The Drowned World by JG Ballard – Review

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Robert Kerans lives in a haze. Heat and self-imposed isolation have his brain turning on itself, twisting into patterns foreign to modern civilisation. London seems to be going backwards in time, becoming engulfed by lizards and enormous plant-life. A world which he is too young to remember is being eaten by a world he is eons too late for.

And then there’s that drumming in his ears, calling him South…

One of the things that  intrigued me about The Drowned World was that if it came out now, its basic premise could cause it to be dismissed by as an on-the-nose and melodramatic eco-parable. Yet here it is, a climate change novel from more than fifty years ago. He had the freedom to go full-throttle about a topic many modern fiction writers would never touch with this sense of inventiveness for fear of seeming insensitive.

Ballard’s prose is evocative of eras long past, lagoons and heat and reptiles, and the post-apocalypse he’s created is an intriguing one. It’s more of a world long forgotten than one created by, say, nuclear war. This novel is, however, a product of its time, for both good and bad. There’s an interesting way in which the fading world acts as a stand in for the British empire: good. The only female character is paper-thin: bad. There’s fascinating conjecture on evolution and the primal nature of humanity: very good! It’s at times painfully colonial, bordering on racist: very, very bad.

It’s also painfully uneven. The first half dry, uneventful but occasionally fascinating hard sci-fi. The second half is some sort of absurd and pre-Lynchian fever dream, which an incredibly powerful ending that has some of the best imagery I’ve read this year. If you can grit your teeth and make it through the bumps in the road, the final pages will justify the time you spent with Ballard here.

The next time you’re cold, pick up The Drowned World. It’s an intense experience which will evoke both heat and an age best buried and leave you glad when there’s snow still falling.

A Painful Truth: Review of ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolbert

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There’s a reflexive eye-roll people get when they’re told apocalyptic scenarios about our environment. It’s understandable. In the information age, dire predictions are so common that they’re dull and suspicious since tragedy and disaster have passed into in the domain of clickbait. Parsing truth from hysteria can be tricky. That’s where talented nonfiction writers can come in handy. The Sixth Extinction is a sobering book which reminds us just how urgent the situation on our planet is.

Kolbert looks at past and present extinction events to help us understand our changing world. We now take it for granted that the Earth is in a constant state of flux, but the idea of extinction—something every five year old in England will now be familiar with—is actually relatively new, and was shockingly controversial when first unearthed. Its discovery, denial, and acceptance into the pantheon of accepted scientific theories is made especially poignant here, paralleling the current struggle for the acceptance of man-made global warming in the face of staunch denial, and despite the weight of evidence.

Instead of focusing solely on the global repercussions of humanity, smaller stories are woven together to form a larger picture of our past, present and future. By making each global extinction understandable there’s urgency without alarmism.

Moving between travelogue to analysis about the impact of the Anthropocene, we are forced to confront our impact on the world. The changes we’re making aren’t solely through pollution; our travel spreads fungus and is shifting the ecological balance of every remote region on the planet.

An example of the cheerful facts presented may be appropriate: the oceans are in trouble. This will not be news to anyone who reads this. An ocean so polluted as to be literally acidic, though? This sounds like something out a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so nightmarish a scenario that it could be rejected as over-the-top if seen as an offhand detail in works of dystopian sci-fi. Could humanity really have that much of an impact on our planet? Well, yes. The evidence points to that being one of our more lasting legacies.

As we read, the planet’s fauna and flora destroy and rebuild, destroy and rebuild, are destroyed and rebuild, etc. and Kolbert is level-headed in emphasizing that, eventually, life adapts. That is on a multi-million timescale, though, and if things don’t change the species we share this planet with are facing annihilation. George Carlin’s words: “The planet is fine. The people [and species] are fucked.”

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”

If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.

To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:

  • Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
  • Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
  • The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?

This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”

Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

(XKCD – 799. This comic isn’t relevant to the book review, really, I just wanted an excuse to post it…)

“Today will still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”

I recently noted that great writers can make the intricacies of life seem simple and help you better understand the world around you with just a genius turn of phrase. Put another way, it takes an incredible mind to make the complex seem manageable. Hawking condenses time itself into two-hundred and forty pages here, and through crisp examples leaves you (for the most part) with a basic understanding of these impossibly large subjects. Metaphors keep this book alive.

Quarks; general relativity; string theory; quantum physics; black holes. These are often thought of as theories far outside a layman’s potential for easy understanding, so some people brush them aside, on the basis that there’s too much to learn and no clear place to start. This book gives you a good foundation for wrestling with huge ideas, and much more. A Brief History of Time isn’t as quick as a Brian Cox documentary, but it’s not too hard. Hawking proves that while some scientific theories can be anything but intuitive, when they’re explained by a great mind they’re bloody fascinating.

My relevant amazing science credentials going into this: GCSE physics and a love of documentaries, especially those which trick me into thinking I’ve understood a bit about space (especially when Carl Sagan’s narrating). It’s therefore a testament to this book’s readability that I finished it, let alone came away with the (possibly delusional) impression that I’d understood a good chunk. I’d recommend this to anyone who’s curious about the history of everything.