Summer is the time for relaxing by the beach, sitting in parks and gardens, eating fresh strawberries, making homemade iced tea and coffee, and barbecues.
But, after the lockdown, I’ve decided that it’s time to be more healthy. This means getting out the old Vitamix and honing my healthy smoothie-making skills. I’m avoiding the ‘D’ word — diet — because it comes with so many unhelpful assumptions about ‘success’ and ‘failure’. So, I’m just sticking to ‘healthier eating’ and I’m trying not to be too prescriptive about it. Essentially, what this means is less of many things, but more fruit and vegetables. Oh, and no alcohol. The ‘less of’ includes, less meat, less bread, less dairy, and less sugar, less processed foods like crisps, pastries, and sweets.
Talking about food, I’ve been watching the odd-ball Atomic Shrimp YouTube channel. It’s a strange assortment of ‘weird food in a tin’ reviews, low budget eating food challenges, and quirky experiments that occasionally verge on the absurd (plus some tech stuff that I don’t watch). Another YouTube channel I’ve been watching (after my Korean street food video phase) has been Whatifalthist, which is a mix of history and future geo-political speculation. Always to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course, but fun nonetheless.
I’ve been reading loads of books this month. There was so much I wanted to say about them, but I’ve tried to keep it brief, and to resist the temptation to get bogged down in technicalities. My aim for these monthly updates is to keep them below 2,000 words, ideally somewhere in the region of about 1,500. Anyway, this one’s still too long. Next time I’ll get it right.
Summer not only has nicer weather, but it’s the midpoint of the year — a place from which to reflect on the first half of the year, and to plan for the second half. For me, this means starting work on a new novel. My aim is to write three novels in three years, one a year. This is feasible as I’ve already completed the first novel, and done all the necessary research, world building, and shaping the main character for the next two.
Meanwhile, it’s been a bit strange commuting into London lately. The commuter traffic is about 45 to 50% of the pre-pandemic level. It feels like it’s gradually building up though. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to commuting on crowded trains again. That’s something I didn’t miss during the lockdown.
After reading Brave New World I was struck by the relationship between politics and speculative fiction. As fiction it’s able to explore difficult subjects in an oblique way, much like comedy and satire. Speculative fiction conjures up imaginary worlds that aren’t real, even if they do feel authentic. It offers a contemplative space to explore scenarios and outcomes.
The range of genre options available to speculative fiction writers includes historical fiction, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Thematically and tonally, these options make speculative fiction a useful mirror to examine ideas about human nature, society, cultural change, and other contemporary concerns.
Starship Troopers was written as a warning about the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but it could well be about contemporary authoritarianism. Speculative fiction is also capable of zooming in on a character or pulling out to reveal the bigger politics surrounding them. In Dune and John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, characters battle for power in a Machiavellian game of influence and control. Fights between characters are framed by an overarching history and a larger political dimension. Politics is messy. Ideals are corrupted. Hopes become lies. The Fremen’s struggle for liberation in Dune turns out to be ironic. Their emancipation morphs into yet another repressive power structure.
One of the recurring themes that connects different strands of speculative fiction (especially in its dystopian form) is the scenario of individual repression. Brave New World, 1984, THX 1138, and The Handmaid’s Tale are classic examples of this. They depict societies where individuality and diversity of thought are a heresy. The system is eroding the population’s common humanity.
Another popular theme in speculative fiction is the impact of cultural change. This may occur in the form of shifting geo-political power, economic growth and decline, ethnic division, population displacement, environmental change, technological change, economic change, shifting attitudes and norms about sexuality, and changes in ethical behaviour. Foundation (1951) and A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), for example, are two Cold War era novels that deal with change on vast timescales. They examine fears that mirror US notions about cultural decline and the hope of a future rebirth.
Speculative fiction often deals with worlds that represent aspects of heaven and hell. Paradise worlds are celebrations of the ideal, and of human enlightenment. Hellish worlds are warnings about corruptive powers and megalomania. In some ways, they are political manifestos representing the hopes and fears of both the writer and reader. The promise of paradise worlds are often revealed to be an illusion. Nightmare worlds provide other functions besides acting as warnings. They increase the dramatic opportunities available to the storyteller. They also help to reveal the true nature of the characters within those worlds. Harsh conditions may expose deeply negative traits, such as a lack of empathy or a desire for power. Adversity and hardship can also bring out the best in characters, demonstrating altruism and an ability to cohere.
A story can be enjoyed on different levels but, I think that it’s fair to say, it’s only possible to fully appreciate a novel when the author’s intentions are understood. Take Gulliver’s Travels, for example. It’s fine as a kooky fantasy, but it’s elevated to a different level when it’s appreciated as a satire of Eighteenth Century European politics.
With this in mind, I’ve just re-read Brave New World. It’s not a novel I’ve previously liked. Now I realise why I had such an ambivalent attitude about it. I didn’t really understand what Aldous Huxley was doing. I was expecting an exciting sci-fi genre story, when it’s actually a highly intellectual novel with literary, philosophical, and political ambitions. The story serves those ambitions, rather than an action-based plot.
Brave New World is part satire, part parody, and part pastiche. If I had to narrow it down, I’d probably call it a pastiche of the socialist utopia, intermeshed with a satirical take on American consumerism.
In 1984, people are controlled by fear and propaganda. In Brave New World the population is genetically modified (although the novel predates the discovery of DNA), indoctrinated by ideology, distracted by pleasure and drugs. It’s fascism with MDMA.
The issue with both these stories, I think, is the dramatic sacrifice they make for the sake of didacticism. That’s why they feel strangely wooden and, in my opinion, why no one has managed make a decent film out of them.
After winning a nine-year war, the World State in Brave New World has purged the old world through mass-executions and cultural cleansing. Now, children are taught ‘elementary class consciousness’. They are manufactured and brainwashed like factory products.
The scenario is the paradise world that comes with a heavy price. Everything appears to work smoothly in this future world, but it’s turned society into a factory farm. This post-family, post-marriage society is a place where motherhood and childbirth are considered barbaric and disgusting, and most women are made sterile (a comment on the cult of youth). Meanwhile, the lower classes are manufactured lab monsters, reduced to a zombie-like, lobotomised state to happily carry out manual work.
Is it better than 1984? That’s a tricky one. Maybe.
I’ve read mixed reviews about the Dune sequels. Having read Children of Dune (1976) (I skipped Dune Messiah) my feeling is that it’s a worthy successor, but not as gripping as the first novel.
Frank Herbert’s Dune, the TV adaptation from 2000 was pretty ropey, but the sequel, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, is surprisingly okay. The special effects are much better (it’s amazing how fast CGI improved in the 00s). Everything about this mini-series is a huge improvement over its predecessor, even the spice-blue eyes have been sorted out.
Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson’s Legends of Dune trilogy: Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (2002), Dune: The Machine Crusade (2003), Dune: The Battle of Corrin (2004) has also had mixed reviews. It’s written in a different style to Frank Herbert’s original trilogy — less literary, more of a mainstream ‘blockbuster style’.
Why is it interesting? The trilogy is (apparently) based on Frank Herbert’s notes. It’s a prequel that takes place about 10,000 years before the first Dune novel. It explains why there are no advanced robots in the Dune world. There were robots with advanced AI but a war took place between the humans and the machines. As a result, technology has deliberately progressed without ‘thinking machines’.
I thought that it would be useful for my writing to read some military fiction, mostly to see how other people do the action sequences. So, I’ve read a couple of Andy McNab novels. Immediate Action (1995), which does the training-to-battle story, and Bravo Two Zero (1993), which is the impossible mission that, well… turns out to be impossible. The result is a heroic tragedy, a record of human endurance (for both the protagonist and the reader, because half of the book is an extended torture scene).
Immediate Action is a coming-of-age novel as well as a military fiction genre story, which gives it more depth. I liked the way that the main character’s military experience is contextualised at the end of each chapter with his emotional development and the state of his marriage. Out of the two novels Immediate Action definitely feels like the better book.
As for the action, it turns out that it’s the stuff around the action that makes the action more compelling.
Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Turned on the West is a remarkable piece of research that comes at you at full pelt with its information-dense narrative. A change of pace now and again would have been welcome.
Catherine Belton was the Financial Times’ Moscow correspondent from 2007 to 2013. Putin’s People was published in 2020 and it was named 2020’s book of the year by The Economist, the Financial Times, the New Statesman, and The Telegraph. The book chronicles how the KGB realised that the Soviet Union would break apart a decade before it actually did. They planned to maintain their power in a post-USSR world by harnessing the ‘invisible economy’ (criminal elements working with state security services, outside of normal business processes). It was the same model they used during the Cold War as part of their state espionage activities.
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that the USSR wasn’t technically beaten by the US in the Cold War. Yeltsin, as President of Russia (along with the President of Ukraine, and the President of Belarus) proclaimed independence from the USSR, thus usurping Gorbachev’s power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The sudden dissolution of the USSR turned out to be a bad thing for ordinary Russians. Russia went from being an authoritarian Communist state to an authoritarian kleptocracy with its own neo-tsar. The end of the USSR was followed by chaos and economic hardship. Hard-line KGB communists suddenly embraced Orthodox Christianity, crony capitalism and personal self-enrichment, while also using the ‘invisible economy’ to finance social division in the West (who they falsely blamed for the end of the USSR). The West felt that it had made assurances not to expand NATO to the Soviet Union and not the independent states that came after it. Many of today’s problems stem from the circumstances surrounding the sudden dissolution of the USSR which occurred without adequate long-term provisions for issues such as the status of Crimea.
It’s easy to be morally smug and to point fingers, but the US was happy to befriend Yeltsin in-spite of his corruption. Tony Blair was all-in on opening up British financial institutions to the new Russian money, knowing exactly where the money had come from, and the British courts (which tend to favour the rich and powerful) have been used to harass and pursue the enemies of Russia’s post-Soviet power elite.
As if one depressing book about post-USSR Russia wasn’t enough, I’ve read Luke Harding’s 2020 Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West. It focuses on Russia’s relationship with Trump. This is written in a more story-like, character-based way that’s less of a fact-fest than Putin’s People.
The book gets a bit bogged down in the nitty-gritty of US politics, but it offers an interesting insight into how the Russian state security system works, and the probable nature of its relationship with Trump.
After reading these books, I’m beginning to wonder how much of Russian culture, and its relationship with the West is geo-politically inevitable, destined by the country’s vast size, the low population density of Siberia, and its location between Europe and the far East. It’s easy to forget that Imperial Russia and the USSR were basically the same empire, albeit with different political systems and leaderships. It was an empire that colonised the land adjacent to it, setting up how Russian leaders still perceive their neighbours, and the world around them.
Apple TV has released a new Foundation trailer for the forthcoming Foundation series. The series is adapted from Isaac Asimov’s 1951 novel. The aesthetics have been given the future-history gloss, ancient Egypt among other things, with suitably elaborate costumes and interior designs. The production has clearly benefited from a healthy budget. I’m not a huge fan of Asimov’s novel, but this TV series looks promising. It has Jared Harris in it, which is a bonus — he was brilliant in Mad Men and The Expanse.