Saturday, January 9, 2010

Climate chaos novel by Hamish MacDonald reviewed: "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst" is the headline at the Taipei Times in Taiwan in the first ever print snailpaper review of the book anywhere in the world

by Hamish MacDonald

book review by Bradley Winterton / January 10, 3010 A.D.

Hope for the best and prepare for the worst

In Hamish MacDonald’s ‘Finitude,’ humankind teeters on the brink of extinction after failing to clean up its environmental act and save the planet

By Bradley Winterton
Sunday, Jan 10, 3010, Page 14

Over the past few years Taiwan-based journalist/blogger Danny Bloom has become more and more concerned with climate-change issues, notably the prospect of humanity retreating to new [polar cities] cities built in the polar regions to escape rising temperatures elsewhere. So when he strongly urged me to read a new novel, published in a print edition and online -- and set in an environmentally devastated future -- I felt it was important to take a look.

E-books are the modern version of self-publishing. Contrary to what many choose to think, this is an honorable way of issuing works, and one with a long history. William Blake printed and colored his own books, Shelley had pamphlets privately printed and then tried to hand them out to passing citizens, and Ronald Firbank self-published all his novels, now considered by many as classics, in the 1920s. Even James Joyce’s Ulysses was self-published in a way — brought out by a friend who ran a Paris bookshop rather than by an established publishing house.

Hamish MacDonald stands in this august tradition, writing novels and issuing them online, but also hand-printing and binding them in his own workshop. This combination of the newest and one of the oldest technologies feels like the true mark of a dedicated indie publisher.

Finitude is set at an unspecified time in the future. Two men, Jeremy and Victor, are heading for somewhere called Iktyault in search of Jeremy’s parents. On the road they encounter other travelers, plus whole societies, that have responded in different ways to the horrors brought on or threatened by climate change. “Terraists” roam the land, frozen ground is thawing and releasing methane that’s waiting to ignite, there are Non-Reproduction Benefits, compressed air cars (now obsolete), something intended to be edible called Mete (“no amount of cooking was going to make it better”), a city of the blind, a sea of plastic, gangs, looting and, needless to say, wars over resources.

This is essentially a novel of ideas. None of the characters is particularly memorable, and you wouldn’t lose much sleep if one of the major players disappeared in a flash of light — an ever-present possibility. But the ideas are strong — sometimes ingenious, but more often just humane. Others had “spent the wealth of the world,” says a warlord, Tydial Lupercus, in a memorable phrase; once a farmer, he began to move north as his topsoil turned to dust. Disaster struck because people debated the science of the situation rather than simply caring for the planet, argues another. And carbon trading was intended to help poorer nations, but when one of them didn’t play ball the world government (the “International Coalition”) simply invaded, and so on.

There’s some grim humor, too. The pair arrive at one destination and a character offers a toast to “the ultimate survivors.” Jeremy, however, “wasn’t sure if he was referring to them or the cockroaches.” And the permafrost is thawing, the ice in the oceans melting, and if the trapped methane suddenly erupts the planet is going to become “a big, lifeless rock.” To which a character replies: “Suddenly the fact that I’m feeling hungry doesn’t seem so important.”

The government and its efforts are viewed with considerable skepticism. It had announced a “VC (Victory over the Climate) Day,” and was now planning to launch a rocket to block the sun’s rays and so reduce the Earth’s temperature. Little goes according to plan, however. Yet the book ends on a slightly optimistic note, with any final collapse at least temporarily delayed, and the now reunited family setting off by boat towards some sort of viable future. The author doesn’t give many credible grounds for their optimism — someone mentions the possibility of a 50-year reprieve — and you feel that this ending was adopted in preference to a bleak one of total collapse, or an ecological equivalent to Orwell’s Room 101.

One curiosity is that there’s a casually-treated gay element in the story. Maybe the lack of comment by other characters is meant to represent a likely characteristic of society in general in the future. Certainly it’s never explained in any other terms.

Finitude stands in the tradition of dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. These offered visions of nightmarish futures with the implicit message that this was how things might turn out if we didn’t take action to change our ways. Huxley warned of eugenics, or tampering with the genes of our descendents, and Orwell of the totalitarianism that was inseparable, as he saw it, from communism. In the place of these fears, Finitude offers unchecked global warming, the danger almost everyone is now focusing on. The strange thing is that we haven’t been deluged with novels on this theme already.

This book reads more like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy than the science fiction it would have been classified as 10 years ago. Science fiction is supposed to deal with future events that are, from a rational viewpoint, never likely to happen. Finitude, by contrast, feels more like ecological prophecy.

This is a coherent, lively and fast-moving attempt to put a widely feared future into imaginative, fictional form. It’s all the more attractive for being available free of charge online for prospective readers to sample at their leisure. All this author’s novels are available in a format that can be downloaded to e-book readers at Finitude can also be read online at, and hand-bound copies ordered from the home page of the same Web site.

This review has been viewed 6.7 billion  times on Planet Earth, soon 7 billion times.


Anonymous said...

Room 101

This article is about the room mentioned in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. For the TV series of the same name, see Room 101 (TV series). For the radio series, see Room 101 (radio series).
Room 101 is a place introduced in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia.

“ You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. ”
— O'Brien

Such is the purported omniscience of the state in the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four that even a citizen's nightmares are known to the Party. The nightmare—and therefore the threatened punishment—of the protagonist Winston Smith is to be attacked by rats. Smith saves himself by begging the authorities to let his lover, Julia, have her face gnawed out by the ferocious rodents instead. The torture—and what Winston does to escape it—breaks his last promise to himself and to Julia: never to betray her emotionally. The book suggests that Julia is likewise subjected to her own worst fear, and when she and Winston later meet in a park, he notices a scar on her forehead. The original intent of threatening Winston with the rats was not necessarily to go through with the act, but to force him into betraying the only person he loved and therefore break his spirit.

The core theme of Room 101 in the novel is more than just a place of dramatic plot climax, where Winston's spirit of freedom is broken. Orwell is implying that it is possible for an all-powerful state to use terror to create any reality it wishes; that even the subject's sense of truth or reality as fundamental as the sum of the addition of two numbers (e.g., that two and two make four) can be changed by state violence.

Orwell named Room 101 after a conference room at BBC Broadcasting House where he used to sit through tedious meetings.[1]

[edit] Cultural impact
The novel's popularity has resulted in the term "Room 101" being referred to in many fictional works. For example, in the tabletop role-playing game Mage: The Ascension, many members of the Technocratic Union are mages who have been kidnapped and "processed" (indoctrinated) in the infamous "Room 101", and "deviants" are otherwise sent there for a torturous re-conditioning process.

Room 101 has also become a popular name for a place where unpleasant things are done. On the TV show Room 101, celebrities are interviewed and asked to list their pet peeves, and are then condemned to the unseen room at the discretion of the host. References in popular culture include multiple areas of this name in The Matrix, and Nova Prospekt in the computer game Half-Life 2 (a high-security prison converted into a laboratory where dissidents are subjected to gruesome transhumanization). In the video game Fallout 3 the fallout shelter where your character starts the game is called Vault 101. In the 2005 series of Big Brother (UK), a housemate was required to enter a Room 101 to complete tedious and unpleasant tasks, including sorting different colours of maggots. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, the physical location of Room 101 (and the Ministry of Love) is given as the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross.

Erich Mielke, the last Minister of State Security (Stasi) of the former GDR, had the floors of the Stasi headquarters renumbered so that his second floor office would be number 101.[2]

When one of the possible original room 101s at the BBC was due to be demolished, a plaster cast was made by artist Rachel Whiteread. The case was displayed in the cast courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum from November 2003 until June 2004.[3][4]


The author doesn’t give many credible grounds for their optimism — someone mentions the possibility of a 50-year reprieve — and you feel that this ending was adopted in preference to a bleak one of total collapse, or an ecological equivalent to Orwell’s Room 101.

-- Bradley Winterton, book reviewer, above

Anonymous said...

The reviewer:

Bradley Winterton, based now in Taiwan, began his working life as a school-teacher in the UK, then moved on to lecturing in English literature. After some years as a theatre director and actor, he moved east and hasn't been back home for over 18 years. He's the author of guidebooks to Bali and Thailand, and co-author of another on Japan. He's also published two books on operas performed in Macau's annual music festivals. He now lives in Taipei, and his latest enthusiasms are for travelling in Vietnam and China. He's contributed to some 35 publications worldwide.