Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mara and Dann

Once there was a fantastic literary newsletter loosely affiliated with a book store here in Boston and one of it's features was the First Line Quiz. You didn't win anything but acclaim and a listing, but it was still fun. The internet of course made it easy to win if you wanted to win like that but I didn't. When I guessed as I did twice I was thrilled with myself. The lines I won on were from "1984" and "Canticle for Leibowitz." It made me realize I have a great fondness for (and collection of) Dystopian literature, specifically as in the case of Canticle post-apocalyptic. Where are we going, what will it be like, what will be similar to now, what will they think of us?

Mara and Dann is by the great Doris Lessing. Lessing has enough cache for the literary snobs to try and ignore the sci-fi elements of her stories by pointing out that they are social commentary disguised as sci-fi. Well, duh. All good literature is social commentary of some kind. They do the same to Atwood and to P.D. James. Mara and Dann are brother and sister in a far distant future where life above the Mediterranean is impossible because of ice and the bottom of "Ifrik" where they life is turning to unlivable desert. It borrows from ancient myths as well as being (of course) an indictment of our own policies and practices. Some of her details are hard to follow (a race that is identical--some remnants of genetics?) but others are so carefully studied, like the changing of language. Once there was a land called Yerrup. There is another great land mass called South Imirk.) I was a little alarmed to learn that they were telling each other stories of Mam Bova, Ankrena, and a boy called Jull who loved a boy called Rom. I think the first two two of the worst novels to be put on pedestals and R & J one of the lesser Shakespearean plays, but they probably will survive.

I was a little wary to be reading this so soon after reading an Atwood, since I find their styles and themes to be similar, but this is everything The Penelopiad was not. The characters are alien to me, but I felt for them and understood them, and knew why they behaved as they did. In many ways this was similar to "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban (who writes mind-bending sci-fi, weird young adult novels, and sweet children's books). Part of the fun of RW was to try and guess what the mutated words might be. One I loved was the belief that Hamlets must have been small pigs. Punch and Judy is seen as a religious ritual. RW is also on a journey to find a better place to live and he wanders through a decimated Britain, a flooded London, a south-east still radioactive after (by his reckoning) 2,000 years. In both books they gaze at our broken and dead machines and cannot fathom the people who made such wondrous things and then destroyed themselves with them. They believe it must be a kind of madness. And yet, the needs that drive them are not different from ours--to understand more, to learn, to find a place where you belong and you are safe.

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