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
03-04-14: Commentary : Michio Kaku Foresees 'The Future of the Mind' : Form Follows Function