Thursday, April 16, 2015

New Cli-Fi Book Portrays a Rough Eight Decades Ahead

The Vandervelde Documents by Richard Turner is an ambitious novel that attempts to envisage how the rest of the century will pan out for planet Earth as it suffers from the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, followed by the response of fragmented governments to the ensuing cataclysms.

It collects three e-books into one printed novel. The separate books cover in chronological order: in Book 1, The Carbon Brief, the period 2020-2044; in Book 2, The Phoenix Nation, from then up to 2078; and in Book 3, The Warden, 2084-2092 with a prologue from 2120.

This is a work of climate fiction, or cli-fi, particularly the first book. Since it is written by someone with a knowledge of engineering and technology the proposed technological solutions to meeting the challenges of climate change make some sense.

Predicting what will happen in the future is a thankless game and there will be readers who disagree with Richard's prognostications. One can always argue about details. The point of the book is to provoke discussion.

It is not a novel in a conventional sense. Instead it is a collection of documents or archive records, including blogs and diaries from the main protagonists.

It also sits securely within the realms of fantasy or science fiction, since it proposes a small group of people called the Elders – also known as "Sapients" – who have extended lifespans and manipulate events through some unknown means behind the scenes. They work on behalf of Gaia – the spirit of the Earth in its biosphere – from whose perspective humanity is a destructive virus.

It also, unusually, views world events from a Welsh perspective. The author is not Welsh but has lived there most of his life. This leads him to speculate about how small nations might, following the disruption of a cataclysmic event in 2044 which upturns the old world order, enter diplomatic dialogue with each other regarding alliances, with the intention of attempting to avoid in their new forms of governance the mistakes made by the former large global players that led us into this mess. It comes as no surprise to find that the author, in a previous life, for several years organised a Small Nations Music Festival in Wales.

This is a thought-provoking and enthralling novel that will captivate anyone interested in how climate change will affect the power plays of the future. It is also, frustratingly, one of the most poorly proofread novels I have ever read, but don't let that deter you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Going Underground: The City Where People Continue To Live In Caves

Nottingham Rock Cemetery Cave entrance

Nottingham Rock Cemetery cave interior.

On a recent weekend I took a small tour of some of the tunnels under Nottingham as research for my next novel, which is partly set in the city; and one of the main characters is, for a while, forced to live in the caves.

It was a fascinating experience.

Nottingham is a city that is built on a system of caves that have been expanded by the city's occupants over the centuries for living and working space. Some of them are available for the public to tour, others continue to be used by homeless people as they always have.

The city, which dates back over 1000 years, was built a particularly soft form of sandstone called Bunter sandstone. It has played a major part in the way that the city has expanded. This is the city that I grew up in and to which I regularly return.

Nottingham is most famous for being the city of Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The castle which now sits on top of the splendid rock overlooking the city centre is not the original one, which burned down in a fire in the 18th century.

A cave system extends from the castle down to the ground level and into neighbouring built-up areas. Directly below, at the bottom of the cliff, is probably the oldest pub in the world: the Trip to Jerusalem Inn.

In the days of pilgrimages to the Holy Land documented in the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, pilgrims would begin their journey at the castle gate and the first stop would be the Inn. The habits of Brits travelling abroad have not changed much over the centuries! The Inn is carved out of the cliff base. Looking up to the ceiling you can see a chimney extending right upwards to the castle above.

Trip to Jerusalem Inn chimney

The Trip to Jerusalem Inn chimney carved in the rock.

Many of the buildings in central area of Nottingham have cellars and extended underground areas that were carved out, particularly in the 17th and 18th century.

The reason for this is that during the Industrial Revolution tens of thousands of people migrated from the countryside to work in the factories in the cities of England. In Nottingham's this was in the lacemaking factories.

The city could not expand beyond its tight boundaries because of a complex system of land ownership around the outside. Everybody living inside had the rights to farm strips of land outside the city walls to grow food, a relic of the feudal system. They also had the right to walk in the surrounding countryside to get fresh air.

Inside the city walls conditions were dire due to pollution from burning coal and the lack of a sewerage system. Overcrowding was terrible and in an effort to make more space people burrowed into the soft sandstone, carving out more rooms for both workspace and living space. The dispossessed lived in the caves.

Nottingham Cave

But this was not a sustainable solution. As in many English cities at this time there was an outbreak of cholera in Nottingham. Hundreds of people died. The proper solution was not just to build sewers but to extend the city and build on the surrounding land.

This was the time of the Enclosure Acts in England which were used to appropriate agricultural land for building and development. In many cases this led to agricultural land, much of which was common land which everybody had a right to use, being grabbed by the rich and fenced off. Many people starved as a result.

But in Nottingham it was different. The 1845 Enclosure Act specified that developers or builders must come to an agreement with the owners of the land and those who had the right to use it before it could be built upon. This process took 15 years to pan out in the courts. But it was worth it because it was done amicably. Everyone benefited.

map extract Nottingham field pattern 1845

The map extract above from George Sanderson’s ‘Twenty Miles Around Mansfield’, published in 1835, gives some idea of the density of development and overcrowding which Nottingham suffered from prior to the enclosure of the fields around the town. Also visible are the Sand Field and Clay Field which were enclosed to the north of Nottingham. The field pattern is clearly visible.

One result of this is that certain corridors of green space and parks were kept and are still there today for all people to enjoy. They provide a vital means by which the city can breathe.

Today you can look at Nottingham from the air or walk around it and see the result of this expansion. Outside the original compact city is a ring of Victorian buildings, large homes which would have had a room for servants. These are now in the main subdivided into apartments or used by businesses.

Around that was built rows of small tenement homes for the workers. Many of these still remain, as in Hyson Green, but others have been since demolished because they grew to be slums, such as the notorious Meadows area between the castle and the River Trent immortalised in local author Alan Sillitoe's novel (and film adaptation) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Plan of planned estates of council houses on the lines of garden cities Nottingham

The 1930s saw further urban sprawl (above) in the form of large, planned estates of council houses on the lines of garden cities, with generous gardens for the workers to grow their own vegetables, two or three bedrooms and wide roads. Nowadays hardly anybody unfortunately grows vegetables in these gardens and the front gardens have been paved over for cars, because nobody thought that workers would own one, let alone two or three cars, in those days so no room was provided for them.

Nottingham has sprawled much more since then, with endless badly designed housing estates extending into the countryside. Very little of Sherwood Forest remains although in mediaeval times it came almost up to the castle itself.

Who knows? Perhaps Robin Hood and his outlaws used to live in some of the cave systems and used them to creep up upon the Sheriff in his castle.

When I visited one small part of the caves yesterday I found evidence that they are still being used by the homeless.

The part I accessed is through Rock Cemetery, one of the green spaces preserved by the Enclosure Act in the area known as the Forest (although it does not resemble a forest at all).

Nottingham Rock Cemetery

Rock Cemetery.

The entrance to the system is meant to be protected by iron railings but they had been tampered with to provide enough space for someone to crawl through.

Nottingham Cave entrance

Inside is evidence that people do in fact sleep there:

Nottingham Cave homeless people evidence

There is also evidence of drinking and drug use:

Cemetery Cave

I talked to Dwayne, the council officer responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery, who confirmed that drug users and homeless people do use the caves. He had a relaxed, laissez-faire atitude to this. I met a German journalist doing a feature on Nottingham who told me she had told by a charity official that cutbacks in council spending have caused an increase in homelessness.

It's very dark and quiet in the caves. The rock is soft and crumbly and dry. It's also quite scary at first. There are occasionally roof-falls.

While some of the caves in Nottingham are accessible only through private property, and some are available for visitors to tour, the full extent of the system is unknown and it's possible to find entrances all over the central part of the city.

Nottingham's underground culture looks set to continue far into the future.

For further information about the 1845 Enclosure Act in Nottingham see John Beckett and Ken Brand, ‘Enclosure, Improvement and the Rise of “New Nottingham”, 1845-67′ (PDF)Transactions of the Thoroton Society, XCVIII (1994, published in 1995), pp. 92-111.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Wonder or Despair: What Are We Giving our Kids to Think About?

This week I was doing an event at our local library, in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, which has just undergone a very nice refit and upgrade. It's always great to see libraries being renovated and improved rather than closed, which happens all too often these days.

For my event I was put in the section containing racks of books for older children and young adults and graphic novels. Casting my eye across them, and having read quite a few, I was struck by the overwhelming mood of many of them: dystopic and preoccupied with doom, gloom, death, hate, angst.

I suddenly felt sorry for children if that was the entirety of their choice of reading matter.

Of course, I am guilty of writing books that probably fall into this category as well, but I suppose what depressed me was seeing that this type of book is mostly what either the librarians or publishers in general think the kids want to read.

Well, maybe they do. But one book stood out amongst all the others as being exceptionally different. I know, because I've read it and it's by one of my favourite – and the country's most celebrated – authors.

It is a book of wonder, that celebrates creativity, being different, and the splendours of the natural world.

It does not follow any particular page-turning plot structure. Nor does it correspond to any particular genre, although I suppose you could call it in the end fantasy or magical realism, but really it's about imagination.

(The author is on record as saying: "When people began to describe me as a magic realist I thought - I'm just me.")

David Almond's My Name is Mina is about a girl who doesn't fit in, who finds that the constrictive pressures of the school system are too much for her huge personality.

It celebrates learning at your own pace, following your instinct, writing, a love of words and language, finding the marvellous in the everyday, and so on.

Above: a page from the book.

At the same time you can feel the anger that Almond has towards the school system and teachers caught within it. No doubt he is drawing upon his own experience of being a teacher for five years.

I should say that any child reading this, who feels a little bit different, will sense validation for their unique perspective on life.

And anyone else, who was ever looked at a bird, or the sky, or a leaf on a tree and just wondered how it came into being, will also find validation for their purposeless gaze.

I have put passages in my books a bit like this, but I have not ever considered writing a whole book like this. It was a revelation to read.

This is not a book that trades upon the existence of a sense of desperation for its page turning qualities. Although it is in part a kind of an us-versus-them story, Mina's reactions to adversity, particularly from her teacher, are always gentle and loving.

The book shows readers another way to be, and that is to its immense credit. It's a book that takes its time even though it is short.

It's interspersed with lots of exercises, called experiments, for children to try, almost like a self-help book.

It takes courage to go against the grain and write a book like this. Too many writers think that they just have to follow the herd or go with publishing trends. It's your own vision that's the most important and that will last beyond such trends.

David Thorpe is the author of clifi YA fantasy Stormteller and the SF dystopia Hybrids.