Shreds and patches

Clifton Heights, Bristol

Angela Carter: Heroes and Villains
Introduction by Robert Coover
Penguin Modern Classics 2011 (1969)

“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more, nor who is who, and what can I trust if not appearances?”
— Marianne, Chapter 6

In a post-apocalyptic Britain young Marianne runs away to join the gypsies. Or that would be the equivalent if Carter’s novel — fifty years old now — were a traditional folk ballad. The author was a stalwart of the folk music revival in the sixties and would have been familiar with Scottish ballads like ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ in which the female protagonist is attracted to the life of travellers.

Now it would be a gross simplification to say Heroes and Villains is essentially an escape from a pampered existence to an imagined romantic way of life but that, nevertheless, is the basic plot that drives the narrative. And yet Carter instils so much ambiguity and ambivalence in her novel while interweaving conceptual shreds and patches into the warp of her novel that the exotic elements distract the eye from the apparent plainness of the garment.

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A disturbing dystopia

Romano-British lead font, Icklingham, Suffolk with Chi-Rho symbol and alpha & omega
Romano-British lead font, Icklingham, Suffolk: Chi-Rho and Alpha & Omega (reversed) Brit Mus

P D James: The Children of Men
Faber and Faber 2010 (1992)

Baroness James is best known for her modern-day crime novels featuring Detective Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who also featured in a popular television series starring Roy Marsden. Somehow, however, I find myself gravitating towards her other genres, non-fiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), literary sequel (Death Comes to Pemberley) and this dystopia, The Children of Men. It could be that I’ve already got a few other crime novels to catch up on, or that I’m more than a little partial to speculative literature, but I am glad to have tackled this novel first, especially to dispel the compelling images of the film version, Children of Men, which although excellent in many ways departs significantly from its source material.

Some of the author’s persuasions also differ from mine — she is a peer of the realm, sitting on the Conservative benches, and a committed Anglican — so I was looking forward to seeing if her politics and beliefs affected my evaluation of her as a writer: she is the current President of the Society of Authors, no less.*

Indeed, politics and religion run like rivers through this novel.

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Tipping point

The day after midsummer’s day
Every day seems to bring new evidence of the parlous state that we and the planet are in. Microplastics in the food we eat, in the air we breathe. The sudden death of coral reefs. Glaciers melting. Species extinctions. Climate extremes. Sabre-rattling by malevolent despots. Politicians proving to be the new Neros fiddling even as Rome burns, while mobs are bribed by bread and circuses.

As the hours of daylight start to shorten (for northerners at least) have we passed the tipping point in more ways than one?

My reading this year has, in some ways, paralleled these doomsday scenarios …

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Walled in or out?

Nina Bawden: Off the Road
Puffin Books 2000 (1998)

It is the near future — 12th June 2040, to be precise. Britain is divided, east and west: the civilised part, the Urbs, is separated from the barbarians in the west by a wall. Young Tom, an only child, is accompanying his parents and his grandfather north to a Memory Theme Park and they stop their journey to recharge their electric vehicle at a service station just by the Wall. And then 65-year-old James Makepeace Jacobs, like a human White Rabbit, disappears through an exit at the back of the toilets. Tom feels compelled to follow his grandfather, and we’re almost immediately propelled into the action of Nina Bawden’s dystopian children’s novel.

Tom’s world provides an ordered existence, with everything organised and in its place, and that includes humans. There’s a one-child policy strictly in force, so any reference to siblings, aunts or uncles is taboo. Workers cease working at 60 and have five years in retirement — until the call comes for their enrolment in a Nostalgia Block of the nearest Memory Theme Park. Here Oldies spend a couple of days with their family reliving the world their childhood in a kind of virtual reality before they are left to be “gently and permanently cared for”.

The author, clearly, is heavily hinting at a form of state euthanasia, but before young readers can fully assimilate this Tom’s grandfather is on the run with Tom in hot pursuit. With this dark beginning Nina Bawden takes us in unexpected directions, with an apt ending I didn’t see coming.

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Municipal Darwinism

St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz

Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines 
Scholastic Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

[…] Oh, now forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
— Othello, Act III Scene 3

Even with a reread the first instalment in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines sequence astonishes with its vision, humour, tragedy and sheer storytelling — and to think this was his debut novel! Set in a far distant dystopian future, it imagines a devastated world dominated by Municipal Darwinism, a town-eat-town mentality in which large Traction Cities gobble up smaller towns for their raw materials. But successful entities like London are running out of prey, and the hunt is on for a way not only to become top predator but also to gain access to so-called statics and their defended resources.

In this future London is young Tom Natsworthy, a lowly apprentice in the Guild of Historians. He hero-worships Thaddeus Valentine, a successful archaeologist in the Indiana Jones mode. But when a girl from a mining town which has just been caught attempts to assassinate his hero, Tom discovers that the historian is not who he thought he was, and is literally and figuratively precipitated into a life that he could not have in all his years envisaged.

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A tale told anew

The red dragon and the white found fighting under Vortigern’s castle

Horatio Clare: The Prince’s Pen, or Clip’s Truth
New Stories from the Mabinogion, Seren 2012

Imagine a dystopian future: most of England is reduced to an archipelago; the world is ruled by some nefarious world order; and only Pakistan and Wales have held out, the latter relying on its geography to mount a guerilla war against the occupying forces — much as it did in ancient times against the Romans and the English. Into the frame step sibling warlords, Ludo and Levello, who assemble a team to plan and coordinate an effective resistance. Barely literate, they rely on hackers and scribes to ensure their success, and thus it is that Ludo’s scribe, Clip, comes to be the narrator of this future history, providing the title and subtitle of Horatio Clare’s thoughtful novella.

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Making tracks

tracks

China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)

Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies, hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?

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