Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Dead tree news

I've massively cut down my book purchasing over the past couple of months in an effort to read more than I buy. It's working: I'm down to buying a couple of books per week and reading three or four. And of course some of those I buy are for work rather than pleasure. Amongst those, I've received today two political novels for an eventual project on contemporary political fiction. I made sure that these two were second-hand copies, as I wanted to be certain the authors wouldn't receive a single penny of my money. You'll understand when I tell you.

Boris Johnson, Seventy Two Virgins
Simon Walters, Second Term.

Yes, Boris Johnson the unpleasant and bafflingly popular part-time mayor London, who wrote a comic novel about Islamic terrorism – something a better man might now regret, though I doubt he gives it a moment's thought. Still, I assume there are some vigorous sex scenes and some top-quality Latin gags. The other novel is also a peg-on-the-nose job: it's a thinly-veiled attack on Labour by the political editor of the Mail on Sunday. Actually, that's putting it kindly. When I think of the Mail, in all its vicious, lying, distorted, racist, misogynist, hypocritical, self-interested, vicious, paranoid, humourless 'glory', Simon Walters' byline is the one that floats in front of my eyes. I am not, shall we say, looking forward to reading this work. Though I have no doubt it will be interesting, in the same way that some historians find Goebbels interesting.

You can spot the poor quality of Second Term by the plugs on the back: none by literary critics of course, but praise from the frankly disgusting Amanda Platell (you'll enjoy that link), reactionary tabloid blowhards Peter Oborne (now elevated to the Telegraph, which says more about that paper's decline than it does about Oborne) and Trevor Kavanagh, and Norman Tebbit, a man who would have fitted well into an Oswald Mosley administration.

Perhaps it's a week for bad books. I've just read Margery Allingham's The China Governess, which I thought was a baffling mixture of dubious ideas, convoluted plot, social mores which I found baffling and good writing, and Veronica Roth's Divergent and Insurgent. The latter two I read as part of my ongoing attempt to consume every post-apocalyptic teen novel available (for eventual articles). They're decent page-turners, with a dislikeable protagonist, which I perversely enjoy. But like too many of these authors, there's no indication she's read any other authors' works to acquire a modicum of style or elegance. It's just one damn sentence after another. What she has read are the Harry Potter novels and The Hunger Games: the basic plot merges a divided America and a society based on the Sorting Hat. Everyone's divided into affinity groups at 16 through tests: Amity (nice, non-confrontational: Hufflepuff), Erudite (arrogant, too clever for their own good: Slytherin or Ravenclaw), Abnegation (self-sacrificing: Gryffindor/Hufflepuff), Dauntless (thrill-seeking, brave, none too bright: Gryffindor + Slytherin) and Candor (total emotional honesty whatever the cost). The plot isn't much cop either: some terrible sciencey woo basically designed to mirror the on-off mostly-chaste romance between the 'troubled' protagonists and showcase Tris's conflicted emo psyche. Then added to that: a background hum of Christian proselytising (not hugely obtrusive, but I was far from surprised to see God profusely thanked in the endnotes) and frequent and blatant endorsements of guns and the death penalty. Roth's the new big thing in American teen dystopias – looks like the Tea Party has its youth outreach program working overtime.

And in case you think you can escape: it's going to be a big film trilogy with Kate Winslet as one of the Big Bad Characters made by Lionsgate, producers also of the Hunger Games and that despicable reactionary religious propaganda Ender's Game.

I have to say that having grown up in the last days of the nuclear shadow (I'm still a proud member of CND) and living my adult life under the very real threat of catastrophic climate change, I'm getting rather bored by the stream of mostly-American far-fetched dystopic novels. There are some clear, politically-informed ones, such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Canadian Cory Doctorow and others, but the ones like Roth's which perpetuate extensions of tired old Big-State paranoia and promotion of Guns'n'God are looking less and less relevant. Give me, instead, the quiet beauty of Rosoff's How I Live Now, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Oryx and Crake series, JG Ballard, Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army, anything by Gwyneth Lewis, Malorie Blackman (the new Children's Laureate), Adam Roberts, Simon Morden, Ernest Cline, S. D. Crockett, Philip Reeve, Ken MacLeod, Marcus Sedgwick and even Stephen Baxter.

The pressing issues I see are climate change, social segregation due to capitalist exploitation and information science/misguided corporate techno-utopianism/surveillance (no, not Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and yes, this week's headlines are proving me right). The authors whose works I rate deal with the social, personal, cultural and economic effects of these with a sense of urgency and – mostly – leftwing ideology which I think is appropriate, whereas Roth and co present individualist worlds in which the State is automatically repressive, individual freedoms (basically, the freedom to consume and shoot people) are paramount and which deliberately retail political mythology rather than confront pressing issues, which is what SF is for.

It's not that I don't see the aesthetic qualities in fiction by right-wingers: I'm a huge fan of Evelyn Waugh, for instance. It's just that the sheer wrong-headedness of rightwing speculative fiction gets in the way of my appreciation of the writing.

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