Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

11-21-12: Mike Davis Explores 'The Ecology of Fear'

Boxing in the Terror

We've been in this world long enough to feel as if we've made it our own. This is not just a matter of building up civilizations and cityscapes over the long haul; it's also a function of our relatively short lives. We just don't live long enough to experience everything the environment has to throw at us. We call events "storm of the century" or "once-in-a-lifetime" earthquakes with accuracy because we kick the bucket before Mother Nature has time to toss another our way. Our urban centers seem to us to be impermeable fortresses. But that's just not the case.

In 'Ecology of Fear', Mike Davis examines the landscape of Southern California as a setting for disasters both real and imagined. With powerful prose that gets a grip and doesn't let up, Davis shakes us awake and pulls back the focus from the hurly-burly of traffic jams and daily life to examine all the reasons that what we take for granted is not rock solid, but instead, incredibly fragile. Los Angeles, seemingly built to last forever, or at least, until we tear it down, is built in a region of violent change that we might just have missed. And if we have not missed them, we're working on making them. Davis is writing a non-fiction work of horror, meant to put the frighteners on those whoa re living in the soft world of suburbia.

Davis starts out with an examination of the myths of Southern California's safety. He describes the urban tornados, the floods that have turned Hollywood into an inland sea, and the constant rebuilding of the rich over landscapes that should have no inhabitants. He includes a generous number of excellent black and white photos in the text that liven up the material considerably. Charred rabbits and federal agents killing mice with sticks are amongst the subjects. His histories of fires, floods and tornadoes are frightening and gripping. They're also informative for the horror writer, as they can give insight into the effect of natural disasters on highly urbanized areas. There are anecdotes that cry for expansion into short stories or novels.

Once he's done with the actual mayhem, Davis moves on to the virtual mayhem, that is, "The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles." From rancid, racist survivalist novels to 'Blade Runner', Davis gives an incisive look at what creators have put Los Angeles through and what is implied by the fiction we've seen thus far. He returns to many of the themes in his earlier work 'City of Quartz', which was the first salvo he fired at his native city, that is that Los Angeles is designed to corral the poor and support the rich. There's nothing tremendously new here, but it's certainly well written and clearly explained. Davis does not just recite dry facts, but leads the reader through entertaining travelogues in fear, crime and disaster.

Davis writes with a carefully controlled academic fury. He's like an angry knife-thrower whose knives are facts that suggest the capitalist overlords of LA are slovenly pigs just waiting to be gutted. His background in Marxist theory informs his work, and it livens up the prose in the best of all possible ways. This book is truly provocative, in the sense that it will provoke anger in some readers and fear in others. Davis is perfectly willing to write about matters that will make many readers uncomfortable. Here is the book that has sections titled "Low Intensity Race War" and "Ozzie and Harriet in Hell."

The first edition I have of 'Ecology of Fear' hails from 1998, and in retrospect, it feels like a good investment. Davis is still writing, thankfully; his latest non-fiction book is 'Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism,' presumably about the places where Big Money gets a tan. He has a recent piece in The Rag Blog about "The Reds Under Romney's Bed." One hopes that they will remain there! One hopes as well, that readers seeking an alternative perspective on the Platonic ideal of the American metropolis will pick up 'Ecology of Fear.' Books outlive us. This one may last long enough to see the fears it describes come to life — or save lives.

11-19-12: Craig Childs Explores 'Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth'

End and Again

The end of the world is much discussed and often forecast. What's not so well known is that it has already happened, more than once. Craig Childs' 'Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth' is a rip-roaring, gorgeously written look at the deep nature of the death of the planet by ice, fire, heat, species extinction — and these are just some of the ends that have already come to pass. Part travelogue, part thought-experiment, a good dose of craziness with regards to going into very dangerous places without preparation, 'Apocalyptic Planet' is a planet-smashing success in its ability to annihilate your cozy notions of stability.

From the outset, Childs reminds us that original definition of "Apocalypse" is "a lifting of the veil, or a revelation," and this proves to be pertinent. We then meet his aunt who is unaware that she is in the midst of a personal apocalypse as she seeks to write her own book about the coming end, a scene that sets this book into motion as Childs decides to explore landscapes of the present that speak to apocalypses in the past.

Childs goes on to take readers to the Sonoran desert, the frozen wastelands in the upper Andes, the Bering Strait, even the, as it happens, appropriately-named city of Phoenix, Arizona, which happens to rest on the remains of a city whose eventual near-erasure from existence does not bode well for the modern overlay. In the course of the book, we visit nine environments and look at a variety of ends that have already come to pass and left nothing or little to speak of what came before. With each exploration, Childs reveals (remember the original definition of Apocalypse) the impermanence of what to us seems endless, changeless — forever. That's not the case. The earth is ready to shake us off like a dog shakes off fleas, hopefully with the same relative level of success.

'Apocalyptic Planet' is driven first and foremost by Childs' entertaining, and intense and beautiful prose. He knows how to craft a scene, whether he's stumbling across the desert, rambling through a city or hitting up an expert for information relevant to the place he is currently examining. Reading the book is a pleasure, no matter what Childs is writing about, because he crafts one great sentence after another to lead us to the end and beyond.
Childs also offers us a gallery of great characters. As a narrator, we enjoy Childs for his often-shambolic under-preparation as he embarks upon an adventure. He knows how to show himself in a light that makes his own presence really enjoyable without inflating either his self-worth or his inclination to take risks. Moreover, we meet a lot of great partners in his travels, from Devin, who accompanies him on a fairly terrorizing trek across the desert, to his mother, who accompanies him to the Bering Strait to look at what rising sea level really means. His sense of the dialogue-to-description ratio is keenly honed. Even his data dumps are entertaining and well-woven within the narrative.

As we move from one ending to the next, Childs very effectively messes with our sense of time scale, showing us how quickly a desert can overtake a forest, and how long the long run really is. 'Apocalyptic Planet' is all unleavened non-fiction, but given the subject and the perspective, it is not surprising that it reads now and again like a Golden Age science fiction novel, with the weary remnants of mankind looking back on the lifetime of a species wasted in moments that are more ephemeral than it is almost possible to imagine.

The true power of this book is that it will indeed change the readers' sensibility of time, of the importance of what is happening at this moment, of this sense that everything happening now matters so damn much. In 'Apocalyptic Planet,' Childs pulls back the camera and gives us a sense of a big picture in which our lives, our oh-so-important times, are merely a pixel.

New to the Agony Column

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 209: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

Commentary & Podcast Archive
Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us