Brian W. Aldiss‘ Earthworks, first published in 1965 and regularly reprinted since then, is definitely dystopian sci-fi.
I read it on the 7.01 train from Newton on Ayr to Glasgow, on the 8.41 train from Glasgow to Perth, and on the train from Perth to Aviemore and I continued to read it on the way back. I finished it on the 7.45 flight from Prestwick to Stansted. I read the last pages on the train from Stansted to Liverpool Street.
So why am I offering this as part of a reading list? I thought about poetry: Thomas A Clark‘s Distance & Proximity or Gary Snyder’s Danger on Peaks. I thought about Alistair McIntosh‘s Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power. I thought about texts written by research colleagues. It could have been Jane Jacobs’ Nature of Economies. I also found I had a lot of manifestos: Vivienne Westwood’s on Active Resistance or Mierle Ukeles on Maintenance Art.
I read Aldiss’ book specifically, and it’s a long time since I read any Heinlein, Asimov or Philip K Dick, because Robert Smithson, in the text associated with his work See The Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967) describes going to the Port Authority Bus Station in New York, buying a newspaper and this paperback to read as he travelled to New Jersey.
So this story was on his mind as he walked around Passaic taking a series of photos (just one roll of film). Of course Smithson is known for his earthworks, Spiral Jetty pre-eminently.
I’ve used his work See the Monuments as a score to explore places where I live. And I have an interest in earth, both having produced landscape projects, and also, as I’ll explain, wondering about the importance of soil.
But Aldiss’ Earthworks is a revelation. The story is basically a thriller, but the background evokes so many issues that resound.
The earth has a population of 24 billion.
Most people live in cities, but all work is done automatically.
No one reads books.
No one uses birth control, sex is the only distraction from boredom, and the population is spiralling out of control.
Our time of plenty has been replaced by a time of hunger.
“Even religion has become subordinate to hunger, as everything else has, just as in the under-peopled world of the past the thinking of the west, when it had plenty, was subordinated to plenty.” (p 12)
Farmers have become the technocrats.
All the trees have been cut down and pylons are installed to create windbreaks.
The soil has been consumed: a key part of the economy is shipping sand from Africa to mix with waste and make soil.
Working on the land is a punishment and landworkers wear hazmat suits, using massive amounts of pesticides and fertilisers.
Birds are eradicated as a pest.
Smithson comments on the way that the book’s descriptions influence the way he sees Passaic, he feels that he is walking in a film, taking photographs of the scenes.
“The sky over Rutherford was a clear cobalt blue, a perfect Indian summer day, but the sky in Earthworks was a “great black and brown shield on which moisture gleamed.” …Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a detached series of “stills” through my Instamatic into my eye. When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.”
The infrastructure of bridges, outfall pipes and children’s sandboxes become monuments in this strange world.
I paid a penny for Earthworks, and it is definitely worth it.