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Part of knowing where you are coming from as a writer is the art of joining up all the dots. You look at writers like Ray Bradbury and wonder who he has influenced, whether the pensee style in The Martian Chronicles is no more. Is there a writer nowadays that bridges American contemporary and European writing styles? This is what Bradbury did, for awhile. This is a long way from British writers being required to change their English for American markets and American writers doing zip all when it comes back our way. That’s a generalisation and I am mainly thinking of television here and some publishing houses. I know many a writer on both sides of the Atlantic scratching their heads over a pavement and sidewalk – they are not the same, the share similar functions but our archaic laws about where we can walk, when we can walk, how we can walk is a far cry from the bustling NY sidewalk. However, back to that missing style link, or joining up the dots. Who took the crown of the New Wave? Now, you could argue here that New Wave gave way to cyberpunk, steampunk and post cyberpunk. I remember being in an interview and a poet told me that New Wave wasn’t that important nowadays, not after William Gibson et al. I always love how poets have opinions on areas they don’t read, it became clear quickly that he knew little about New Wave but in their defense, neither did I at that point, I was new to the area. I knew a hell of a lot about cyberpunk, I’d grown up with it, it was something whispered from the arcades to the earliest computer games, to the first dial up, the implications, the fears, the demise of what makes us human. Nature, the decline ice shelves, the rise in catastrophic weather events, temperatures, desertification etc was all forgotten because frankly a new wave of tech was here. We rolled with the times and the markets but climate change never went away. The minute we started to burn coal we changed our planet. We changed what it meant to be human. You see, by the time cyberpunk came along, we had ditched long ago how we defined our lives and we were forced into the industrial revolution mould. We still today refer to ourselves as a cog in a machine, a small part within a wider company, one person against the world; this is the language of coal and sadly the time to make repairs has passed. This week in the press, Russian towns and villages south of the Artic circle are reporting higher activity of polar bears in their backyards as their natural habitat melts; these poor, sad, hungry bears are being forced further and further into conurbations and meeting people with rifles. Though it is illegal to kill them, few people would say anything if it was for protection; what happens in a village, stays in a village. Desertification continues unchecked and we see modern writers, such as, Paolo Bacigalupi tackle this in The Water Knife. Yet, this novel is a thriller by any other means, a good thriller, a corporate thriller, small people within the machine fighting it but in the end contributing to it but climate change is largely a backdrop to corruption and greed in this novel. It captures elements around climate change but not always the cultural impact, he keeps his protagonists moving but there is no nostalgia for a past lost. That is a key element in climate change, Bill McKibben points to the nostalgia of the Earth rise photo from the Apollo mission, this is how we still see Earth and with rising algae in our seas, it will get bluer but the land won’t get any greener.
I want to be able to draw a throughline from Kate Wilhelm who explores this form of nostalgia, a world gone, a world half remembered to me, from John Brunner’s anger at culture to me, from George Turner’s record of the rising sea to me. I want to see how their ideas, how cultural fears, global science impacts on the writer, I am looking for contemporary fears, fears that rob us of society but leaves echoes of it in what has been left behind. The crap we leave. For the coal age we see this in slag hills that dominate villages and towns around the North. For cyberpunk we see it in the way we discard technology in landfill. Now, I can see Kim Stanley Robinson in the 1980s being an important throughline for the New Wave but then it seems to fall flat in the 1990s – any recommendations welcome but we have to admit in an age of plenty, which the 90s was, the age of fear is pushed to the back of the shelf. Even the Y2K fear was never really a fear, more a joke. Then I came across Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.
Most stories that deliver the apocalypse tend to focus on the how and whys but in this text Mandel shows that those that survive only know the name of their downfall, a swine flu called the Georgian Flu. After that the clocks are reset, the year returns to zero and we put together those that survived the night the world fell silent. Therein lies the power of the landscape in this book, towns that rise out of petrol stations and airports were people at the end were marooned. An echo of nostalgia. Twenty years after the end we meet them, the one percent that lived and discover the horror of how they survived. It is the beauty of nature that underpins the novel, bushes give way to birch, birch to forests and picking their way through the roads of the old world is the travelling symphony. It is a beautiful book that laments a world gone and hopes for a better world to come. It shows that in the end we are subject to the rule of nature, and that nature does balance the books if we overstep the mark. I am attracted to Mandel because many speculative novels denote a future of technology and superiority but the novelist shows how easy this can be taken away. This collapse is something I am interested in when discussing climate change fiction. Consider displacement and how that can lead to conditions that spread disease, dissent and violence. Consider how your phone hates the cold, deplores the heat and how batteries, electric cabling and plastic cannot tolerate these extremes. You start to consider a future that is less Star Trek and more Z for Zachariah. This is why writers read, I can see a link to the 1980s Robinson but now have to find someone in the 90s and noughties who took this up too.