Read It, August 2015

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Natures End by Whitley Strieber

It is Tuesday, the first of September. This morning I stopped at a diner for breakfast and while eating their sad, tasteless version of biscuits and gravy, I finished reading (actually, re-reading) Nature’s End by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka. Technically I did not finish this book in August, but I finished it before 9 a.m. the first day in September, so bite me, I’m counting it as an August book.

I could not recall much details of this book, but as I re-read it, I recalled certain scenes and elements that are still vivid thirty years later. The book is a novel, told in multiple first-person narrative. This narrative technique is tricky and risks leaving the reader alienated, as she fails to make the jump each time the narrative voice changes. The writing is technically competent for the most part, but I do feel that the narrative characters are not quite vivid enough to make this technique work well. This is in part because the book is choppy and episodic, broken into very short chapters, so we don’t spend enough time with each character to really get to know his or her voice.

The narrative chapters are interspersed with short chapters consisting entirely of clips from news media. The formal innovation here is that the first few are real excerpts (or seemingly real excerpts — I have not tried looking them up) from news sources, dated pre-1985. Then the sequence of news clippings continues smoothly into extrapolated, fictional news reports on a similar theme: for example, deforestation.

This is moderately convincing even when it is obvious that a cited source is fictional. Of course the difficulty is that in reading this book in 2015, thirty years after it was written, we know that 1985’s future did not play out as described in that future passed by. The book’s argument is that the forces contributing to “nature’s end” would go exponential in their destructive power over that period. While the curves may indeed be exponential and we do indeed have terrifying anthropogenic global warming occurring now, the time window between then and now is probably too small for the curves to really look exponential.

Given that reality these days is plenty terrifying enough this fear-mongering now seems like weak tea. But this doesn’t make up the whole of the book. The book is especially good when it becomes less polemical and the authors just put together an engaging showing-not-telling action sequence. There are several of these. They include a description of a life-threatening smog event in Denver, a narrow escape from a massive forest fire in the Brazilian rainforest, the description of a dust storm destroying a farm in Iowa. Put these together with a plot involving a political hit on a demagogue promoting mass suicide, and a somewhat cliched ending involving an Island of Doctor Moreau scenario with altered animals and spiritually uplifted, gifted, altered, damaged children, and you’ve got a book that is definitely flawed, definitely a product of the “day after” scaremongering of the era that was happening as the cold war wound down, but is still interesting and, maybe, might motivate a reader to study what really happened, and is happening, in both nature and culture.

I’m going to propose that the New York Review Books Classics series adopt this book and bring it back into print, perhaps along with Warday, which I also intend to re-read soon. Flawed though it is, I think it deserves to be read.

The Stainless Steel Rat, Aurora, and Black Swan Green, Concluded

I also finished the first Stainless Steel Rat book. It is in fact quite short, and pretty blatantly sets up the sequels. I’ll pick up the next one at some point. I don’t feel that I need to rush. I enjoyed this book and it is clear that it was very influential on a generation of writers, particularly screenwriters, but the science fiction aspects just haven’t worn that well, and I enjoyed Harrison’s parody novel Bill, the Galactic Hero more.

I also finished Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. I would have liked to squeeze in another book, but four doesn’t seem to bad, even though The Stainless Steel Rat was quite short. My work schedule is easing up a little bit, as we are winding down the process of developing large quantities of new code and in a phase of bug fixes and applying spit and polish to our alpha 2 release. Things will ramp up again for a beta phase, so I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to read very much in September, but I’ll do what I can. A friend loaned me The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edumnd de Waal. I’ve only read a few pages, but it looks to be a very compelling work of non-fiction. My car is stuffed with more books, begging me to read them. But now, off to work again…

Saginaw and/or Ann Arbor, Michigan
August 24, 2015

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