter spearheaded by the mysterious Randall Flagg, a demonic figure who has since found his way into several other of King’s novels.

Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) ‘Leibowitz’ is a Jewish engineer who converts to Christianity following a nuclear war and founds an order in his name. The action begins many centuries after his death and charts the slow recovery of civilisation, a recovery which offers many ironic parallels with the progress of Western civilisation after the fall of Rome – parallels which have predictable final consequences. Bleakly amusing.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004) Although only the central (and chronologically final) section is strictly post-apocalyptic, I couldn’t bring myself to leave out Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite novels of recent years. The relevant section, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, is set on Hawaii in the aftermath of a nuclear war. It is effective on its own terms, but only acquires its full power when read in the context of the other five narratives within which it is embedded – and indeed within the context of the many other sf novels to which it alludes (including Riddley Walker and, I think, The Chrysalids).

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826) This has to be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It opens with the narrator’s discovery of some ancient fragments of text in the Sibyl’s cave near Naples. These turn out to be prophecies of the 21st century. The novel proper tells of a plague which, as in Empty World, spreads slowly and inexorably from the East. Shelley’s account of the social and emotional effects of the plague is extremely effective. She gives a very convincing account of people’s ghoulish appetite for gloom and doom stories in the newspapers, for example, anticipating our own fascination with AIDS, swine flu and global warming.

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1999) I thought this book was hugely underrated as it’s one of the most compelling and haunting sf books I’ve ever read and a short account can’t do justice to its full complexity. Its premise is that Wells’ novel The Time Machine was based on fact. The hero discovers the machine and travels several centuries into the future where he discovers London in ruins and a world transformed by global warning. He has to become a detective and archaeologist to find out what has happened and there is something wonderfully chilling about the random snippets of information and chance documents he discovers as he – and the reader - begins to get some sense of all the horrors which have intervened between our time and this future world.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955) In post-apocalyptic Labrador a society has grown up which looks on machines with suspicion and on even the tiniest deformity with horror. But one of the mutations brought on by nuclear catastrophe is a gift – telepathy. I thought I’d read all of Wyndham but my dinner companion drew my attention to Plan for Chaos – which I look forward to reading in due course.

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Support David (even if Harry’s Place isn’t your cup of) T. 
Saturday, March 20, 2010, 09:09 AM
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David T., of Harry’s Place, a blog which has published many articles highly critical of George Galloway and Respect, is now facing the prospect of a lawsuit from Galloway for posting a facetious remark on the blog Socialist Unity. A fuller account and analysis can be found here. UK libel law is often perceived to be skewed in favour of the plaintiff, and even blogs which have issues with Harry’s Place, are expressing their support for David T.
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Alice in Wonderland 
Monday, March 8, 2010, 08:06 PM
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I’m always attracted to updates and reimaginings and particularly appreciate those which go to some trouble to explain the rationale for the gap which separates them from their originals – which is probably why I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice more than many of the critics. The film is predicated on the idea (just lightly sketched) that Alice, now 19, visited Wonderland as a child but has now all but forgotten the journey and remembers it only in her dreams. When pressured into marriage with an eligible but unappealing suitor she flees after a white rabbit and – naturally – falls down a rabbit hole. We get certain scenes from the Alice we all know – and they inspire a sense of déjà vu in both us and the heroine – but we are also offered much new material. Alice is shown an ‘oraculum’, which clearly depicts her defeating the jabberwocky. Cleverly, the idea – or at least the image – comes straight from Tenniel. Lewis’ bizarre poem and its ambiguous illustration are revealed to be a prophecy.

Memories from the original novel haunt us (and Alice) but so do recollections from many other children’s stories. It’s as though Alice is the archetypal children’s heroine, re-enacting the heroic deeds of other young girls. She is Lucy riding on Aslan (here a surprisingly friendly bandersnatch), and rescuing her friend from a witch’s castle; she is Dorothy, conquering an evil woman, aiding a good one, and finally being presented with the magic talisman which will enable her to return home – or not; she is cross dressing Eowyn, fulfilling a prophecy, and defeating an evil winged beast. The film’s intertexuality is also signalled by the name of this Alice’s dead father – Charles Kingsley. Charles Kingsley was (in a sense) the ‘father’ of the original Alice as his strange and magical Waterbabies was published two years before Carroll’s novel.

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The Early Modern Blogosphere 
Tuesday, March 2, 2010, 08:59 PM
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After the ‘fable of Narcissus’ (see previous post) I felt like turning my attention to something short and simple. Thomas Hedley’s ‘Judgement of Midas’, a broadsheet printed towards the end of Edward VI’s reign, looked inviting. However it soon became clear that ‘Midas’ was not simply a free adaptation of one Ovidian myth, but an intervention into a long and rather complicated flyting which centred round a heated exchange between the poets Churchyard, Camel and their adherents.

Churchyard subtly hints at problems in the current regime (he didn’t care for Dudley, a powerful figure in the young king’s Privy Council). However he disguises his slightly subversive ideas behind an alliterative persona, Davey Dicar. Today perhaps he’d call himself Lucy Lips. And in fact, as I read the other pieces in the flyting, I noted many of the same moves which antagonists adopt in today’s blogosphere wars.

Both Churchyard and his opponent, the conservative Camel, expend much more energy on personal abuse than on actually discussing politics (supposedly the issue at stake). Here Churchyard anticipates the grievance aired by so many bloggers since – his opponent is failing to engage with his arguments:

You touch not one point whereof that I wrate,
You leap o’er the hedge, and seeth not the gate.

Camel counters with another accusation much favoured by bloggers:

‘Three names are too many for one man alone’

Churchyard is being accused of using sockpuppets, a charge to which he responds by shamelessly penning poems of support by ‘Chapel’ and ‘Steeple’. Churchyard is pretty smug generally. Here he distances himself from Camel’s rants with lofty superiority before advising him to, as it were, take his meds.

I will not answer word for word to you rejoinder yet,
Because I find no matter there, nor yet no point of wit,
But brabbling blasts, and frantic fits, and chiding in the air,
Why do you fret thus with yourself? Fie man, do not despair;
Though that your wits be troubled sore, if you in Bedlam were,
I think you should be right well kept, if you be friended there.

The whole affair ends in a quibble about grammar, and a sneer at Camel’s supposed poor command of the subject. I can’t quite bring myself to explain the full context here.

Note when rex doth reign (and) rule the roost, a conjunction copulative,
Your master taught you not to know, could he such things discrive?

And even here, slightly surprisingly, it’s possible to identify a modern parallel ...

(You have to scroll down to the discussion of the word 'links')


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Sabbatical Sodoku?: 'The fable of Ovid treating of Narcissus' 
Sunday, February 21, 2010, 11:04 AM
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I’m spending (most of) my sabbatical editing an anthology of early modern translations of Ovid. It will include extracts from well known texts (by writers such as Marlowe, Golding and Sandys) and also obscure but engaging poems such as H.A.’s ‘The Scourge of Venus or The Wanton Lady’, a poem about Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father Cinyras. Despite its tone of Christian censoriousness it’s actually a good deal more racy than Ovid’s original.

The volume will also include the snappily titled ‘The fable of Ovid treating of Narcissus, translated out of Latin into English metre with a moral thereunto, very pleasant to read’. It is thought that the same man, Thomas Hackett, both wrote and printed this 1560 work. That might explain the final four words of the title.

The ‘moral’ T.H. refers to is in fact a 9500 word commentary in which the poet summarises the interpretations of Narcissus’ story offered by other writers, such as Boccaccio, and offers (at length) his own reflections on the tale. His is a cafeteria approach to commentary – he offers you various options and allows you to pick and choose. Thus Echo may represent either flattery or good advice.

The text’s syntax is complex and sometimes bizarre. The poet often seems to forget how a sentence began some time before reaching its end. He seems unnecessarily fond of words which have several different meanings split between two or three parts of speech. His failure to distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too’ adds to the confusion as does the fact that the text is almost completely lacking in punctuation. Because there are so many variables in play, working out what he’s trying to say is a bit like doing a sodoku puzzle.

Here’s a stanza (particularly the italicised bit) I was finding tricky yesterday – although in fact (looking at it again after a good night’s sleep) I think I get it now. ‘It is now so easy for self-love to propagate itself as long as one has a little bit to start with’.

Whereto he straight consents by judgement blind,
And grants to have as much as seemeth, and more;
So easy, lo, self love is now to kind,
So some is had
, so sweet a grievous sore,
So glad he is to keep his harms in store,
And much desirous for to abide his woe,
And eke so loth his mischief to forgo.

I’ve just come across a reference to Gordon Braden describing the text as ‘almost literally unreadable’. I’m glad it’s not just me.

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