Tag Archives: David Mitchell

I’m with the Bears

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] edited by Mark Martin, introduction by Bill McKibben, with Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kim Stanley Robinson, &al.

Martin Atwood Robinson Mitchell McKibben I'm with the Bears

This 2011 anthology is made up of short fiction concerned with climate change, extinction, and environmental collapse. Two contributions, the ones by Lydia Millett and Kim Stanley Robinson, are excerpts from previous novels, while two others by David Mitchell and Paolo Bacigalupi seem to have been advance work for novels they later completed and published (The Bone Clocks and The Water Knife, respectively).

Of the ten stories collected here, three are set in the present or recent past. These are concerned with the futility of protest-based activism against environmental depredation and with the unbalancing of the human mind in the face of non-human extinctions.

Another six stories are set in the relatively near future; 2040 is the specified date for two of the stories, and these seem to be the far boundary of the set. All of these depict varying types and stages of social collapse as a result of environmental exhaustion and climate change, in the (former) UK, US, and Italy. All are plausible, none are cheering, and easily the bleakest is “Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson.

The collection concludes with Margaret Atwood’s three-page “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” which doesn’t offer anything like hope. I was a little galled that this set of narrative fictions held out even less consolation than Roy Scranton’s book-length essay Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.

The Bone Clocks

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

Is there any fiction that is completely devoid of the mechanisms of science fiction or fantasy? Perhaps not, but David Mitchell’s novels, while marketed as literary fiction and boasting jackets free of genre stigmata, are most assuredly invested in the principal devices and tropes of both science fiction (narratives set in projected futures) and fantasy (paranormal and occult powers). The Bone Clocks is divided into major sections distributed over the period from 1984 to 2043, with a series of interrelated first-person narrators, most of whom are about my age, as is Mitchell himself. The connecting plot of the novel is a “war in heaven” scenario featuring rival groups with praeterhuman powers, operating unseen in the midst of human society. I found it superior to similar stories such as Roger Zelazny’s Amber series or, say, the original Matrix movie, because of the far greater emphasis on and development of the mundane life of the characters, allowing the irruptions of the weird to genuinely shock.

As he did in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell includes a plot-line set in the literary industry, and involving animus between an author and a critic. A quote from the critic’s panning of the book Echo Must Die was surely one of the more backhandedly reflexive pieces of text I’ve read recently: “One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer writing a writer-character?” (294) While I don’t think that any of those three criticisms would be accurate for The Bone Clocks, they were almost certainly Mitchell’s three chief worries about the possible weaknesses of this long book. In fact, the prose is very accessible, and the different characters’ voices are distinct and engaging. The “fantasy sub-plot” is more of a “super-plot,” and seems to have a constructive relationship to the contemporary issues raised by the mundane events of the novel. And the Crispin Hershey writer-character allows for a level of intertextual creativity that I suspect I have only begun to appreciate, since I haven’t yet read most of Mitchell’s work. In fact, at least three of the narrating characters are writers, by the time the whole picture is put together.

The book has three of its six sections set in the future of its composition, one of them now largely in our past. “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet” begins in 2015, in a book published in 2014, and continues through 2020. “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the longest section, supplying the climax of the super-plot, and taking place in 2025, and the denouement “Sheep’s Head” is set in 2043. I found these projected settings fairly credible, if not optimistic. Well, the last of them actually bummed me out more than a little, but I don’t regret reading it, and I won’t condemn the “State of the World pretensions” that inform it.

LibraryThing includes The Bone Clocks as the second of three novels in a series called “Horologists.” Wikipedia, however, points out the continuities of character and setting to five other books by Mitchell, so that it sits in a larger web of connected texts, accounting for the majority of the author’s published books. I’m sure I’ll read more of these. [via]

Slade House

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Slade House by David Mitchell.

Since Slade House was conveniently available at my local public library, I read it hot on the heels of The Bone Clocks, to which it is a supplement with many points of plot and character contact. It is structured similarly, taking place over the course of five decades, with a distinct section dedicated to each. As in The Bone Clocks, narrator duties revolve among principal characters, and the default narrative voice is in present tense. This book does not, however, go into the future, wrapping up its larger story in 2015, the year of its publication.

The chronological structure is determined by the nine-year cycle involved with the renewal of Slade House, a sort of sinister TARDIS stationed in an urban alley and operated by sorcerers who depend on destroying human souls for their sustenance. The overall genre tendency in this book is toward supernatural horror, although at one point Mitchell makes the political allegory of his Horologist stories quite plain, as the villains are indicted as “same old, same old … from feudal lords to slave traders to oligarchs to neocons to predators like you” (235), also tying this book to the social concerns of his wider work.

Slade House is relatively short and reads quickly. I enjoyed it as an epilogue to The Bone Clocks, but I think it would work equally well as an introduction.

Some notes on “psychosoteric” and related neologisms: At first “psychosoteric” struck me as a reprehensible portmanteau of “psychic” and “esoteric.” However, further and more charitable reflection suggests that it might signify the techniques associated with the “soul” (psycho-) “saving” (soteric) efforts of various Atemporals. The term “Atemporal” doesn’t seem all that well-chosen either, though. And I bristled at “the operandi” for well over a hundred pages until Mitchell made it clear that it was a contraction of the phrase modus operandi. Most psychosoteric terms of art are fairly blameless (aperture, lacuna, orison, redaction, suasion, etc.), although they do straddle the stylistic divide between parapsychological and occultist terminology — probably by design. [via]