DOGGERLAND by Ben Smith (Book Review)
As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.
This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations.
Climate change fiction is dogged by the conflict between presenting stories about empathetically engaging individual characters and stories which depict global challenges and effective collective responses to them. Nikoleris et all expressed a hopeful conclusion that “Through identification with the protagonists in literary fiction, climate change moves from being distant and abstract to close and personal…and [can] create space for personal reflections.” (Nikoleris, Stripple, & Tenngart, 2017, p. 11). However, Admussen in Six Proposals for the reform of Literature in the Era of Climate Change (2016) admonished that authors should “retire the portrait of the single soul.” Admussen echoes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement (Ghosh, 2016) who expressed a concern about the capacity of realist fiction, with its focus on individual character development in a familiar real setting, to capture the reach and sweep of climate change; “Similarly at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike” (p. 80). There is then this tension for authors of climate change fiction. On the one hand, they may meet Nikoleris et al’s aims in giving the reader compelling individuals facing complex dilemmas whose plight generates empathy (and so promotes reflection on climate change). On the other hand they may cleave closer to Admussen and Ghosh and try to depict a global problem and a collective response.
Ben Smith’s Doggerland (2019) falls firmly in the first camp with a very close third person perspective on a young man Jem, usually referred to in the text simply as the Boy. Although Jem inhabits a sprawling rusting farm of wind turbines some 80 miles in radius in the middle of the North Sea, there is a claustrophobic feel to the setting, with its barren uniformity and a cast tiny – almost Beckett-like – in number. Besides Jem – the Boy – we meet only three other characters and one of them is apparently dead. There is the Old Man who shares Jem’s duties and home on a rusting accommodation rig for maintenance workers in the centre of the wind farm. There is the mysterious and well-fed pilot who delivers supplies, in his electric boat, on a rather idiosyncratic schedule, and there is Jem’s father seen briefly in flashback at their moment of parting.
Jem came to the rig some years before the present time of the story, contractually obliged as his father’s next of kin, to take on his father’s maintenance duties after his father “reneged” on his contract by disappearing. Compelled, conscripted even, to work alongside his dad’s co-worker – the Old Man – Jem’s life is one of dull drudgery trying to keep decaying machinery functioning. The Boy and the Old Man, like latter day lighthouse keepers, jostle along with a well described mix of companionship and antipathy. When leaving the rig they each stack tins in complex security measures at the doors to their rooms to try and detect any signs of trespass by the co-worker while they were away. The Old Man makes home brew and trawls the relatively shallow seabed for vestiges of the lost neolithic settlements of Doggerland, submerged in a rush at the end of the last ice age. The Boy fishes with a makeshift line that catches only floating plastic and old boots and throws himself with professional pride into the hopeless task of maintaining the dwindling field of still functional wind turbines. In this ambition he is often thwarted by the Old Man’s desire to trade the best spare parts for different kinds of contraband with the pilot of the unreliable supply boat.
Smith’s prose flows smoothly with some eye-catching images and lines laced with a dry wit.
Reflecting on the perpetual noise of their environment as they take a lift up the shaft of a turbine.
There was always the sea, the slow pulse of the blades and generators. And the wind, twisting its coarse fibres through everything. (p. 18).
Working in the cramped quarters of a generator nacelle
His arms were aching and he could feel the first raw edge of a pulled muscle in his back. (p. 72).
Straining to get into a boat in a freezing cold storm
His thoughts shrank back to the last warm cavities of his skull. (p. 139).
Having discovered a coffee machine and overused it,
It turned out that the coffee machine could be made to dispense water too, which the boy only found out after his hands shook so much that he pushed the wrong button. (p. 165).
The pilot – in the role of not-quite-stranger coming to town – provides a narrative impetus with a revelation that spikes Jem’s interest in what happened to his father. This sets him on a quest to find out more and maybe make his own escape from this form of indentured servitude. What is unclear is how far the Old Man might be a trustworthy accomplice, or an obstacle to be overcome. That – along with the threatening vagaries of the weather – makes for a brisk page turning story.
Besides the personal ambition of escaping and finding out his father’s fate, Jem asks himself relatively few questions about the world in which he finds himself. The climate change elements of Smith’s vision of the future form the backdrop to Jem’s story, rather than the driver of it, with the reader invited to consider the questions Jem doesn’t ask himself.
Smith’s future is a dystopian one of a world in decay. The wind farm has grown through a long-forgotten succession of development spurts. The most advanced wind turbines lie furthest from the central maintenance rig, erected in a last burst of expansion that never saw them properly commissioned, so even the seats in their comfortable nacelles are still coated in delivery cellophane. The rig itself was designed for a much larger crew, with empty mess decks and accommodation rooms and a buckled pool table with broken cues the only entertainment. The machinery is failing – the farm’s percentage performance slipping inexorably downwards, losing several percentage points in the course of the story. The Boy and the Old Man have not the tools, nor the spares, nor the range in their electric maintenance boat, to do more than tinker with more local turbines. Yet, they work from duty – or boredom – rather than any sense of external oversight. Provided they stay at their posts, neither their work, nor the failing output of the wind farm seems to attract any attention – or even communication – from the Company that not so much employs them as owns them.
Their food comes in tins of homogenised protein and carbohydrate, made in vats not grown in fields as the Old Man explains the supply chain to the Boy (p. 171) in a vision of future nutrition that is far less favourable (and flavoursome) than George Monbiot conceived in Regenesis (2022).
The chart that the Boy glimpses aboard the Pilot’s boat shows a land that is losing its battle with rising sea levels “There were flood defences, drainage fields and reinforced beaches now well below the waterline.” The pilot’s pencilled annotations and erasures show “a multitude of floating settlements and trading posts …[and] also faint marks where other settlements had been erased” (p. 67).
Although we see next to nothing of the world beyond the wind farm, trade continues – exemplified by the pilot’s bartering for anything of value that the old man and the boy can scavenge. There doesn’t seem to be any government, but there is the Company that acts with the force of law. “It was unfortunate that his father had chosen to renege on his contract…as the only next of kin this duty fell to him.” (p. 33). Capitalism it seems has not only survived the deluge but grown more powerful through it. The legal obligation that binds Jem to fil his father’s place is not only indentured service, but a hereditary one akin to slavery without any mention of pay, or shore leave. The Company has established a corporate hegemony. “In his lifetime the only places to buy anything were the company stores” (p. 47) although that hegemony post-dates the erection of the windfarm and its original more generous maintenance staff. “It was easy to forget that there were things that existed before the Company took over” (p. 47). In tone Doggerland resembles John Lanchester’s bleak novel, The Wall (2019) in which a near future Britain is protected from rising sea levels and the concomitant refugees by an encircling wall which must be patrolled by conscripts while an unelected elite lord it over them.
The enigmatic Pilot, garrulous, well-fed, and self-serving illustrates the corruption in a trade system where everyone demands a profit margin. As he tells the Boy, “If I gave everyone everything they needed, there’d be no need to trade anymore, would there?” (p. 219). The pilot also draws a somewhat semantic distinction between the “messiness” of need and the potential hard feelings at unsatisfied needs, as compared to the more desirable idea of “want” which keeps exchanges “businesslike.” Whether it is satisfying need or want, the pilot uses his position to extort from the Boy and the Old man the things that are most precious to them.
For the Old Man this means his collection of possibly neolithic artefacts dredged from the submerged seabed. Like Smith’s Doggerland, Rym Kechacha’s Dark River (2020) draws links between the neolithic past and the climate changed and challenged near-future, although Smith’s interludes into the past are more brief observational notes unlike Kechacha’s protagonist driven narrative. However, both Kechacha and Smith touch on the Tsunami that swamped Doggerland in 6200 B.C. with Smith’s nice line about the wave diffracting particular pleasing to my ex-physics teacher’s eye. “There is barely a pause. Just, perhaps, a slight adjustment in direction and flow as the wave bends, folds, then passes on, leaving behind nothing but open sea.” (p. 53).
I heard of a phrase used in the American coast guard to upbraid people fretting over the relative minutiae of their everyday lives – it is “The sea doesn’t care.” In his glimpse into the past millennia of the ice age, Smith emphasises the ultimate irrelevance of human activity to natural forces. “It is a simple history – of water turned to ice, returning to water. And, barely noticeable, somewhere in the middle of this cycle, plants and animals and people made this place their home” (p. 54). Emmi Itaranta’s The Memory of Water (2014) explores a similar theme about the transience of human life set against the near eternal endurance of water that we shape and borrow but never master. One reading of Doggerland’s two timelines would be to draw out not just the transience of human life, but the dramatic differences in climate that a few degrees temperature rise can make – turning the original Doggerland from fertile plain, to brackish swamp and then finally submerged Atlantis. There’s a reason flood myths appear in many major mythologies.
Like Itaranta – with her emphasis on the persistence of plastic in the “plastic grave” tip site where the protagonists scavenge for useful items – Smith draws attention to the pervasive fields of plastic in Doggerland’s future, not just shoals of plastic bags, but the windfarm elements themselves. “When the whole farm finally got eaten away, the only things left would be its plastic parts – the latches and hooks, clips and cable-ties.” (p. 51). Furthermore, when the Old Man uses a system of rods and T-bar to draw core samples from the seabed, what comes up is not simply soil. “Blue and green sand. He looked closer. They weren’t sand. All of the containers in the room were full of tiny fragments of plastic, sorted and stored according to colour and size” (p. 201). By contrast with the omnipresent plastic the non-human world makes only a brief fleeting appearance as a front of fish course through the farm, though none ever appear on the end of the boy’s fishing line.
So Smith’s compelling central narrative of the relationship between the Boy and the Old Man, mediated by a few interventions and asides from the Pilot, depicts a future ruined by corporate control, rising sea levels, plastic pollution and trade which prioritises greed over need. It is a dystopian vision and Jon Raymond author of Denial (2022) observed that dystopian visions “maybe at one time served a purpose, but at this point, have come to seem just like a wish fulfilment fantasy to me, or some sort of death trip” (Raymond, 2022). However, climate change fiction, like climate science itself, can address the problem of the climate crisis on many fronts and in a variety of ways. As Ian McEwan, author of Solar (2010) noted “Fiction hates preachiness…nor does it much like facts and figures…nor do readers like to be hectored” (2007).
Smith tells a good story and sets it in a frame that leaves it to the reader to pick up the peripheral context of climate, corporate and environmental catastrophe as well as the proven fragility in humanity’s stewardship of the world. Doggerland neither charts our path into the outrun of the climate crisis, nor offers a route to collectively avoid it. However, it does hold up a disturbing vision of the future that might just make some people stop and think. More importantly, it is also a well written and captivating story – for without that, Cli-Fi is nothing.
Admussen, N. (2016, May-June). Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Era of Climate Change. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from criticalflame.org: http://criticalflame.org/six-proposals-for-the-reform-of-literature-in-the-age-of-climate-change/
Ghosh, A. (2016). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Itaranta, E. (2014). Memory of Water. New York: HarperCollins.
Kechacha, R. (2020). Dark River. London: Unsung Stories.
Lanchester, J. (2019). The Wall. London: Faber & Faber.
McEwan, i. (2010). Solar. New York: Random House.
Monbiot, G. (2022). Regenesis. London: Penguin.
Nikoleris, A., Stripple, J., & Tenngart, P. (2017). Narrating climate futures: shared socioeconomic pathways and literary fiction. Climatic Change, 307–319.
Raymond, J. (2022). Denial. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Raymond, J. (2022, July 22). Denial Presents a Compellingly Low-Key Vision of Post-Revolution Portland. (C. Reed, Interviewer) Portland: Portland Monthly. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.pdxmonthly.com/arts-and-culture/2022/07/denial-jon-raymond-portland-author-interview
Smith, B. (2019). Doggerland. London: 4th Estate.
Tomkin, B. (2007, April 20). Ian McEwan: I hang on to hope in a tide of fear. The Independent. Retrieved from enjoyment.indepdendent.co.uk: http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/features/article2424436.ece