Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meta-narratives: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Nuclear Power, and Post-Modernism

In anticipation of the film adaptation coming out later this year, I have recently finished reading (or more accurately listened to the audiobook of) David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  It is a novel arranged like a literary nesting doll.  It tells six stories set in six different historical time periods.  Each story is narrated with a different narrative voice and style.  The novel starts with the earliest time period, a 19th century trans-Pacific voyage recounted in the journal entries of an American notary.  The story is cutoff at the midpoint, and the novel continues with the next story.  It does this till it reaches the later most time-period, a post-apocalyptic landscape at an unspecified future date. Once that story is finished, the novel then winds itself backwards.  Each story is completed in reverse succession.

I would consider Cloud Atlas one of the greatest contemporary novels I've ever read (or listened to) if it was not for one huge facet that infuriated me.  The third story, entitled "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," stands out as an extremely bad novel inside a good one.  Set in 1970s California, an evil corporation will stop at nothing to hide the inherent dangers in the design of it's new Hydra-Zero Nuclear Power Plant and it is up to independently minded and tenacious reporter Luisa Rey to stop them.  The story is basically a retelling of The China Syndrome.  Unlike the other stories in the sextet, "Half-Lives" is narrated with an omniscient third-person narration, whereas the others are narrated in the first-person.  It is primarily plot driven.  Its prose style is extremely dry and descriptive.  All the characters are painfully one-dimensional.  Even the reading of the narrator sounded grating and unenthusiastic.

I might be a little biased on this subject.  Over the past several years I have been producing a documentary film about nuclear power.  I have interviewed many people on the subject ranging from scientists, to engineers, to citizen activists, to utility executives, to anti-nuclear journalists.  I have extensively reviewed newsprint articles, to state and company documentation, to the peer-reviewed literature on the subject.  I can say with utmost certainty that the narrative about the greedy energy company executives who are willing to put the public health at risk in order to make money off deadly nuclear power, and the selfless journalist who attempts to expose their lies in the service of truth and justice, is a fiction.

If anything my experience and research convinces me that the situation is exactly the reverse.  The nuclear engineers and scientists I have met in the process of making this film are some of the most thoughtful, caring, and intelligent people I have ever met.  They are extremely conscious about the safety of the energy they create and concerned about how energy consumption and pollution affects themselves, their families, their friends, the society, and the ecology.

The real anti-nuclear journalists as opposed to their fictional counterparts, are not heroic, clever, or taking part in a daring struggle in the service of truth and the protection of their fellow man. (though they certainly operate under that delusion) In reality the career anti-nuclear journalists are some of the most ignorant, miss-informed, and arrogant individuals I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.  Former anti-nuclear journalist George Monbiot of summed it up perfectly when he said "The claims [the anti-nuclear movement] have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged and wildly wrong."[1]

What found more distasteful then the story's view of nuclear power is its philosophical outlook. One character articulates this viewpoint, a spokeswoman for a Greenpeace style ecological organization:

"The conflict between corporation and activist is that of narcolepsy versus remembrance.  The corporations have money, power, and influence.  Our sole weapon is public outrage... Any stage may be sabotaged.  The worlds Alberto Gremaldis' (the story's evil CEO) can fight scrutiny can burying truth in committees, dullness, and miss-information.  Or by intimidating the scrutinizers.  They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying "guest fees" to major writers, or just buying the media up.  The media and not just the Washington Post is where democracies conduct their civil wars."

This is a particular postmodern outlook.  It suggests that truth, or what we think of as the truth, is part of a larger meta-narrative that is influenced by those with power.  I find this view particularly destructive, as it seems to excuse unjustified assumptions.  It reduces a policy dispute to a Manichean struggle of justice against the injustice.  Where one side is unquestionably on the side of good and the other is unquestionably on the side of evil.  Of course everyone thinks they are on the side of good.  Why have reliable standards of evidence when you could simply dismiss any counter-argument as the machinations of those working for the financial interests of an elite.  Like the above statement, postmodernism pays lip service to the ideals of democratic participation.  But in reality, is extremely destructive to individual reasoning and civil discourse which are the core values of democracy.

Researchers have observed this method of reasoning in the lab.  No matter what political persuasion or cultural outlook all subjects displayed the signs of "cultural cognition" or "bias motivated reasoning." [2] This is the act of perceiving information as either trustworthy or reliable based on whether or not it agrees with their particular cultural reinforced viewpoint.  The above mentioned George Monbiot observed this first-hand when examining the anti-nuclear claims that he had previously taken for granted:

"Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced."[1]

If there was anything that made me forgive this bad novel inside of a good one, it is that Mitchell seems to acknowledge that he has written exactly that.  When placed in the context of the novels larger meta-narrative there are various points where the novel seems to undermine and even mock "Half-Lives."  Once the the story of Luisa Rey has reaches it's midpoint cliffhanger, the novel proceeds to the next historical time-period/narrative thread.  The "Half-Lives" story is revealed to be a pre-published manuscript in the possession of a literary publisher living in modern day England, Timothy Cavendish.  This explains the striking stylistic differences from the rest of the novel.

Cavendish, with a dry English wit, picks apart the story's narrative and stylistic pretenses, "It would be a better book if Hillary V. Hush (the fictional author of "Half-Lives") weren't so artsily fartsily clever.  She had written [the book] in neat little chapteroids.  Doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay." He later deconstructs the pretenses of much of fiction writing seeming to mock the simplicity of Hush's story, "Hero goes on a journey.  Stranger comes to town.  Somebody wants something.  They get it or they don't.  Will is pitted against will.  Admire me for I am a metaphor."

At one point Alberto Grimald,i the novels evil CEO, gives a speech that is actually very sensible and forward thinking:

"Our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction... It's name is oil.  Geologists tell us just 64 billion gallons of this Jurassic ocean scum remain in the Persian gulf.  Enough perhaps to see out our century?  Probably not.  The most imperative question facing the USA is 'Then what?'"

This sentiment is mirrored by the protagonist of the last story.  He ponders what separates a savage from a civilized man:

"The savage sacrifices needs now...  His master is his will.  The civilized sees needs further...  His will is his slave."

One interesting throw away bit of dialog I found interesting, as it suggests that it is not only environmentalists who wish to see the Hydra Zero reactor shut down.  One character suggests, "Exxon will pay top dollar for to anyone who can kill the nuclear industry in its infancy." A nuclear engineer friend of mine, Rod Adams, has dedicated a regular portion of his blog to "Smoking Gun" evidence that the fossil fuel industry actively seeks to discourage the use of nuclear power.



Even with this major problem I have with the book, I still find it one of the most compelling novels I've ever read and anxiously anticipate the film adaptation.  To appreciate some films and literature it requires the viewer/reader to compartmentalize their knowledge and see the work in the context of a world with a multiplicity of world-views and cultures.  The ability to entertain hypothetical scenarios and consider other points of view is what makes storytelling valuable.  That may be one of the reasons why Mitchell decided his story between six different narrators. As the protagonist of the final story in Mitchell's sextet states, "Most [stories] got a bit of true.  Most [stories] got some true.  And a few [stories] got a lot of true."



1. "Evidence Meltdown;" George Monbiot; April 4, 2011; http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/evidence-meltdown/

2.  http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/04/18/the-science-of-why-we-deny-science-motivated-reasoning/

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