Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rebecca Solnit, Hope In The Dark

New Year's Eve, as 2011 turns into 2012, and also blog post number 500: a big day for odometers, metaphorically speaking, and also an excellent occasion to talk about Rebecca Solnit's 2005 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

From here
Yeah, we're most of us feeling pretty apocalyptic these days, like the end of the world is nigh, or at least near-nigh, and we're not wrong to feel that way. Beetle hordes changing whole ecologies; Republican nutbars with a shot at the 2012 presidency; goddamn Peter Kent and stupid Jason Kenney; climate change and Arctic methane: as was so wisely sung so many years ago by Merle Haggard, "Think I'll just stay here and drink."

As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in Hope in the Dark, this isn't the first time that we've feared the future. The 20th century's two world wars, for example, were pretty dark periods, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation was not the happiest thing one could have looked forward to in one's childhood (though I'm pleased regardless by the fiction that this nuclear fear pushed Douglas Coupland to write). From the 1960s to 2005, though, the world got so much better, in so many ways, in so many places, for so many people. Gay rights; the civil rights movement; feminism's successes; and the mobilization of the masses for environmental causes all signify sea changes in Western culture. (Admittedly she's talking about the US only, but I'm comfortable generalizing, at least partway.)

Sure, most of these successes were and are partial, or the drink-inducing catalogue above wouldn't mean anything, but Solnit's key point is that they were nonetheless successes. Perfection is the enemy of done, I regularly remind my students, and the maxim applies even more consequentially for social justice movements. We need to appreciate every improvement, given the weight of PR, government shilling, and corporate lobbying arrayed against us, even though work remains to be done. And then -- which is the really important thing -- we have to get back to work.

Fun fact: "Viagra is good for endangered species" (p.77). No, not because they mate more consistently (but maybe there's a research project there?), but because it has demonstrably reduced the demand for all those bizarre animal-based aphrodisiacs and treatments for impotence. I'll keep asserting that Viagra's, um, rise is a legitimate sign of the apocalypse, because of the money involved and the chemicals and the carbon burden of the packaging and transportation, but I'll always be grateful for the reduced hunting pressure (mostly illegitimate) on Siberian tigers, for example.

So anyway, in honour of post number 500, and of our entry into 2012, I'm trying to change. I'll still be predictably cranky, I'm sure, but it'll be leavened by a little bit of how Rebecca Solnit felt six years ago. Nobody tell me how she feels now, okay?

(Oh, and the methane thing? Still complicated. Go about your day, but do try to walk rather than drive, please.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Now, I know that I just finished saying that we need to read the classics - but might Margaret Atwood count as a classic writer, and her recent science fiction novels as themselves classics, already?

I loved The Year of the Flood, and I've seen and heard some wise people talk about that novel as well as Oryx and Crake. Possibly the worst academic conference paper I've ever seen was largely about these novels, too, so you don't get smarter just from dealing them, but that's true for Shakespeare and Aristotle, too, so I'm hardly worried about that.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I preferred Year of the Flood, which came out second but functions in part as a prequel to Oryx and Crake. The earlier novel takes place in the minds of people less damaged by the apocalypse that's occurred around them than Snowman/Jimmy, the protagonist for Oryx and Crake, so I'm probably responding positively to the more conventional narrative posture, but that's fine by me.

Multi-species animal splices, corrupt biotech corporations, class warfare organized around intraurban boundaries, truly posthuman human bodies: it's a wonderfully imaginative world that Atwood's giving us in the MaddAddam trilogy, disturbingly real in amongst all the fantastic elements.

So very excited for the third book, am I!

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

I've been dabbling in science fiction for a while now, dipping into space opera and campy stuff, spending time with some classics, just generally appreciating it. Hard to explain quite why, except to guess that in response to contemporary crises of ecology and finances and political structures, I'm looking for the kind of thing that it turns out Ursula Le Guin referred to as "thought experiments." Realist fiction gives me a good look at the crisis; poetry, well, it's poetry, so even at its most potent and insightful and trenchant, I'm still always distracted by questions of form; nonfiction makes me either sad or angry, rather than helping me think.

So, science fiction.

Robert A. Heinlein is obviously a classic, a giant in the field. I'm not sure how much of his stuff I've actually read over the years, but certainly a few novels and a bunch of short stories, but he's been off my reading list for more than a decade. Coming back to him through The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress might not be the best option, but whoa, I'm not sure what else I'd want to read, because this book was terrific. (If you're looking to me for advice about Heinlein, you're probably in the wrong place, but welcome anyway!)

Things I liked especially:
  1. the lack of fixity among characters, the way that they change appearances and somehow also essences while remaining themselves
  2. the way that Manny, the main character, so often has no real idea what's going on around him, even though people look to him for direction, and
  3. Heinlein's emphasis on what the lunar environment would mean for people living there.
There's more to it, and more reasons to appreciate this novel, but those are enough for me. I really liked that people didn't expect to remain the same, and that others didn't expect them to stay the same, and yet somehow they remained the same through all their changes (in body, in family allegiance, in politics, and so on). I kept laughing about how often Manny - the narrator and putative protagonist - was kept in the dark by other characters, and about his comfort with being manipulated for positive ends by his friends. (Help yourselves, folks. I won't mind.)

And I was fascinated, above all, by Heinlein's attention to the influence of place and environment on the political and bodily realities of his characters. Air isn't free, if you have to manufacture it; that's obvious, but Heinlein does a great job of demonstrating the impact that this change would have on your relationship with your environment. Bodies work differently at different gravities, too, and they suffer through a raft of complex changes when gravity is either stronger or lighter than a body expects it to be, and again, Heinlein explores all kinds of ways that gravitational pressures make bodies function differently: the even sexier walk that a woman can manage with reduced gravity, differential abilities at hand-to-hand combat, and so on. It's brilliant, it is, and that's even before you get into the political complexity of an off-world non-planetary nation, or the cybernetic philosophizing made manifest in the character (?) of Mike, the super-computer that basically runs Luna.

New books are worth reading, and authors writing now both deserve and need our support.

But the classics ... are classic. We need to read them, because we are poorer intellectually if we fail to do so.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

UVic United Way book sale - Dec 1/11

"Stupid book sales," he wrote half-heartedly.

Even though the address for this blog opens with "boughtbooks," I've stopped noting my purchases here, though I've been keeping track and might post monthly updates about those: no one ever comments on those posts anyway (I know, Theresa, except for you!), so they're starting to feel like interruptions between the reviews, without salience for readers. This particular book sale, though, is always full of good stuff, and anyone reading many of the reviews here would be interested themselves in a number of these books.

But they're mine. You can't have them, unless you ask nicely, in which case I'll mail almost any one of them to you. For two bucks each to the United Way, I picked up all of these:
  • William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscape of New England (SUCH an important book; SO surprising to find it on Day 3 of the sale!)
  • Pierre Dansereau, Inscape and Landscape: The Human Perception of Environment (based on his 1972 Massey lectures for the CBC)
  • ed. Donawerth & Kolmerten, Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference (an essay collection, not a literary anthology)
  • Alan R. Drengson, Beyond Environmental Crisis: From Technocrat to Planetary Person (a philosopher from/at UVic)
  • ed. Greg Gatenby, Whale Sound: An Anthology of Poems about Whales and Dolphins (including so many Canadian writers who were important, rising, or fading in 1977, when it seemed reasonable to publish a book of poems about marine ecology and whale survival)
  • ed. Gary Geddes, Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest (my third copy: gradually collecting copies, not sure why...)
  • John Frederic Gibson, A Small and Charming World
  • Charles Lillard, Voice, My Shaman
  • Northwest Environment Watch, Cascadia Scorecard: Seven Key Trends Shaping the Northwest (or "Pacific southwest," for us smug Canadians)
  • Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience
  • Anne Pearson, Sea-Lake: Recollections and History of Cordova Bay and Elk Lake (some very local history)
  • POLIS Project, Highlights of the BC Community Forestry Forum: Exploring Policy and Practice (a CD from the March 2002 session)
  • Frank Rasky, The Taming of the Canadian West (coffee-table special, with lots of art but fairly heavy on text: impressively dated in outlook, I suspect)
  • ed. Safranyik & Wilson, The Mountain Pine Beetle: A Synthesis of Biology, Management, and Impacts on Lodgepole Pine (published by Natural Resources Canada: and the clearest, most recently added marker of my nerdish obsession with BC landscapes)
  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild: Essays
So, is anybody jealous of me for finding even one of these? Or is my office just becoming a graveyard for these kinds of books? Every so often I can't help thinking - it's weird to be an academic. All I do is read, but it's rare to find people interested in reading the same things I am, and yet somehow the isolation just doesn't matter....