Saturday, 12 October 2013

Not with a bang but with a whimper

Full of Good Intentions in response to helpful comments by Steve Bloom and William Connolley, I spent three hours this morning digesting Chapter 13 (draft) of the AR5 on Sea Level Rise.

What was most helpful about my critics' comments was that I had been reminded that if you want to say something useful, you have to stay up with the game. I've been out of the arena of GW and GW discussion for some time and have forgotten much and misremembered more. 

So, following my own personal interests and alert to my new-found ignorance, I chugged through the chapter with full intention of finding something to say and blogging it here. Which I probably will, later.

But in the interim I've been diverted by a sideline which I feel certainly deserves a mention. Thanks to dialogue on RealClimate (sidebar link) and via email, I got to thinking about one of the best books I have ever read. And I have read a lot of books.

It isn't a book about climate change or global warming. It isn't strictly science fiction, nor truly easily fitted into any particular genre, but it is profound, affecting, literate and relevant.

From his own website, I have borrowed the following:

This Is the Way the World Ends

Finalist, Nebula Award
John Campbell Award 
BBC Critic's Choice (Best SF

In 1995, George Paxton is an ordinary American living an ordinary life in an ordinary town. Content as a tombstone carver and family man, George lacks only one thing: a fashionable "scopas" survival suit--complete with sanitary facilities and a Colt.45--to protect his daughter in the event of nuclear war.
Then, through a twist of fate, George secures the coveted suit, a deluxe golden model, for the price of a mere signature. Unfortunately, what he signs proves to be a diabolical pact affirming his complicity in the escalating arms race, and as the war that could never happen happens, George is whisked into the past and the future to face the consequences of his actions.

Morrow's own comment is most pertinent here:

At first blush, a critic might bracket This Is the Way the World Ends with other post-holocaust fiction. From Alas, Babylon through A Canticle for Leibowitz to Riddley Walker, this genre has commonly styled itself an avatar of hope. My goal lay elsewhere. I began with the assumption that most people would prefer to exercise hope before the warheads arrive. I wanted to speak for victims, not celebrate survivors.

Even the most elaborate nuclear exchange would probably fail to extinguish Homo sapiens. Some of us will muddle through. In This Is the Way the World Ends, though, I decided to use self-extinction as a metaphor for the legions who won't make it. It's all very well to valorize our species's undoubted resilience, but a mass grave is hardly a fit monument to such sentiments.

Reading Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth., I was particularly impressed by one line: "The right vantage point from which to view a holocaust is that of a corpse." It struck me that most nuclear-war fiction is really a kind of pornography, inviting us to identify with winners while the losers, the corpses, drop away. So how might a novelist assume the vantage point of the dead? Through recourse, I reasoned, to the tools of speculative fiction. Eventually I hit upon the conceit of "the unadmitted," the generations whose births were canceled by the extinction. I gave them flesh and a temporary lease on life.

Reprinted from SFWA Bulletin

How good is this book? Here are two critics' assessments:

"This Is the Way the World Ends begins where Dr. Strangelove ends. It is a tale told from the other side of the grave--quite literally from the point of view of the dead--and what makes it so wonderful is not merely that it is informed about how and why the world may end, but because throughout it remains a true tale, rich in narrative and moral complexity, magically inventive and comic ... This Is the Way the World Ends defies genre. It is science fiction the way Gulliver's Travels is science fiction, fantasy the way John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights is fantasy, satire in the way George Orwell's 1984 is satire. It is also profoundly and grimly comic in the way Thomas Berger's novels are comic. Which is only to say that This Is the Way the World Ends is a unique mix of science fiction, satire, fantasy, and comedy--a gorgeously crafted and insanely funny tale about mortal and ghostly matters. It is a fable for our times, yes, but (except in a few of the too-lengthy trial sections) rarely moralistic or heavy-handed ... James Morrow is an original--stylistically ingenious, savagely funny, always unpredictable. He has written a story of the way and the why of our dear and foolish world--its sources of life and of death--that is utterly dazzling and memorable."

Jay Neugeboren
Philadelphia Inquirer

"Add to this scenario great suspense, fast action, a complex and sympathetic protagonist, and unrestrained black comedy, and the result is a wonderfully surreal novel worthy of comparison with the best political satire of this century ... Everyone should read this book: pacifists, moderates, militarists, and especially the uncommitted."

John A. Zurlo

Forth Worth Star-Telegram

The relevance comes from transposition. Morrow places his protagonist in a position where he is judged by future generations, both living and never born (the 'future dead') for his shared complicity in failing to prevent disaster to befall the planet, for thinking of himself first and not considering the consequences of his choices.

I am sure an intelligent reader can draw the obvious comparisons for herself.

I don't need to advise you to read and digest. The process of reading alone will guarantee that you will think about lots of things, not least how brilliant Morrow is.
Please, read the book.