Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It's 30 years since Chernobyl. Let's have a party!

It's 30 years since the world's worst nuclear accident. Something worth celebrating? Only if you have the darkest sense of humour.

But that is precisely what Doc Chaos has.

With such a dire subject – an accident that was the product of farcical behaviour within a maniacal industry – gallows humour is a perfectly legitimate response.

That's what I thought at the time and I still do. My response was to write my satirical novella: Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect. Published by Hooligan Press in 1988 and illustrated by the finest of comics artists at the time, it was a great success in the independent publishing world.

Front cover
Back cover

I donated the proceeds to the World Information Service on Energy, which campaigned then, and still does now, against nuclear power. They provided an afterword to that edition.

Four years ago the story was published in a new e-book edition together with a new Doc Chaos short story, The Last Laugh.

I continue to campaign against nuclear power and was recently invited to join the Nuclear Consulting Group.

One of its members has published an article to coincide with today's anniversary, assessing the death toll of the accident, in which he reaches the not very surprising conclusion: "[Chernobyl] raises the vexed question of trust in governments and international agencies, which, for many people, does not exist or has been eroded after Chernobyl and Fukushima."

No kidding.

Who is Doc Chaos? He's the radioactive peddler. As he says in The Last Laugh:
"The first time around, I gave them the promise of cheap energy and a Cold War that must have saved millions of lives. The second time, I gave them low carbon energy, and prolonged their illusions by a couple of decades. I play the long game. Don't worry I'll be back."
How can you trust the authorities when they are so gullible to the peddlers of nuclear technology like EDF, who promise the world and either fail to deliver or spike your drink with caesium. then try to reassure you that everything is just fine.

Later, the good doctor muses:
"I am the smiling conman, the artful bodger, the devil spawn of Prometheus, the quantum Quixote, the quixotic salesman with the quack cure, the fast-talking, fusion-pushing fantassin of plenty, peddling the fantasy of foison forever. And they bought it.
"'Do you remember,' I reminisce wistfully, 'How I persuaded them that despite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and terrorists running around with truckloads of depleted uranium, that I could save them from global warming?'
We share a gentle chuckle as the shadows lengthen.
'Those were the best of days... Feted at high level conferences, brokering billion-dollar deals, shafting the anti-nuclear do-gooders, sweet-talking the politicians.'"
The last laugh – you've got to have it.

You can buy Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect here

Is the end in sight for the Very Hungry Caterpillar?

Once upon a time, about 4,000,000,000 years ago, the world began, in the era called the Hadean. A very long time later came the human race, just 200,000 years ago, altering the planet forever as it spread.

From the beginning it's likely mums and dads told stories to their children, to preserve social memory and teach them what they needed to know to survive. These stories always changed over time according to need and circumstance.

It's suggested that we are now in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, that's to say an epoch overwhelmingly defined by the influence of one species over all other factors: ours. What influence, if any, is this having on the stories we give our children today?

Some of the writers on this website grew up reading stories published around or before the mid-20th century. This period is now being suggested as a likely candidate for the beginning of the Anthropocene, and this will be confirmed in a few months when the body set up to evaluate this (a working group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, sitting within the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), whose job is to set international standards for global geological time-scales), has finished sifting through the geological evidence for the start of the Anthropocene.

Since this epoch began, we have seen a vast increase in human population, from 2.5 to over 7 billion; an increase in mass extinctions; the deposition of nuclear isotopes around the world; and of plastic waste; climate change; massive destruction of natural habitats; mass resource extraction; and mass exodus from the countryside to cities.

This last represents the biggest change for children, since most children growing up now will not be near where the wild things are, but will be ringed by concrete, tarmac and cars.

This changes the way young readers will respond to the stories told just seventy years ago – even twenty years ago. When Rudyard Kipling wrote his Just So allegories, the rhinoceros, the leopard and the elephant weren't endangered.

Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling cover

When most meat for the table is battery-reared, a commodity in an industrial process, doesn't this turn picture books of farm animals in the farmyard into modern fairy stories?

Illustration for a Google farmyard app for children
Peddling nonsense to kids: an illustration for a Google farmyard app for children. What on earth has this to do with reality?

What are most children to make of forests featured in traditional fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, when they've never seen a real one? Perhaps they will never have the opportunity to even read these tales because publishers will no longer see them as relevant. Has this already happened? I don't know.

Hansel and Gretel peer out of the forest at the house of danger
Hansel and Gretel peer out of the forest at the house of danger.

Children in recent decades were treated to cautionary tales warning them of the impending danger of the extinction of big mammals and the destruction of rainforests. The guilt of adults was laid onto them with the vain hope that, when grown up, they might work to prevent the inevitable. Yet today, most of the trends that trace biodiversity remain travelling in the wrong direction.

RainForest by Helen Cowcher

For children, tales of anthropomorphic animals offer the chance to objectivise human emotions and traits – but say little about the animals themselves. Tales of dark forests present opportunities to confront subconscious fears. Stories set in wild nature nurture a fantastic imagination.

But all three types of story at least place humans within the planetary context, a biosphere, an ecology within which we play just one part among millions.

The Anthropocene, if it is a useful concept at all, reminds us that we have tended to see the rest of the world as just a reflection of ourselves, there if not for us to plunder, then to entertain us, that we regard ourselves as the most important and dominant species on the planet. What hubris! What a change from the stories our distant ancestors and tribal people told their children, which nurtured respect for the wild world around them.

But if we are to save nature, and therefore ourselves, then we must first empathise with nature, on its own terms, not on ours. I've written before about some of the great books that do this.

But this post is asking a different question: are modern published books for young readers whose experience of the world is largely urban interiors, vehicles and digital entertainment now being set primarily in this world, because that is what they recognise? Or is a fake nostalgia for a way of life now gone (if ever there) being peddled by editors and publishers?

I wrote in my novel Hybrids about how we are becoming enmeshed with technology. Modern children, from the day of their conception, grow within a lacework of electronic connectivity, becoming quickly familiar with the means to extend their sensory and social reach to the far side of a world that they do not yet appreciate.

The system that they perceive to be supporting them is as much virtual as tangible, vibrating with the power of circuitry, translucent filaments of data threatening to fuse with their nerves and dendrils, seeming more immediate and visceral than the mesh of life itself – our perfect atmosphere, the churning soil, the miracle of life that is distant from the street, seen as just a thin strip of blue above and between the buildings, ragged pigeons squabbling on the windowsill, a windowbox.

Storybooks for young readers: should they then reflect this reality? Are they doing already? I don't know.

But if so, one can imagine a scene a few decades hence, in a warmer and more impoverished world: a child picking up an ancient, well-thumbed copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, found in a dusty box in attic belonging to a grandparent, and asking: "Mummy, what's a caterpillar?"

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Goodbye house

When the childhood home is gone, a part of your childhood leaves too.

This month I have to clear out my parents' house ready for sale – the house I grew up in and which I have been visiting ever since.

With some help from my cousin and his wife, I clear out the patterns of family life that had accrued over 58 years. It is both physically and emotionally gruelling.

The bedroom I occupied as a child is, now, nothing like it was when I inhabited it. But the shades of those times have lingered.

Out of the corner of my eye, or in the dim twilight, I can watch the ghosts of our former selves going about their business, engaged in their familiar habits.

It is in the nature of habits to strive to live long after they are needed.

A house has its own habits: the timing and the manner of the closing and opening of curtains; the operation of doors and windows; the simple management of cookers and washing machines.

A child experiences these habits as the given scaffolding supporting its life, unquestioned. An adult maintains the habits without much thought.

As the possessions disperse from the house, as my father's paintings leave the walls and the furniture is lifted off the floors, their impressions remain, paler or darker shapes, the evidence of their former existence. Cobwebs and dust are revealed to admonish the change.

The rooms look bigger. Voices echo. The light is harsher.

The child within me wanders around the house trying to make sense of it.

He finds schoolwork and project work he had forgotten about. He sniffs his grandmother's compact case, kept all these years by his mother, and suddenly she is there again after thirty years, brought to life by the scent of her.

It's what happened in the house. All the good times and the not so good.

Collections of material are unearthed that once interested him. He wonders if any modern collectors would want them, rejects the idea and they are cast into the recycling pile.

Every object in the house is sifted and a spontaneous decision made: to keep or to abandon? The weight of responsibility feels huge.

It is not the objects themselves, but the stories they represent. It is not the house itself but the shifting pattern of relationships it reveals.

The stories of the objects are held in the minds of those who knew them and lived with them. They die when those people die. To anyone else, these objects are just objects, with no further meaning. To know the stories is to know the meaning of the objects.

I think of the antiques emporia and the car boot sales around the country which are full of such objects now bereft of their stories, that nobody knows any more. They are in search of new stories.

It's the good times I want to remember.

As I dismantle the house, I feel that I am murdering the stories that are embodied within it, one by one.

Here is where I first wrote and decided I wanted to be a writer. Here is where I sat up in bed late at night, scribbling in my notebooks.

I would read by torchlight under my bed clothes when my parents thought I was asleep. Look: here is the space where my books and comics collection once lived.

A new family will live here. I've met them. There is a 12 year old girl. She is very bright.

When it emerged that I was a writer she was very interested. I gave her my last novel, Stormteller, and she began reading it straightaway.

She will create her own stories in this house. She will read late at night under the bed clothes.

Who knows? Perhaps she will become a writer too.

Perhaps that is the real habit of this house: to nurture writers.

Goodbye, house.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.