Great Bay, The by Pendell, Dale, 2010

Great Bay, The by Pendell, Dale - Book cover from

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Scrip, as IOUs, might be written by anyone. Certain guilds would issue scrip as commerce demanded, but it never became a general currency. For one thing, the value of scrip generally decreased over time as the scrip became harder and harder to redeem. Scrip that was five years old was only worth a fraction of its face value. Who wanted to redeem old scrip? Some guilds were better at this than others. Still, in effect, scrip carried negative interest, further reinforcing the anti-social nature of hoarding. A person's status and prestige were based on his generosity.

The Great Bay is not my usual kind of SF, but this is also not the first time I have delved into the Green left either. This book is a post apocalyptic near- and far-future history, told from the perspective of various members a culture of people that arises in California and which sees a golden opportunity in the ashes of our own society. It is a plague book, but that fact doesn't matter much at all; it is merely what makes everything that follows possible, without ever really coloring the outlook of the survivors. I have always been interested in literary propaganda. As such goes this book is pretty subtle, though it does take on an angry tone, briefly, in one or two places. I do not know much about the author, save what is given in the blurb at the end, but he has some SF chops and can spin a yarn. If I had to compare it to anything, I would pick Earnest Callenbach's Ecotopia Ecotopia, though there are some pretty big differences. For starters, Callenbach seems to believe that a green economy can support a high standard of living and a sufficiently sized military-industrial complex, as long as the people who are producing goods strive for the goals and go the hard way to protect the environment. Pendell takes a different course and seems to believe that none of what we have is sustainable, and the only way the human race will thrive - much less survive - is if most of what we have goes away now and stays away.

As a plague novel The Great Bay really says nothing new. A plague comes. All but 1% of the people die of a mysterious sickness. Energy and food distribution fail. People are forced to move to survive. The world burns. Most people help each other. Lots don't. And so, and so forth. But after the catastrophe had passed the world changed. Pendell's devils are not so much plague or rievers or military or government as they are slavery and currency and hoarding and environmental neglect. Following the big die-offs and the trailing chaos a subtle change happened in people. Not so much as a reaction to the way things were, but because their lives dictated different needs and their circumstances required different capabilities, people stopped hoarding and started eschewing currency and gold. Society stated to evolve backwards, so that they went through a mini industrial age until legacy technologies were no longer viable, then a long medieval period, and finally back into a pre-Colombian mode of existence. These folks were all wise, and they maintained an academic understanding of history, and advanced institutions of learning, but abandoned all of the physical sciences. At the same time that the people started to change their natures, the environment went through its own purge. Carbon and methane levels continued to climb as the ice melted off, which created a large bay in central California between the coastal range and the Sierras. The Great Bay is mostly about the next thousand years of California culture and society (and boy-o-boy, does this author really, really understand and love California!), but does go as far forward as 16,000 years, to a time when it seems magic has replaced technology and the world is as clean and plentiful as it is in your best dream.

Pendell's prose is not strictly narrative fiction here. He switches back and forth from third person omniscient narration to first person limited narratives. The book is subtle, but unflinching. It is certainly does not have an "I told you so!" voice; not even a "this must stop, now!" voice. But the voice of the author is present, and it's clear that he thinks not merely that something has to happen, but our way of life has to stop - NOW - or we won't be able to save ourselves. For that reason, and not because any particular ideology or plan is championed overtly, I think that this is propaganda. Readable and enjoyable, yes, but propaganda nonetheless. The stories that Pendell does tell are really only snippets from larger tales. They are almost all compelling and beautifully written, but often stop abruptly (and too soon), never to restart again. But, since they are really not meant as character or plot devices, but only are there to show the state of the culture at their time, the book really suffers not at all because of it. The only issue that I noticed with the writing of this book was that Pendell's narration was really, really broad. I'm sure that this was because of the large scope of the work both in time and geography, but still, I think the work could have used a bit more focus in certain parts, namely the descriptions of changes to the world that appeared between the character-driven pieces. Here's an example:

In 2307 Mt. Lassen erupted, joining a string of active volcanoes in the Cascades. There were spectacular sunsets. Teams all around the Bay played lacrosse, and met for matches.

I really don't see what one has to do with the other. If you ever read this book you will see that Pendell has this annoying habit of writing an entire paragraph about one topic, then throwing a complete non sequitur sentence on the end. Five sentences about government concluded with one sentence about fishing does not an understandable paragraph make. I noticed that several times in this book.

This book is not for everyone. In fact, I can think of several people in my own circle who would be offended if I gave it to them. They would be likely to ask me, after finishing, "where's the fucking dream catcher that came with this book, Greg?" I certainly did not get one when I bought it, but they would not be too wrong about it's spirit. It should have been sold with a "fucking dream catcher." For example, every single character that adopted even the tiniest aspect of our way of life died a horrible death, save for one who wound up submerged in the catch-bucket of a full latrine. Those who survived and thrived and lived by their wits and off of the land, and more importantly those who shared, not only succeeded, but had kids who went on to greater successes. I have found a few books like this over the years. In my own mind I like to call them "low impact apocalypses," because they show the destruction of our world, but a gradual and largely peaceful path to something new and different. Van Pelt and Bellamy are have given other examples of this type of apocalyptic fiction. Make no mistake though, it's not all rainbows and community gardens. There is brutality here - probably wouldn't be a human story if there wasn't - though it generally has a lot more heart than usual:

On July 6, Solomon and I were captured by Barbarians who were going to throw us into a large bonfire. Solomon told the Barbarian chieftain that he didn't wish for him to be burdened with his murder, and walked into the fire and burned to death without uttering a scream, his eyes fixed on the barbarian chieftain. I was released and the Barbarians rode away quickly. The chieftain, whose name is Attal, has recently joined us here and is exceedingly diligent in his practice of Buddhism.

Solomon, a Christian monk, did that to save the Buddhist man and local woman whom he was in love with - whom he was in a three-way love affair with - as a way of saving them.

Pendell's purpose here obviously is to describe an utopia. He gets us there by imbuing people with an outlook that is part zen, part native American spiritualism, and part feminist. I think that the long, 16,000 year course of culture-correction has less to do with individual character's desire to get to this place, and more to do with the mental and spiritual health of the people finding reflection in the health of the environment. That is to say, the Earth heals, the people heal. The story is beautifully told, even if it is very pie-in-the-sky. The ecological aspects are also really well done, and Pendell deserves some credit for that too. From a SF/utopia perspective this book is a win; Pendell did everything that he set out to do here, and he did it well. From a political perspective? I can't imagine that it's anything other than a win there too, even if it is controversial and possibly even divisive.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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