Tag Archives: fiction

A Novel for the Long Now

Imagine that we wanted our descendants to persist for 10,000 years. How could we help that to happen? This question motivates most of the research on resilience, as well as initiatives such as Clock of the Long Now < http://www.longnow.org/> and policy-oriented initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment <http://www.MAweb.org>. Many insights about resilience have come from research on native cultures, such as an influential volume by Berkes, Colding and Folke on Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, and many other works cited in this blog and in the journal Ecology and Society.

In Girl With Skirt of Stars, Jennifer Kitchell draws a sharp contrast between modern society and a culture that has occupied the southwest of North America for thousands of years.

Lilli Chischilly is a Navajo lawyer with a full brief of problems. Someone arranged mutilated carcasses of sibling coyotes on the hood of her battered Dodge pickup truck – no doubt a message, but of what?. Her old flame has returned to Indian Country, yet somehow he is connected to an inexplicable murder. Then she is assigned to escort a powerful politician through the Grand Canyon for a publicity stunt – obviously a set-up for a hydropower dam in a national landmark that will drown sites sacred to her people. In the shadowy background a mysterious sniper, motivated by a century-old massacre, stalks the politician. This meticulously-crafted debut novel weaves Navajo ethnography, sexual tension, political power, and the beauty of Grand Canyon country into a fast-paced story. Kitchell’s voice is confident, reflecting her deep knowledge of Navajo culture and the physical beauty of the Southwestern US.  The novel’s ending foreshadows more stories to come. I’m eager to read them.

At one moment in the novel, Lilli brings the politician into an ancient cave with petrographs that hold the key to a culture that can last for ten millennia. Will it be drowned by the dam? This encounter with deep-time resilience is the key to the novel, and perhaps the key to human persistence through the current environmental crisis.

This novel is fun to read. It evokes questions that are central to resilience thinking. It will appeal to students who are interested in natural history, ancient cultures, and connections of native people to modern life. Once you open it you will read it all the way through.

Ian McEwan’s climate change novel

Bestselling, and Booker prize winning novelist, Ian McEwan talks about his forthcoming novel on climate change in McEwan’s novel take on climate change:

“It took me a long time to find a way into this subject – I’ve been thinking about it for a number of years,” he says. “And then I spent some time in the Arctic, with a group of artists and scientists; we were living on a boat that was frozen in a fjord. One of the things that struck me about that was there was a sort of boot room, and one of the iron rules of this boat was we had to take off all our outer clothing – boots, goggles, balaclava, skidoo suits – and over the week, the chaos of this boot room grew more and more intense.”

These eminent inhabitants of the Cape Farewell project’s vessel the Noorderlicht began to decline into a kind of genteel chaos. Someone mislaid his boots and, not wishing to delay the departure of a party itching to head out on an exploration, grabbed the nearest pair of a similar size he could find. A domino-effect of similar “borrowings” ensued. Good people, McEwan wrote at the Time (this was March 2005), were impelled to take what was not their own: “With the eighth Commandment broken, the social contract is ruptured too. No one is behaving particularly badly, and certainly everybody is being, in the immediate circumstances, entirely rational, but by the third day, the boot room is a wasteland of broken dreams.”

“I thought ‘well, this is a highly self-selected group of climate change people’,” he says now. “In the evenings we were discussing how to save the planet, and a few feet away through a bulkhead was this utter chaos! And I thought ‘that’s perfect, that’s the human angle on this that I want’. If one thinks of literature and novels in particular as investigations of human nature, then human nature suddenly became at the centre of our problem about climate change: that we’re sort of cooperative but selfish, we’re not used to thinking in long-term eras beyond our own lifespans or immediate spans of interest.

“So I devised a character into whom I poured many, many faults. He’s devious, he lies, he’s predatory in relation to women; he steadily gets fatter through the novel. He’s a sort of planet, I guess. He makes endless reforming decisions about himself: Rio, Kyoto-type assertions of future virtue that lead nowhere.”

Ballard and architecture

Noted science fiction author J.G. Ballard died April 19, 2009. on Omnivoracious Geoff Manaugh, of BLDG BLOG, offers an architectural appreciation – Between the Tower and the Parking Lot: A Spatial Appreciation of J.G. Ballard:

J.G. Ballard, who died on Sunday at the age of 78, leaves behind far more than his status as a “cult author,” science fiction novelist, or agent provocateur. Although most of his novels are still all but impossible to find in the U.S., I would argue that Ballard is one of the most important writers on architecture in the last century. But what do I mean by architecture, and why would that be the source of much of his works’ continued relevance?

Ballard is best known for his look at the erotic nature of car accidents (Crash) and his semi-autobiographical account of a childhood spent in a Japanese internship camp during the Second World War (Empire of the Sun), but it’s also worth looking at the settings of his less well-known novels: the architectural structures and urban landscapes in which they take place. Among other things, what makes Ballard’s fiction so spatially valuable is that he explores the psychological implications of everyday non-places–like parking lots, high-rise apartment towers, highway embankments, shopping malls, well-policed corporate enclaves, and even British suburbia–without resorting to the flippant condemnation one might expect. Instead, Ballard describes these spaces in terms of their effects: how they mutate and rearrange the mental lives of their inhabitants.

It’s as if these buildings, malls, empty plazas, and parking lots do, in fact, inspire a new type of humanity–as modernism’s high priests once predicted–but Ballard shows that what they are bringing into existence is something altogether darker and unexpected. In other words, our contemporary built landscape has not ushered in the enlightened utopia once promised by Le Corbusier, for instance, with his isolated towers, or by Mies van der Rohe with his unornamented glass boxes. Instead, there is a slow-burning psychopathy here, a dementia inspired by space itself. Architecture becomes a kind of psychological Manhattan Project, so to speak: a vast, poorly supervised experiment in which new species of human personality are incubated.

At its best, Ballard’s work is a devastating and original contribution to architectural thought, articulating the often sinister impacts of our built environment with a sense of humor, and an aphoristic memorability, that is all too lacking in contemporary fiction and architectural criticism alike.