The Old Man and The Boy service an off shore wind farm out in the North Sea, way beyond being able to see land. They live on a platform (I imagine Sealand) and their view is just the sea and various generations of decaying turbines. As one turbine dies, they cannibalise its parts to repair others. The Boy is there to replace his father who broke his contract. The Old Man has always been there. They are serviced by a quarterly supply boat whose master runs a black market trading racket. He trades the lagan and jetsam that the Old Man is able to fish up from the seabed in return for the supplies that might stretch the lifespan of the turbines.
There is no beginning and no end. The Boy and the Old Man have no past life; they have no future. There is no boundary to the wind farm and the sea. There is no hint of anyone who might benefit from the wind farm.
The Boy and the Old Man are suspicious of each other. With just one another for company - and the creaks and grand and bangs of the plant as it is ravaged by the sea - they try to live independent lives despite being mutually dependent on one another. They care for each other and they hate each other.
Bizarrely, this reminded me of the vast cattle stations in Australia, remote and isolated, farmers living in grinding poverty to supply a wealthy nation that they seldom see with their meat. And inevitably - probably intentionally - it reminded me of The Old Man and The Sea. Almost nothing happens, just the battle between man and nature that nature always wins. And then, there were also shades of the final scenes of The Truman Show as Truman sails for a shoreline he doesn't even believe exists.
The book is short, the writing is spare and stylised. But despite the bleakness, there is a warmth in the writing that keeps the reader engaged. Through the boredom and drudgery and backbiting we see genuine affection that the odd couple feel for one another. We see that some of the mutual suspicion and prying might have come from good hearts.
The novel is interleaved with occasional fragments from a past when Doggerland was dry land, inhabited by people who could never have imagined the horror of the grey, windswept sea. It is never clear whether these snippets were long ago and the sea is the present day, or whether the land is the present day and the sea is the future we all face.
Either way, it has made me feel that we all owe a greater gratitude to those who endure hardship to support the comfortable lives that many of us lead.
Doggerland is a short novel, but one that leaves a deep impression.
The Last was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Set in a hotel in Switzerland, a mixed bag of staff and guests find themselves survivors of a nuclear holocaust that seems to have wiped out the rest of the world. When the initial tweets and news stories started to circulate, many of the guests fled for the airport. Those left behind were the ones who had nothing to flee for.
Jon Keller is an American academic who was at the hotel for a history conference. His fellow delegates left but Jon, an uber-rationalist, saw no point in fleeing. The roads would be jammed, the planes would be grounded. Why run?
So we have a fairly standard post-apocalyptic story where people consume their way through a dwindling supply of food and clean water in the hope that a better plan might come to mind. Instead of a better plan, they find a dead body. Despite the entire planet now consisting of dead bodies, Jon decides to pass the time by playing Miss Marple, interviewing everyone and searching their rooms. Armageddon affects people in different ways: some become leaders, some become whingers. Jon becomes a securocrat.
There's a standard fare of journeys out into the wilderness, raiding ransacked supermarkets, fighting off predators and such. There are unlikely friendships, amusing animosities. The supporting cast conveniently includes a doctor, a head of security, a desk clerk who understands the record keeping. There's a rapist and a feminist, a Japanese family with young children... It's all a bit like a 1970s disaster movie but without the nuns. Oh, and with occasional use of mobile phones.
At points, the plot becomes impenetrable. The pacing seems wonky, there are moments when people seem to behave with great irrationality. There are enough loose ends to run at least six sequels. It should be corny, but somehow it manages to be fun. I suspect the thing that holds it all together is the pomposity of Jon, recording everything in a self-serving tone of spurious even-handedness - for posterity - and imagining what the fellow survivors really think of him busy bodying around and playing detective while they focus on the future of humanity.
The Water Cure is set on an island in a post-apocalyptic near future. Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky live in a health spa hotel with their mother and King, their stepfather. Their guests are all damaged women, seeking cures from the sun and radiation and other horrors of the mainland. The radiation has not reached the island, offering the family a refuge from the horrors of the real world.
And one day King dies. And three men arrive from the mainland. And mother disappears.
This feels like a transposition of a 19th Century Irish manners novel into another era. The sisters might as well have been living in the big house, an Anglo-Irish family refusing to fraternise with the servants and sheltering from the growing rebellion outside the gates. The girls are expected to engage in all sorts of treatments and cures - the rituals and manners of the aristocracy - to protect them from the coarseness of the men in the fields. Then, in the season of their debut, they are expected to transform from children into wives.
And just like the manners novels, we find ourselves thrown into a maelstrom of sibling rivalry; we find the blend of excitement and terror at being cut loose into adulthood; we find power games between young women and red blooded men.
For the first section, before the men arrive, the narration switches often between Lia and Grace - with some sections narrated in third person - and it is intriguing. This, to be fair, is the time when it still seemed we were in a dystopian future and the novel was to be about the world that had been created rather than a character study supposed to reflect a universal and severe family. Then, when the men show up, the pace changes and the line between fantasy/dream and reality blurs. The narrative focus shifts only occasionally and the pace slows to a crawl - ironically since the characters seem to do a lot of running around for its own sake. There is a really repetitive feel; it is stated over and over again that the sisters must not touch the men for fear of contamination, yet still they are driven to touch. By the end of this section, it is no longer terribly clear what is happening at all; there are violent thoughts and violent acts but it feels pretty directionless. The ending is the pretty much inevitable conclusion that everything has been slowly working up to.
I am sure some people will like this book. Read at a simplistic level, it could be taken as a battle of the sexes. The isolation of the women could be seen as a uber-feminist kind of utopia - except that the women don't seem happy with it and still live under the shadow of King. And I am sure some readers will be able to find a climate change angle to fit with their world view. Maybe I wilfully read this to fit in with my fascination with Irish politics. So maybe it is a bit of a universal truth template just waiting for readers to overlay their own personal agenda.
The trouble is, as a template it is probably a bit of an imperfect, forced fit. And in its own rights, it is all a bit confusing and unevenly paced.
All The Galaxies is a strange and hypnotic blend of four stories that cross and merge and unmerge again.
First, there is Scotland in the near future. Following a second independence referendum (which we presume Scotland lost), law and order has broken down in The Horrors, but strong city state governments have emerged from the remnants of local councils. Within Greater Glasgow, control is being reasserted, the internet has been restored and the leader of the sinister Wardens movement, Wee Lawrence, is in Barlinnie. Oh, and Rangers FC (or should that be Sevco) is no more – so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Second, there is the story of John Fallon, a news editor in the fictional Mercury newspaper. Originally from England, he has landed up in Glasgow, his wife long gone and contact with his adult son Roland about to evaporate. He and his crew try to provide objectivity and sense from the chaos, all the while lurching from bar to bar, extending one night stands for as long as they will go, living in debauched squalor.
Thirdly, there is the story of Fallon’s son Roland, remembering life in Tyrdale as a child, holidays to the Scottish islands and drunken student parties.
And finally, there is a boy, Tarka, travelling the heavens with his spirit-guide dog Kim.
The novel is really well constructed, balancing the elements carefully – no mean feat considering the multiple points of view and the strangeness of some of the subject matter. And the fourth narrative in the heavens is very strange indeed – no longer bound by the laws of physics, time, location or society. No dog lover could read this section without falling for Kim, the wise, kind, loyal and talkative border terrier (though whoever thought a cover picture of a dead dog would sell a book needs professional help).
My favourite story, though, is the Scottish dystopia. Knowing Glasgow helps – particularly the immediate environs of George Square and Kelvingrove. But knowing Scottish politics – and Northern Ireland’s recent history from which so many of the novel’s scenes have been borrowed – probably helps even more. And the great thing is that unlike typical fictional dystopias, we are not on the verge of the end of the world; we haven’t seen the collapse of the system; we haven’t descended into savage people roaming through smouldering embers in search of canned food. It is a plausible situation where commerce continues, communications remain in place, people travel and work and socialise, and Glasgow City Council officials seize the power they have spent their entire careers envying. And goodness me, Philip Miller must have spent some time in the “cube” of City Chambers to have been able to evoke it so accurately.
If there is a criticism, it is that the plot does not always live up to the stellar settings and descriptions. Only Tarka is allowed a personality that develops; the other characters have to be taken as found. Fallon’s life, in particular, is not always fascinating and the intrigue involving the journalists and the council was perhaps a little too murky and ended up a little too unresolved. In fact, the ending as a whole felt a bit of a let-down after much promise.
But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent novel that will make the reader think about the ephemerality of life, the importance of love and friendship, the machinery of government, and astral dogs.
By Ting Mikyunyu
MADDADDAM is the last in the Oryx and Crake trilogy.
It is set during the year following the “waterless flood”, the disease engineered by Crake to wipe out humanity. The flood left behind isolated human groups and individuals that begin to find each other. Not all of them are as ‘good’ as the few surviving God’s Gardeners. The ‘ungood’ are a trio of ‘Painballers’ - killer criminals who survived the ultimate penalty of the justice system.
The most important group of survivors are the Crakers, the humanlike beings engineered by Crake to replace the human race. Unfortunately, the Crakers are ill-equipped to handle evil, having been created without any understanding of wrongness and without fear. They are - at least for now - naked, vegetarian, having an unusual mating habit, a natural insect repellent, and a unique vocal structure that allows them to purr (for healing purposes) and to sing. They can also speak.
This novel gathers together all the separate threads from ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’. The technique for this is storytelling, as in the stories told by Toby, a God’s Gardener, to the Crakers, after an incident that draws the two groups together for mutual support. As they learn to cooperate in a rapidly disintegrating environment, they soon realise that they cannot continue much longer without assistance. The Painballers are an approaching threat. With the telepathic, interpretive skills of the Crakers, Pigoons (a species created by splicing human intelligence into pigs brains) become a cooperating partner.
The storytelling of Toby (a middle-aged woman) becomes less prominent as the action intervenes. As a technique it could have been boring but Atwood writes it in a unique way, so effective that from it we learn a great deal about the Crakers without them having to utter a word. An example of the beginning of a Toby story:
MaddAddam is a fitting finale to this trilogy. Atwood’s imagination remains at peak level to the conclusion. Her similes continue to astound. Her sense of colour continues to enhance our imagination. Her humour and wit remain unabated. Her predictions of what is to come - what is almost upon us - are as horrifyingly plausible as ever.