Monday, 7 May 2012

News from Gardenia - spoilers! (don't read this blog unless you've already read the book)

This book has got under my skin. I'm not sure why. There's plenty to like (and Bobby is so lovely I was predisposed to like his book anyway). As he promised me on twitter, there aren't any sex scenes as such - although a sexual relationship does feature (it's just that the actual love-making isn't described - a welcome change from that particular toe-curling feature in ALL his previous books).

The novel is written in the first person and, while the central character isn't Robert (obviously) - he's younger for one thing - I can't help seeing Gavin as his creator (and of course the audiobook cannot but strengthen the association). He's a sympathetic character certainly, but perhaps a bit of a cipher: the necessary provision of our era's perspective on the future of 200 years in the future.

I thought it an interesting decision that Gavin isn't a parent (less of a wrench to be leaving his 21st century life?) and has a seemingly problematic relationship with his wife. Is it unfair of me to find it slightly predictable that Gavin so quickly finds a woman who wants to have sex with him - and to have his baby?  Overall I wasn't keen on this 'utopian' vision of relationships between men and women - devoid of one-to-one commitment (it seemed). Although at least Robert does have it both ways - mentioning that not everyone in Gardenia lives in such communities, that some still live in smaller houses. I shouldn't feel so threatened by this - it's certainly true that even in our era there are quite a range of arrangements.

The route from 'here' to 'there' is attempted -  via the history book Gavin is given to read - and it seems that utopia has only come about as a result of some fairly horrendous dystopian intermediate steps! In particular the shockingly fascist and eugenic population control through sterilisation of less intelligent males. So, the move towards reducing the world's population can only be envisaged as taking place due to something as morally repugnant as that!?! That's such a high price! Does the end justify the means? I am not persuaded. (On the other hand, I like the fact that Robert keeps his history 'dirty' and rough around the edges - more believable in a way I suppose)

Similarly, democracy is sacrificed as a step towards this utopia of no government, no police, no laws (why does this need to be a feature of utopia? Why anarchy?? There is some crime, we are told, but nothing like as much, and no prisons -  just small secure living places for those who commit such acts.No hospitals, although advanced forms of medicine are available locally, and most people live healthy long lives. And (of course?) there's no money. Free and plentiful energy has been harnessed from renewable sources (mainly the sun). and there's lots of recycling being done - not least the reclamation of the metal and plastic previously used (and thrown away) by us - the previous generations. But (as in certain Star Trek episodes) there is a growing lack of specialist knowledge to be able to maintain the advanced technology being enjoyed. But this is a recognised problem (albeit one not being tackled) and there's a sophisticated awareness, on the part of the New Gardenian citizens, that 'this too will pass'.  (Jules Verne's TIme Machine story springs to mind - a story I only really know via the 1960 film -  with its soft surface dwellers of the far future, but  - in the case of New Gardenia - no underground trolls)

London has disappeared - flooded by the rising sea level. That seems logical. I was, however, not so sure about the well established forests. They are there, I assume, as a way of combatting excess carbon; and also as a natural consequence of no longer having grazing animals. But would the forests have had time to grow to maturity? It would mean that vast replanting would be having to start very soon! (I think there is an explicit mention of such a programme at one point). Why are nationwide subways better than surface tracks? Is it just a case of freeing up more land for cultivation? The exclusion of personal units of autonomous transport (ie cars) seems fine however.

How much land would be needed to feed everyone, on such a micro level (with no big specialist farms? just lots of small community gardens everywhere?) Specialism no longer exists - everyone (in Gardenia anyway) has to do their own share of the growing. It goes so much against the grain - to abandon specialisation (baby with bathwater?) and - in jettisoning commercialism and industrialisation, to take out all forms of trading. Just goes to show that one person's utopia (based on the prime objective of sustainability) is another person's polemical powder-keg. I am left thinking about what I would hate in such a world.

It's a world without television, without films (in Gardenia at least). No-one consumes entertainment, or makes such entertainment. (a child does mention watching old films - and 'the book' seems to provide access to lots of information, in a similar way to the internet, and also provides the means of communication, in place of phones. email etc.). I did love the depiction of these 'books'

There's a tiny bit of art - the sketching done by one character - on old fashioned paper with (presumably) old-fashioned pencils - both of these made where and by whom? (and there are digital paintings on the wall). No mention of novel writing / fiction or poetry. The clothes - made where and by whom? No possessions (so no temptation to steal....apparently). Very much the world of 'Imagine' by John Lennon - in Gardenia at any rate. Not sure I'm quite so optimistic about human nature in even in such a non-stress environment.

I could accept that the eating of meat had vanished (it's certainly a less efficient way of generating nutrition for the same amount of land).

I very much liked that the world is shown as remaining varied. Gardenia is not the only system - and Gavin has a whistle-stop tour (a slight but handy plot device to have Gavin visit the descendents of his wife and her second husband), visiting some other major cities where the system of money is still used (with a vicious remnant of America as an unpleasant sounding state which we don't visit but hear about - with an hint that it's a whites-only enclave.)

Loose ends - the games (themed on particle physics) are never explained, which I found somewhat frustrating. And of course the VERY annoying ending! It sets up for a sequel - there jolly well better be a sequel!

It's easy enough to take pot-shots at anyone's vision of the future. I am aware that Mr L has spent a lot longer researching and thinking about this than I ever have. But I don't necessarily think I therefore have to agree with everything he's put in the novel - it is designed to be polemical I think. It certainly engages and stimulates and challenges. Indeed, I am left wondering why some of the ideas bother me SO much? Says more about me and my assumptions than anything else!

Whatever really does happen in the end, there will be much that just 'happens' rather than being planned. Like evolution itself, there is an element of blindness and chance. Hopefully we will stumble upon things that help and things that work - things that prove useful and 'fit' for survival. We already work outside and beyond strict biological evolution (a great deal of medical intervention could be viewed as bucking that cold hard logic) and we are rightly warned about applying evolution as an analogy to non-biological systems, such as societal 'evolution'....But what I'm getting at is the impossibilty of one great big coherent plan being actioned with no wrinkles or quirks. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to action some plans - try to work on the problems we already know about. But there are bound to be bumps and kinks along the way.

That's one thing I particularly like about the book - it's a utopia which still has fallibility and rough edges.

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