The problem with Ruined Earth Novels

In this weekend’s special holiday issue of the New York Times Book Review, I review Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep.

As a novelist, Robert Harris has the gift of immersing readers in an unfamiliar milieu, and thrilling them with the subsequent emotional, physical and ethical challenges faced by the protagonist as he (and it is always he) navigates mounting obstacles to a supposedly routine task — and, in the process, unearths unexpected truths.

Those who are familiar with such classic Harris historical thrillers as “Imperium” will, then, settle into the opening pages of “The Second Sleep” alert for clues. April 1468: The arrogant, newly ordained Christopher Fairfax is journeying to the remote Wessex village of Addicott St. George to perform a burial service, that of the village’s priest, Father Lacy. The reader nods knowingly as the bishop of Exeter instructs Fairfax to be quick about the trip and to use utmost discretion. As the young priest and his ancient mare plod through the gray, mist-sodden landscape, his arrogance turns to uneasiness. And as clues flick past — the emerald flash of a parakeet, a church that has “stood square on this land for at least a thousand years, more likely fifteen hundred” — we begin to share that unease.

You should probably go read the rest now for the rest of this post to make sense.

I’ve enjoyed many Harris novels—I particularly admire his Cicero trilogy, starting with Imperium—but  for me The Second Sleep does not succeed. Parts of it are fine—Harris is really good at putting his characters in their landscape—but it’s all in service of a shoddy overall narrative arc. It feels like a tourist’s attempt at a Ruined Earth novel that collapses both from illogical and inconsistent world-building, and the inability to escape the event horizon of the essential ruined-earth premise.

Before we go any further, let’s have some definitions. For me (others differ slightly) a classic ruined-earth novel is science fiction set on this planet generations after a civilisation-wrecking disaster such as nuclear holocaust, technological collapse, and/or climate disaster. The apocalyptic event/s occurred so far in the narrative past that the present-day citizens are unaware of that past, or have largely forgotten how it was; often, they have mythologised that previous era, and demonised its citizens’ dependence upon or affinity for science and technology. This shunning of science and technology is enforced either explicitly by the ruling religious class, or implicitly by cultural taboo. This usually means culture has regressed to a relatively primitive agrarian society, including a return to rigid hierarchies of class, gender, race, and so on.

This definition excludes all kinds of post-apocalyptic fiction such as McCarthy’s The Road (the apocalypse is too recent; ditto Mandel’s Station Eleven), Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (not set on this planet) and Stevenson’s Seveneves (no shunning of technology). is not a ruined-earth novel because it’s not set on this planet. Always Coming Home by Le Guin does not fit my definition because the Kesh use technology (and also because I’m not entirely sure it’s a novel, but that’s whole other conversation). Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake also doesn’t fit because there’s no shunning of technology. Suzy Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles are an interesting case but in the end I’d say they don’t quite fit the bill because there’s not much tech to shun, and no religious/cultural taboo regarding its use and/or artefacts.

In my definition, the essential premise of a classic ruined-earth novel is conflict between those who want to recover old technologies, and those who wish to suppress it for fear of it precipitating another apocaplypse. Classic examples include Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. They are all great books in their own way, but none entirely succeed in escaping the gravitational pull of the ruined-earth premise. To be fair, I’m not sure it’s possible to escape it, not possible to resolve the constant tension between an orderly system and its inevitable collapse into disorder. It’s like trying to banish entropy.

A good ruined-earth novel is easy to set up, and a good writer can sustain it for quite a while, harvesting all sorts of luscious fruit along the way, but eventually the author is faced with a decision: Is their character’s society going to remain disordered/ignorant (that is, is the author going to sidestep the premise), or will it begin to rise towards order again, in which case what will prevent it collapsing again as soon as enough order is achieved to enable fantastically dangerous weapons/climate change/reliance on massively complex interconnected systems? As far as I’m aware, no one has found an answer to that, especially if enough was lost in that initial catastrophe that memory of the mistakes that led to it evaporated along with the technology. Leigh Brackett’s novel is one of the best: flat-out brilliant until the last quarter where it crushes itself flat trying to squeeze through the seam between mid-century gender constraints and the second law of thermodynamics. Miller simply repeats endless cycles of growth and destruction. Hoban avoids deciding by dodging the question and walking away. And Wyndham cheats by suddenly widening the available world to include another society so far away that it may as well be another planet. All of these books, though, are worth reading.

The Second Sleep, in my opinion, is not. (And now you really should go read the review.) The more closely you look at it, the less it makes sense. How can a society build itself from nothing to 18th-century levels of technology without the natural resources that were thoroughly depleted in the run-up to the initial collapse? It can’t. Well, you might say, they could salvage all the metal lying around. Well, no, they couldn’t—entropy, remember? (This is where Hoban’s Ridley Walker fails, too.) All those metals will oxidise and corrode. The soil is degraded. The wildlife extinct. The seed crop initially available would have been reliant upon fertilisers no longer produced. Also, 18th-century technology even then was largely dependent on global trade—which no longer exists. And how come all the populations of our actual 18th-century that actually existed but (that our actual 18th-century novels ignored)—people of colour, women with minds, disabled people, queer people, people of various religions—vanish in this new society? I could go on—and I haven’t even mentioned the plot holes, or character inconsistencies.

The Second Sleep, then, is just the latest failure in a long line of failed ruined-earth genre set in the future. But how about a ruined-earth novel set in the past? It might be an interesting intellectual exercise to argue it’s been done before, a lot: all those Matter of Britain novels in which ,after the collapse of civilisation—that is, the Fall of Rome—Arthur and his Camelot are the last redoubt of civilisation and its technologies (literacy, law, stone architecture, roads, money, etc.) fighting off the encroaching barbarism of invading Anglo-Saxons. (Ignore the fact that both the Fall of Rome and Anglo-Saxon invasions are concepts rather frowned upon these days by historians.) To the degree that these novels succeed, it is because the conflict between technology and barbarism is tackled head-on in the form of clashing armies, and neither side wholly loses: the seeds of technological rebirth are sown in the decades of peace Arthur creates between invading waves, and though Britain moves forward speaking the barbaric English tongue rather than civilised Latin, we all know civilisation will flower again—as embodied in the guise of magical sword Excalibur and Arthur and his knights sleeping somewhere beneath the fair hill. Hope, in the end, is the Once and Future King. And hope is what The Second Sleep lacks.

Holiday greetings from Charlie and George

A Christmas card, in pale yellow with a dark red border. The top two-thirds is a photo of two tabby cats sitting with attentive expressions next to a miniature Christmas tree and wrapped presents. The lower portion is hand-printed text that reads, "Charlie and George listened patiently to what the mice wanted for Christmas, and then they ate them."

Image description: Front face of a Christmas card, in pale yellow with a dark red border. The top two-thirds is a photo of two tabby cats sitting with attentive expressions next to a miniature Christmas tree and wrapped presents. The lower portion is hand-printed text that reads, “Charlie and George listened patiently to what the mice wanted for Christmas, and then they ate them.”


Edited to add:

Since I posted the card on social media three hours ago I’ve had several comments/questions on both the image and the caption, so here are some answers.

Image

The image is a Photoshop composite. Judging from questions and comments I’ve had, many seem to think that the cats themselves are digitally messed with. They’re not. Here’s the original photo

Getting the picture was a mix of luck and persistence. I’ve been thinking about this card for about a month. I knew what the caption would be, but for it to work I needed them to be sitting together and facing the camera. A vaguely bored look would be a bonus. So day after day I stalked them with the camera, and finally about ten days ago, just after breakfast, got this. I was particularly pleased with George’s pose, especially the paws.

I was going to crop it to a rectangle to take out the platform on the right, then give Charlie a little red Santa hat and George a miniature tree by his paws. But the composition felt off. So I restored the original square and started again. First I put a Christmas tree on the right hand platform. I’m not exactly a photo-manipulation expert so this took some figuring out: find the stock image, abstract the image, size it, put it in the right place, figure out how to put in shadow and make it look as though it was sinking into the carpet covering. But eventually I did figure it out. At which point I realised the colour needed balancing with something on the other side. I tried hanging a Christmas stocking from Charlie’s platform but then it looked weirdly symmetrical. In the end I decided on a couple of little presents. Again, I had to find the image, abstract, resize, place, add shadow, add sinking-into-carpet. Yep, that would work.

What followed then was endless futzing with colour balancing, adding a purple frame, changing colour of the frame to match the Christmas baubles, deciding how big a box I needed for the text, changing the colour of that box, etc.

I did all this using a variety of apps on my iPad (with Pencil) and Mac desktop: Photoshop, Photoshop Fix, and the Apple Photos app. Then I had to write the caption.

Caption

I’ve known for a month exactly what the caption should say because around this time every year I think of a holiday card my good friend (and ex) Carol sent me from the UK, starring a cat called Buster. All that I retain of that card is a black and white photocopy of the front with no copyright info. I don’t know who originated either photo or caption. But the basic idea stuck in my head, and every now and again I do a desultory search based on that that old image. A TinEye reverse image search returns a variety of images of the original cat, but no copyright information. And I’ve found this site, with something very like the card, but not quite. A search for the original text brings me several products for sale based on reimaginings of the original (e.g. Etsy, CafePress) but all differently copyrighted. I’m pretty sure the original photo is by Kat Caverley, but the basic sentiment of the caption seems to be some kind of meme.

And that’s as much as I knew until earlier today, when I learnt from a Facebook conversation with Eric Cline that the meme goes back at least to Mark Twain, via Weinstein and Albrecht’s Jonathan Seagull Chicken (in which a chickens’ good friend, including Mark Twain and Moses) throw him a banquet, and then eat him, for, dear readers “…isn’t that just what a chicken is for?”), and probably a zillion other repurposings. We decided that is is an example of the kind of classical SFnal reversal parodied so effectively by Douglas Adams in the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Aaaaanyway, seeing as I wasn’t using Caverley’s photo, and the caption idea is a meme, I felt pretty secure about my card. Now I just had to figure out how to do it. I wanted the caption to look handwritten. I experimented with a few fonts but none of them looked right. In the end I just opened the photo app on my iPad and wrote the text with my Pencil, then then finalised everything in Photoshop.

So there you have it: a simple card that took about ten hours to make. If you want to use it, feel free: just click on the image for a larger version, and download. Enjoy!

 

Kitten report #10: The evolving disability consciousness of Charlie and George [photo, video]

Today is International Day of Persons With Disabilities.

The annual observance of the International Day of Disabled Persons was proclaimed in 1992 by United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/3. It aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.

It seems like a good day to discuss the evolving disability consciousness of Charlie and George. Disability consciousness, like grief, follows stages.

When they first arrived in our lives in August, their initial assumption was that, as it was inconvenient that I couldn’t run around with bits of string for them to chase, my impairments must all be in my head. Therefore they would encourage me to realise this, and so cure myself. After conferring it was decided to take away my mobility aids and so force me to walk. They tore out the brake cable from my Rollator. They were disappointed when instead of a miraculous healing they faced roars of outrage.

Being cats, they skipped the pain and guilt stage and moved into another variety of denial: there was nothing wrong with me; they just wouldn’t see my disability. When they (particularly Charlie, in the initial stages of his brain-injury blindness) kept crashing into the invisible Rollator and being nearly crushed under the wheels of my non-existent chair, they decided they’d better acknowledge my impairments after all.

At which point they declared “Mobility aids are awesome and fun! We wish we had to use them!” This translated into several weeks of leaping onto the Rollator and expecting me to cackle with glee and hurtle round the house at speed for a thrill ride.

Two tabby kittens sitting on a blue Rollator, waiting for a ride

Charlie: Drive, James!
George: And don’t spare the horses.
Charlie: Let’s just eat the horses.

That got old fast, at which point they turned bitter and resentful: “Why me? Why is my mom a crip? It’s not fair!” And they took it out on my mobility aids: they chewed on the wheelchair tires (fortunately solid rather than air-filled) and then various bits of the Rollator:

Close-up of black, hard-foam back rest pitted with tooth marks. Out of focus in the background, an innocent-looking cat is sprawled on the carpet.

George kills the Rollator then feigns innocence

The next stage was depression: hiding under the blankets.

Tabby kitten hiding under blue blanket, chin and paw resting on green blanket

I just can’t

Followed by misplaced empathy: desperately trying to console Kelley for her terrible, martyred role as Cripple’s Wife. This involved much hand-holding:

Tabby kitten asleep on a lap, little paws wrapped around a hand

Charlie tells Kelley, “It’ll be alright. I’m here.”

But now, finally, they are beginning to accept: this is just how it is. My mobility aids have become part of the furniture. Charlie in fact sleeps in my chair every day.

Tabby kitten curled up fast asleep on black wheelchair

My chair is Charlie’s bed

He doesn’t relax in it, he either passes out or sits bolt upright, ready to pounce on stray bits of ribbon and impertinent scraps of paper.

Tabby cat sits in library lion position on black wheelchair facing camera; his eyes are round and wild

“Don’t worry about the taxes. I’ll deal with those receipts.”

Only they don’t start out as scraps. Taxes will be interesting this year because Charlie got hold of a stack of receipts and ripped them to confetti. Oh, well. Who needs deductions when you have such fine kitty companions?

George considers the Rollator his domain. Sometimes it’s a pre-lap launch platform.

Young tabby cat sitting on Rollator, head titled, waiting to jump on a lap

George is willing me to make a lap, make a lap. You’re feeling very sleepy, make a lap…

Sometimes just a damned good place to hang out and relax after a large meal. (He doesn’t care about the tax receipts: his meals aren’t deductible; also, he doesn’t pay taxes.)

Young tabby cat in library lion position on Rollator seat, leaning like the tower of Pisa

Food imparts the wisdom of the ages. I will have the solution to ableism soon…

In just a few short months, then, the evolution of these tiny bundles’ disability consciousness has progressed in leaps and bounds (often while hanging upside down from the curtains or falling in the bath). If these two beasties with brains the size of thimbles can learn, why can’t you? You won’t even have to do it while leaping twice your own height to bring down Feather, or figuring out to get out of the dishwasher.

By the time the next IDPWD rolls around, I have no doubt that our kitty Einsteins will a) have fixed the person-first language of the proclamation and b) have found a solution to the enduring mystery of ableism (hint: the two are not entirely unrelated). Your job? Try to keep up. You might find some tips in previous Kitten Reports.

Signed, personalised books for the holidays

Image description: Photo, taken on a bright spring day with an old disposable camera, of a friendly neighbourhood street: cars parked in the shade of a tree growing on the sidewalk in front of Phinney Books and its next-door neighbour, the 74th Street Alehouse.


I’m a writer. I’m a small business. The independent bookstores that sell my books are small businesses. Today is Small Business Day, and therefore a fine day to remind readers that I’m teaming up again with Phinney Books, on Greenwood Avenue, Seattle, to bring you signed, personalised books for the holidays. Why Phinney Books? Well, because it’s right next door to the pub! Which makes it massively, convivially convenient for me. Also, Phinney Books is my idea of a perfectly-sized bookshop with just the right stock. Also also, it’s level-entry with a light front door so very easy for me to get in and out of.

Here’s how it works.

  • Go to Phinney Books’ online ordering page to buy any of my books, no muss no fuss, and get them shipped to any address in US, Canada, UK, Australia, or New Zealand. Everyone else, see the next step.
  • Email info@phinneybooks.com (phone is okay: 206 297 2665) with billing info: all major credit cards accepted. They use Square, so they’ll also need the 3-digit code on the back and your billing postal code.
  • Tell them what you’d like, e.g. Hild (paperback or hardcover) or So Lucky or Ammonite or Slow River. If you order very soon, you could also  probably get With Her Body, my mini-collection of stories.* Or, hey, another book by somebody else—lots of books, any books! It’s the holidays. You (and your friends, your family, everyone you’ve ever met) deserve something nice. Splurge! Remember, too, that you can order ebooks via the store, and—woo hoo!—audio books. And I narrated So Lucky. Sadly I can’t personalise those, though.
  • Tell them whether you want the books by me personalised (to you, or to someone else; if so, who; and what short thing you’d like me to add). If you give this order by phone, please spell out even the most common names.
  • Give them your mailing address and payment info.
  • Beam, sit back and relax: you’ve done your holiday shopping!

Tom, the owner, tells me he is happy to ship multiple copies, to ship internationally, and to ship express/priority, but then there will be extra charges you will have to work out with him.

Deadlines: I haven’t checked with Tom on this but perhaps Friday 13th December is a safe deadline for books shipping domestically, but if you’re willing to pay for priority mail, we could probably push that out a bit. International, well, I suspect you’d have to be quick…

So basically you have two weeks for Domestic. Go for it! I’ll do my best to sign your books before I go to the pub, which means everything will be spelled right. Mostly…


*There are no more of the limited edition memoir boxes. And the Aud novels are no longer available. I reverted the rights two years ago and sold everything I had lying about in 2017’s promotion. But, woo-hoo!, they will be back on sale either late next year or early the year after, so next time I do this, who knows. (There’ll be an audio edition of Ammonite, then, too.) And the time after, well, get ready for Menewood.

‘Cake or Death’ Anglo-Saxon rune ring

When So Lucky came out, I did a brief regional tour, including Portland. After a reading at Powell’s Kelley and I went out for a drink with Wendy Neathery-Wise, who made my Anglo-Saxon bronze bird brooch. Over cocktails, and then more cocktails, we talked of many things, including live shows. Eventually we got to Eddie Izzard and how much I love his “Cake or death?” sketch for its pure, foolish Englishness.

We switched to beer, and the conversation moved on to other things, eventually circling back to metal-smithing. Apparently she wanted to tackle a ring design based on a ninth-century rune ring. Given that the runes on said rings spell out charms, or religious messages, or simple statements of ownership, she was a bit stumped as to what the runes on her ring should say. “Easy!” I said, with the confidence of the well-lubricated. “Cake or Death!”

I thought no more of it until this summer when Wendy emailed me to say she’d made the rings—in silver, bronze, and copper—and did I want one? I don’t wear rings, except for my wedding rings, but I showed Kelley the link to Wendy’s Etsy page, and she thought they looked fab.

Three chunky metal rings, in copper, silver, and bronze, on a black background

Cake or Death?

She chose one in copper, and wears it a lot and finds it both reassuringly weighty and comfortable. Here’s what Wendy has to say about the rings on Facebook:

These say “Cake or Death” in Anglo-Saxon runes. The idea was given to me by Nicola Griffith, who was inspired by Eddie Izzard’s sketch. The translation I used is the OE, “foca oððe deað” put into runes.  The ring design is from this 9th century Kentish find that’s in the British Museum.  I liked the beading and divisions between letters.

And from her Etsy page:

The master waxes were carved by hand. They are cast in your choice of bronze, recycled copper or Sterling silver.

Side note: If you you are the type that thinks your genetics are somehow superior to another’s and want to use things that you think are your ancestral right (like runes and symbols) to oppress other people, DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM ME. I have no tolerance for racists, especially who twist history to justify their racist attitudes.

So if  you’re looking for an unusual gift from a right-thinking woman, go take a look at Wendy’s stuff.

Podcast interview: writing characters with physical disabilities [audio]

Square graphic, dark green background, lighter green text and image: nibbed pen with audio waves pulsing from nib, and "season 14" written at the top

A few months ago I was interviewed for the Writing Excuses podcast:

In this episode we discuss how to faithfully represent people with physical disabilities through the characters we create. Our guest, Nicola Griffith, walks us through the process of rigorously imagining how the world might look to someone with a particular disability.

It’s about 15 minutes long. You can listen at the link, subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, or Android, or listen here:

Thanks to Piper, Dan, Tempest, and Alex.

Why I’m going to be saying No a lot

In my last post I updated you on my work schedule. None of that will be possible unless I change a few things.

Those of us from traditionally marginalised groups often find ourselves doing unpaid advocacy and emotional labour for the greater good. One major distraction I had not reckoned on when I signed the contract for Menewood was my new commitment to disability-related issues. I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time doing informal (that is, unpaid and unacknowledged) policy work with various institutions, organisations, and nonprofits. On top of that, one-on-ones with many writers, disabled and nondisabled, about reviewing; about writing disabled characters. It’s been my pleasure and privilege but it ends up as countless hours spent making others’ novels and memoirs better or more marketable. I don’t begrudge an hour of that time—I was happy to do it—but I can feel that well of willingness to sacrifice my time, energy, and focus running dry.

So for the foreseeable future I’ll be declining. And rather than spending time explaining why, I’ll probably just ignore your email. I’ll always have time for friends and family, but other things? No.

More granularly, for the remainder of the year I’ll be turning down requests and invitations–of all kinds.

For the first half of 2020 I’ll be turning down invitations to speak, to teach, to contribute, to blurb, and to meet-strangers-for-coffee-so-you-can-pick-my-brains. Those events I have already scheduled for 2020 I will honour (and at some point I’ll update the Appearances page) but I won’t be adding to them. In the last few months of 2020, assuming Menewood is done, and depending on how interesting the requests are, I might accept invitations to contribute short pieces—but they’ll have to be astonishingly interesting projects and extremely well paid.

As for 2021, I already have a couple of things scheduled, and then I’ll be dedicated to pre-publication for both Menewood and the Aud novels (including writing new fiction, and prepping and performing the audio narration).

I’m not turning into a hermit. I’ll still be going out for dinner and drinks and wonderful conversations with friends, still posting cat pictures on social media. I’ll still go to the park, a film, a splendid exhibition (I really want to visit the new incarnation of the Burke museum but just haven’t had time). I’m planning on a lovely getaway with my sweetie at the end of the year. What I won’t be doing is allowing anything but personal stuff to distract me from my fiction, for at least a year. Essentially, I need to free up time and bandwidth to find the still, quiet place from which all good work springs.

Once again, here’s Meghan Trainor to help you understand:

My name is No.
My sign is No.
My number is No.
You need to let it go.
Nah to the ah to the no no no.

Hat tip to Angie Bennett, a medievalist.