Fiction reviews

fiction dynamiteFed up with facts? Had it up to here with theory? Here's a whole bunch of made-up stuff that's a whole lot realer than most non-fiction. So, all you armchair anarchists, sit back and put your feet up and enjoy the vicarious pleasure of readin' about wrenchin' with our very own patented monkeywrench ratings system.

A Friend of the Earth, by TC Boyle

(Bloomsbury, 2000) ISBN 0-7475-5346-7

This is a great book. Set in the California of 2025, it is the story of Ty Tierwater, a former mad dog militant of the (very thinly disguised!) "Earth Forever!" movement, now tending a bedraggled 'ark' of endangered species assembled by his fabulously wealthy and somewhat eccentric rock star employer. Ty muses on his chequered past on "the unravelling edge of the disaffected fringe", his bewitching EF! organiser ex-wife, and the extinction of his daughter in 2001 after an iconic three year tree-sit (she's infinitely cooler than the dappy Julia Butterfly, by the way.)

 

It's little more than 20 years into the future, but society is already beginning to buckle as titanic downpours alternate with scourging dust storms, and virulent plagues cut a swathe through the human population. The roof of the world has been blown off and nature as we know it has effectively perished, literally smashed to smithereens. Boyle is very strong on the profound turmoil of dwelling in a world that has turned on us, no longer nurturing or even dependable - where insecurity is writ large. Here our collective power has indeed transformed the world, but into purgatory and not into paradise, rendering us ultimately powerless. I pray that he's wrong, but if the climate change feedback mechanisms kick in quicker than is currently anticipated... uh oh.[1] Reading this book this so-called winter, I cast an anxious eye about me. At times, the promise of an early spring flower or of the migrant heralds of summer seemed tragically to be turned on its head: less a foretaste of renewal than a sign of foreboding.

To continue in this morbid vein for a moment, A Friend of the Earth in some ways is about the death of hope. Tierwater is coming to terms with the debilities of old age, vanquished dreams and the loss of vigour, as well as the unbearably bitter taste of failure in his efforts to avert the apocalypse (which claimed the life of his daughter into the bargain). His shortcomings aren't glossed over either - he's a man with some serious 'issues'. When asked by an old timber industry stooge what he had achieved: "the answer is on my lips like a fleck of something so rank and acidic you just have to spit it out: 'Nothing,' I say. 'Absolutely nothing.'" Will Tierwater's story be ours, his past our present?

But I've made the book sound a lot more despairing than it actually is. It is also about the way in which hope endures and adapts, perhaps even triumphs - "the force of life undenied and lived right on down to the last tooth in the last head". It ends with Tierwater and his ex making a new life out of the wreckage, high up in the Sierra Nevada - as he wryly puts it, "For the first time in a long time I feel something approaching optimism, or at least a decline in the gradient of pessimism."

It's a tale beautifully told too - chock full of nifty turns of phrase, very funny throwaway asides and some passages that simply shine. Descriptions of the (relatively) intact natural world of the novel's past are unsentimental yet vibrant, sharpening the pang of its loss. And as for Tierwater's monkeywrenching capers, here's a flavour:

"And what were the terms of his parole? To remain within the city limits of Los Angeles, to report to his parole officer once a week, to protest nothing, demonstrate against nothing, abjure all tree-huggers and spikers, and above all to steer clear of illegal activity of any kind. No extracurricular activities. No night-work. No monkeywrenching. The judge made that abundantly clear.

Yes. Well, fuck the judge."

  1. For some really depressing reading on this subject, see the recent report of the US National Academy of Sciences ('Goodbye cruel world' by Jeremy Rifkin in The Guardian 1/3/02). If this is correct, there seem to be only two sensible options (and editing a bloody 'radical' publication is not one of them!): what you might call the 'Sarah Connor school' (from the film Terminator 2), or the 'Rappoport response' - "While I could I drank, I ate, I made love" (from the song 'I Never Gave Up' by Chumbawamba.)

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Sick Puppy, by Carl Hiaasen

(Macmillan, 2000) ISBN 0-333-78607-6

One of my fellow editors couldn't quite see the funny side of Sick Puppy, but then he's a humourless bugger anyway. Carl Hiaasen is actually a bit of a star. He is renowned for his work as a muckraker, exposing the breathtakingly sleazy pond life who rule the "swamp of teeming greed known as Florida". (These people are also responsible for foisting Bush the great baboon on an undeserving world, if you recall.) Leaving the state to their tender mercies is like "sneaking out the back door on a dying friend", and he even took on old Uncle Walt the Human Popsicle in 1998s Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World. You've got to be pretty brave to fuck with the Mouse down in the Magic Kingdom. Strangely, for a native Floridian who cares passionately for his vandalised patch, the attempts to convey its natural glories in Sick Puppy fall mostly flat. But his hatred is undoubtedly sharp, savaging the development cabal with sassy razor-edged quips that come thick and fast.

The plot concerns freelance eco-nut Twilly Spree (unbalanced, but in a good way) who can't help but wreak "unambiguous vengeance" on moronic jet-skiers who wing pelicans with beer cans, or drunken slobs who've been out fly-tipping toxic waste of an evening. After stalking litter lout government lobbyist Palmer Stoat (who has just bagged a geriatric black rhino on a private game reserve), he gets embroiled in fighting Stoat's latest shady deal. In conjunction with a cash-rich young entrepreneur involved in the "import-export business", Stoat seeks to ruin the untouched Toad Island by turning it into yet another monstrous golf resort and condominium complex. Building to a satisfying and highly amusing climax, the bad guys finally get their comeuppance thanks to a "narcoleptic pachyderm" and the timely intervention of a "dog ex machina".

Hiaasen has a finely developed sense of the absurd (he needs it), and nowhere is this more evident than in the cast of larger than life, flamboyantly grotesque supporting characters. There's the Eastern European "models" who are becoming Barbie Doll clones for a fix of rhino horn powder; Mr. Gash, the hitman with a penchant for iguana skin corsets and (hysterical) 999 call snuff tapes (they help him to unwind, you see); the engineer on a one-man jihad against nature, after an unfortunate, intimate encounter with a chipmunk as a boy. Best of all, however, is Clinton Tyree, memorably described as "Grizzly Adams on PCP". He has a glass eye and pirate style twin-pronged beard (with matching buzzard beaks), wears a plastic shower cap, a kilt made out of a racing flag, and a fetching Chihuahua-pelt vest "for special occasions". He is one of the all time great eco-warrior (sorry) heroes, right up there with The Monkeywrench Gang's equally demented and implacable George Washington Hayduke.

Another highlight of the book is the absolutely priceless exchange between Twilly Spree and the "anger management counsellor" (ugh) who has been assigned to him after he burnt down his uncle's bank. (As Tyree says: "For Christ's sake, what about greed management? Everybody in this state should get a course in that. You fail, they haul your sorry ass to the border and throw you out of Florida.") Sadly, it's too long to quote here, but it should be made required reading for all peddlers of pseudo-positivity - preferably by branding it inside their eyelids. "Anger is an energy", as a mouthy old has-been used to scream.

Tyree again: "That's what we were put here for, to stay pissed off... Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it's the only sane and logical and moral reaction. Jesus, you don't take a class to make it go away! You take a drink or a goddamn bullet. Or you stand and fight the bastards." Word up!

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Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson

(Harper Collins, 1998) ISBN 0-00-649703-9

On first reading Antarctica left me cold - now I'm not so sure. As befits this immense and inscrutable continent its narrative is panoramic, a kaleidoscope of overlapping and sometimes clashing perspectives. According to Robinson, in Antarctica the body of the world "has been stripped to the skeleton", leaving a wilderness that is more physical than biological, intensely inimical to life. It is also the "landscape of our imagination" - a paragon of unsullied and inalienable purity. As true Terra Nullis, the Empty Quarter, it derives its presence from our absence. This sanctity was enshrined (at least on paper) by the Antarctic Treaty, and designation as the 'continent for science' confirmed its exceptional, otherworldly status, free of national sovereignty, private property and commercial exploitation. But in the near future of the book, the Treaty is going the way of the rapidly disappearing ice. As debt-ravaged Southern nations begin to explore for oil and gas, Antarctica is becoming the "outermost edge" of the global battle against "Gotterdammerung capitalism". Into the fray steps the highly clandestine "ecotage internationale", enraged by this trashing of the last straw, the pollution of an ideal.

Although their well-orchestrated assault on the oil wells is the pivotal event of the novel, the ecoteurs are relatively peripheral to its themes. Robinson has more philosophical intentions. 'Knowledge' is still Antarctica's main export, and there are good insights into the tortuous workings of the scientific factory floor, with the 'dynamicist' geologists poring obsessively over fossilised leaf litter and the orientation of pebbles, busy turning objects into facts in the biting cold. Their radical thesis - a defrosted ice cap 3 million years ago - is simultaneously one in the eye for their bitter 'stabilist' rivals and a cautionary message for today's climatic catastrophe. One character argues that science is a "utopian project", and even that it is capitalism's last great nemesis - personally I remain to be convinced! Another - engaged in whacked out research into the neutrinos which arc down from the North Pole - says that "the whole project of science is backwards, the more you understand something the less it moves you, my goal now is to reverse that, to do anti-science, to know less, to understand less and thus feel it all more". Now you're talking! Feng shui geomancer Ta Shu advises that "we must learn this Earth... as scientist and lover wrapped together in one. The loverknower" - striving to attain the first explorers' experience of "being-in the-world".

Antarctica is crammed with the literally staggering exploits of these early explorers, like Birdie Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard's (!) magnificently pointless Worst Journey in the World (1911): tracking down Emperor penguin eggs in the depths of winter and thereby failing to prove a barmy theory, while very nearly dying in the attempt. This is a place where even the humdrum can become heroic - such as struggling to fix the plumbing at the South Pole at 60 below. These guys are "the first Antarcticans", the continent's "only shared culture", because it has "so little human history that what happened at the start still overshadows all."

Mountain guide Valerie leads groups on "In the Footsteps of..." enactments of these first expeditions. Her clients subject themselves to rewound Antarctican hardship, its "pure existentialism" acting as a counterweight to lives of comfortable ennui and an era in which Adventure seems to have been exhausted. 'Those who have no future are condemned to repeat the past' (itself another finite resource), but it's a past with the edges smoothed off, remixed: GPS-assisted, designer kit-clad, a chopper ride out of here only a phone call away. They even end up recreating earlier recreations. But it suddenly takes on real, hair-raising meaning when a crevasse claims their sledge and the ecoteurs cut their communication link to civilisation - now the Footsteps are too close for comfort.

Valerie's group are rescued by a hitherto unknown community who have gone 'feral' on the ice, moved by their desire to "become indigenous to this place" with a new way of life that is an eclectic mix of high and low tech. Back home at the American research station of McMurdo the oil well bombings and the dissolution of the Treaty have triggered a crisis. Antarctica cannot go on as before, and the challenge its people now face is that which confronts the entire world - how to sidestep disaster. Guided by the ferals' spirit of "sacred-inhabitation" and Ta Shu's mystical warblings, the people of McMurdo draw up a sort of Declaration of Independence ('we hold these rocks to be self-evident...'). With this, the first stirring of a true Antarctican culture, what was Terra Nullis at last becomes "Terra Communis". (Of course, such a noble gesture wouldn't be complete without fudging at least one tricky practical question - in this case the issue of oil exploration is neatly deferred.)

On their long trek to safety, Valerie had reflected on the pleasure of "movement as the rhythm of her thoughts", the conjunction of mind, body and place that the ferals call being "the land's human expression" - or what another Robinson describes as 'taking the perfect step'.[1] Such metaphysical sentiments sound especially pretentious when summarised like this, and they sure aren't much use as a political programme, but ultimately they're what it's all about: the only way to get from A to B.

  1. Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage by Tim Robinson (Viking, 1986), p.12

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Road Rage, by Ruth Rendell

(Arrow, 1998) ISBN 0-09-947061-6

Road Rage is pedestrian - a diabolically dull book. On the strength of this it is really hard to see where Rendell got her reputation from. Dustjacket quotes like; "The most brilliant mystery novelist of our time" can only come from a top secret blurb factory which churns out empty praise by the yard, or because all reviewers are dosed with Prozac. For an alleged thriller Road Rage is strangely subdued and lacking in narrative tension, being about as suspenseful as a stopped clock. It's very difficult to care what happens to paper thin characters, but even Chief Inspector Wexford - who Rendell has had the chance to flesh out over a long series of novels - seems to be barely there. Special mention must be made of animal rights lunatic Brendan Royall, who has "the eyes of the fanatic", with "eyebrows like animal fur" and a "harsh, haranguing" voice - shame she forgot the bit about the twirling moustache and the defenceless maiden lashed to the railroad tracks. He's such a beastly unfeeling people-hater that his previous form consists entirely of hardcore liberations of caged birds from pet shops.

Written shortly after Newbury, Fairmile and Manchester Airport, Road Rage has a protest against the 'Kingsmarkham Bypass' coming to Wexford's beat in the well-known county of "Mid-Sussex" (Grrrr.)[1] Mainstream organisations are united in opposition, there's some endangered small things, a large respectable rally is held à la Newbury and tree camps are set up. Then a supposed breakaway faction called Sacred Globe kidnap five hostages (including the Chief Inspector's wife, who has campaigned against the road) and threaten to execute them if the bypass isn't stopped. Wexford and his fellow plods bumble cluelessly about targeting Brendan the reeking red herring, a hostage dies, there's a twist in the tail, 'dramatic' finale, case closed, The End.

Road Rage's badness is particularly irritating because it is the only one of the novels reviewed here that represents our own experience. Presumably we made good topical fodder to be slotted in to Rendell's usual formula, as well as being usefully photogenic for the inevitable TV adaptation. Her understanding seems to come from a Chief Inspector of Suffolk Police, who undoubtedly gave her very deep insights into the anti-roads movement. There's no cultural or political context here at all, no nuance, the protesters cardboard cutouts straight out of Central Casting, a curious race of medieval revivalists known as the "Tree People" who appear as if by magic. (If anything they're not distinctively nutty enough!) She has no idea of the subtle tensions that run through campaigns - e.g. between the "masked raiders" who smash up the developers' office and Kingsmarkham High Street shops, and others who are only too ready to grass up "anarchists". One of the latter had once been imprisoned for sabotaging a nuclear power station, but now is "only in favour of peaceful [sic] resistance" - following a tour of the Sizewell nuclear plant, where "he was so impressed he completely changed his tune." She's not even very good at conveying the apolitical but heartfelt passions of 'normal' local people - from ex-Tories contemplating bombings at Twyford, to country ladies on the verge of clobbering security with their Chanel handbags at Newbury. In keeping with the lifeless feel of the book, even Wexford is blandly in support of the protesters' aims if not their means - in true 'My daughter's a vegetarian' fashion. An attempted hatchet job on 'scrounging crusty scum' would at least have been more entertaining.

Still, the secretary of the "Mid-Sussex Wildlife Trust" is spot on when he says: "Can't keep things simple, people always have to have a lot of internecine squabbles; one little thing they don't agree with and they're off forming a collective of their own. Give me animals every time."

  1. OK, there is a "Brede Valley" in Sussex, it's very nice and would have been ruined by the Hastings bypass last year. But there is no "Pomfret Monachorum", a ludicrously out-of-place name. What does she think we are, West Country yokels?!

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The Rape of the Rose, by Glyn Hughes

(Penguin, 1989) ISBN 0-14-007422-8

The Rape of the Rose vividly evokes the tempestuous world of the Luddites: the original - and still the best - Monkeywrench Gang. From the famous abortive attack on Rawfolds' Mill to the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval, the English (pre) working class is fighting for its right to life in the spring of 1812. Mor Greave, a self-taught weaver in the Yorkshire village of Lady Well, eagerly awaits Mayday, when from "the combing shops, public houses, meeting places of Combinations and illegal debating societies... would flow a mighty river southwards to 'o'er topple t'Guvernment'." He longs for "a keyhole in the black prison of his life... to see how vast and golden it was beyond". After fleeing an ambush at Ladywell's Paradise Mills, he falls in love with Mary, 'painted lady', occasional informant and all-round tealeaf. Together they travel to Oldham, where Mary leads a cabbage-lobbing food riot, and they participate in the mob-handed sacking of a mill owner's mansion. Of course, it all eventually ends in tears (sort of), but then that's what revolutions are for.

As with most great revolts, Luddism sprang into being for all kinds of reasons. The 'croppers' - the aristocracy of woollen labour - were resisting the imminent obsolescence of their particular trade. Export earnings from textiles had been devastated by Napoleonic embargoes, and owners were making sure their workers felt the pinch. But it was also more than this, a real turning point, part of a grander narrative: communities with a rich social fabric of solidarity, autonomy and conviviality, in a last ditch battle against being herded into the factories. These communities were by no means perfect, but they did at least have the freedom to work only "as they willed or thought best". As one writer observed of the 'Leicester stocking knitters' for instance, "Each had a garden, a barrel of home-brewed ale, a weekday suit of clothes and one for Sundays, and plenty of leisure."[1] Greave is clinging on to this dear life, dreamily surveying the moors as he works on his loom at home. His wife and children aren't so lucky, having been trapped by debt bondage into Paradise Mills; the expulsion from Eden is made explicit by its gateway, which depicts Adam and Eve, and then "on the inner flanks of the posts, our forefathers slunk into exile - into the mill." This isn't just of historical interest either - it's an ongoing process. It started here, an internal colonisation, a dry run: "Yorkshire, too, was a frontier", as one of the soldiers reflects. The Wild West (which is to say, naked exploitation, land grab, gun law and native genocide), is no longer to be found in America but has shifted to Brazil.

Hughes excels at conjuring up the now almost unimaginable brutality of the factory and the workhouse - as well as those snatched moments of release that are all the more precious because of the horror that surrounds them. He gives us a glimpse into a country swarming with millenarian sects, who, being teetotal, steer well clear of the dodgy pubs where the "teasel-collectors, leech-gatherers, weed-pickers, stone-wallers, moor-guides and broggers" hang out. There's more than a touch of the Gothic to The Rape of the Rose too. The mill owner's father is locked in the attic, an unspeakable spectre rotting away from syphilis - like a picture of Dorian Gray for the new capitalist class, mirroring its corruption. (Happily, his son is starting to go the same way.) And I can't finish without mentioning the loveable Wrigley, "a young man incapable of treating life as other than a joke. He was joining the Luddites because to upset the masters appealed to his sense of humour."

  1. Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale (Quartet, 1996) p.36

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Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson

(Penguin, 1997) ISBN 0-14-027038-8

Zodiac is the story of Sangamon Taylor, chemistry nerd, nitrous oxide fiend and proud owner of a considerable attitude. A bit like our friend Wrigley, Sangamor Taylor (ST) has "a sense of irony that rules his life" and makes it "impossible for him to use his considerable brains in any kind of serious job". But he's got it pretty good really - he's employed by the Group of Environmental Extremists (GEE) to "threaten the boards of directors of major corporations... [and] go scuba diving through raw sewage" on off days, plugging outflow pipes as a "plumber missionary". While out on the eponymous inflatable inspecting the many "shit-greased sphincters" of Boston Harbour, he stumbles across a new form of pollution, one which could mean the extinction of all marine life.

It's an exciting ride, even allowing for plot holes you could drive an oil tanker through, and the very silly Satanist metal heads who occupy a waste dump in the middle of the Harbour. Zodiac is peppered with great one-liners and some blinding action sequences - as when ST is frantically paddling for shore, in a hurricane and under fire from a helicopter gunship, all while tripping his tits off. On the debit side, it suffers from the same failings as Stephenson's nanotech masterpiece The Diamond Age: steaming great gobbets of exposition served up raw, in scratchy blackboard "So, Professor..." style. I'm still none the wiser about the nature of benzene rings, even after he helpfully compares them to a plastic six-pack holder - but then maybe I'm just thick.

He does however raise the very interesting question: What if all-American know-how did manage to come up with a techno-fix that actually works? Could capitalism be self-correcting? The consequences for ST's sense of self-worth - and for his highly specialised niche in capitalist society - are nicely explored: "Maybe I was the only one who was supposed to be a hero... If [they] found a perfect way to clean up toxics... where would it leave me? Left behind and worthless." Is he using 'the world' as therapy, its woes for his own edification as "the ecoprophet"?

Far and away the biggest problem with the book is ST's weird, resolutely liberal faith in the media as a neutral tool for righting wrongs. The depth of his cynicism regarding the law and political processes is only matched by his naivety about the media. The abject failure of the Environmental Protection Agency has created a gap in the market for "laissez faire justice", with GEE as unofficial enforcers of the EPA's own regulations. Their pipe-plugging is indeed a direct intervention against pollution, but its primary purpose is to "rain media death upon the bad guys" - 'naming and shaming' the evildoers through the media's court of public opinion, the only court that can still be relied upon.

This begs a lot of questions. Why are certain chemicals produced, in a particular way? The companies aren't doing it for the 'good of their health' (especially not when they run the risk of being demonised by ST and friends). Who makes the laws to govern their activities, and then fails to enforce the (intentionally low) limits anyway? Why do "toxic criminals have it easy" and GEE get arrested? Who owns the media, feeds them with stories and supplies advertising revenue?[1] How jaded are journalists? If the media do actually bother to whip up a public storm, how can that feeling find a political outlet if the legislative process is rotten to the core? All you can do - at best - is pick off and destroy individual companies. If the demand is still there, another bastard will be along in a minute - that's not much of a deterrent effect.[2] Media coverage is simply irrelevant if people face the structurally-imposed dilemma of slow death or quick poverty: for example, post-1989, many Poles have opposed closure of polluting industries because they "prefer being poisoned... to losing their jobs".[3] As ST observes of the refugees fishing for toxic flatfish in Boston Harbour, "these people were worried about kwashiorkor [malnutrition] not cancer". Here, increased awareness of your predicament is nothing more than a tormenting itch that you just can't scratch.

As much as he embraces the media, ST adamantly eschews those "terrorists" who don't play GEE's game - like Hank Boone, a dead ringer for - and partial smear on - Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson. But one gets the feeling that, for all his protestations of peacefulness, ST is secretly titillated by the whole idea of violence - talking terrorism is like talking dirty. Boone's bad behaviour seems to be associated with the time he's spent with innately "less principled" European outfits, and Stephenson indulges in some outrageous American chauvinism. The Boston Tea Party was the "birthplace of the direct-action campaign", which Americans invented of course, rather than just marketed. Even worse, ST disses Europe as "dirty everywhere... nobody has idealism, nobody gives a shit when you expose a toxic criminal." Bare-faced cheek! Stone-throwing from the world's biggest glasshouse, I think..

  1. See Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (Common Courage Press, 1995)
  2. See 'Stopping the Industrial Hydra: Revolution Against the Megamachine' by George Bradford in Fifth Estate.
  3. 'Going West - Market Reform and the Environment in Eastern Europe' by Roger Manser in The Ecologist, January 1994, (p.29)

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