The Disestablishment of Paradise (2014)

Landfall 227 (May 2014)

Green Movement

Phillip Mann. The Disestablishment of Paradise: A Novel in Five Parts plus Documents. ISBN 978 0 575 13262 7. London: Gollancz, 2013. [x] + 516 pp.

Phillip Mann: The Disestablishment of Paradise (2013)

‘I try to avoid simple anthropomorphic parallels.’

‘Then Shapiro was more radical than you. In the essay entitled “Dark Angel” he speaks about the history of the idea that a planet can react to the presence of humans. He cites works of fiction, Solaris, Death World, The Burning Forest, to name but three. Works of fiction, though.’

‘New ideas often manifest themselves first in fiction.’

‘But Science, Dr Melhuish, if it is to have any validity, must deal in facts. ...’ [pp. 63-64]

I have to say it was with a certain satisfaction that I read this passage, near the beginning of Phillip Mann’s epic new novel The Disestablishment of Paradise. First of all (of course), because it’s so nice to have a new Mann novel to read, seventeen years after the fourth and final part of his A Land Fit for Heroes series appeared. His fans are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Secondly, because of the rather self-referential nature of the list he gives of “works of fiction” dealing with “the idea that a planet can react to the presence of humans”. The last of the three, The Burning Forest, is by Mann himself, and is in fact the fourth volume of the tetralogy I mentioned above.

The second, Death World, is presumably a reference to Harry Harrison’s classic Deathworld trilogy, first published in the 1960s, which introduced to hardcore SF writers the notion of a planet completely inimical to humans, which can nevertheless be inhabited under very specialized circumstances.

The first, Solaris, is probably best known through Tarkovsky’s poetic film adaptation of 1972 (rather than – hopefully – Steven Soderbergh’s excruciatingly poor 2002 remake). Stanislaw Lem’s original 1961 novel is a very different kettle of fish from either. In essence, it’s a satire on Academia: with chapter after chapter devoted to a summary of the various competing theories that go up to make up “Solaristics” – the study of the presumed-to-be-sentient ocean occupying the whole of the planet Solaris. It’s also a very complex meditation on the nature of “real” and “simulated” life, in the form of Kris Kelvin’s dead wife Rheya (“Hari” in the Tarkovsky film), who returns to him in the form of a visitor created by the ocean from information encoded in his brain.

The “Shapiro” mentioned in the quotation above, Professor Israel Shapiro, the PhD supervisor (and former lover) of Dr Hera Melhuish, the protagonist of Mann’s novel, was a kind of visionary who saw in these fictional avatars possible models for the changeable behavior of their own rogue planet, Paradise – discovered over a century before by 19-year-old explorer Estelle Richter, then mined for fifty years by a somewhat secretive corporation, then settled and farmed for another fifty, and finally handed over for Scientific study for another couple of decades.

Like Stanislaw Lem’s sentient ocean (also a little like the Queen in Mann’s first novel, The Eye of the Queen (1982)), the planet Paradise appears to be one large living entity which has gradually become aware of these interlopers on its surface only after repeated massacres of huge mobile plant entities such as the Dendrons, now presumed extinct, along with the sinister Michelangelo Reapers, prone to make their nests in the middle of maze-like constructions of other plants.

The plot of Mann’s novel concerns the official decision to withdraw from Paradise, and the last-minute efforts of Hera Melhuish to prevent this, or (at least) to get to know the planet a little better in her last days on its surface.

Like Mann’s earlier Wulfsyarn, the process through which her story is told is in itself an important part of the narrative. Melhuish has chosen a well-known children’s author to reduce her impressions to some kind of novelistic sense, and the book is therefore composed as a dialogue between the two of them, with an appendix of stories and documents from the long, vexed, human history of Paradise to flesh out particular parts of it.

In this way, perhaps, one could say that Mann seems more comfortable with the cerebral metafictional gymnastics of a Stanislaw Lem than the slambang pulp poetics of Harry Harrison (most famous, perhaps, for his creation of the eponymous Stainless Steel Rat, as well as various other hardbitten heroes of the spaceways).

The whole book, in fact, seems to be begging to be read allegorically – Paradise, the planet’s name; the Paradise plum, its most famous export (nowhere is it stated in the Bible that the fruit that Adam and Eve ate was an apple); the Reapers; the immense, Mastodon-like Dendron. But an allegory for precisely what?

Well, that’s the question, really. What is Hera’s story all about? If she knew (as she confesses to her ghost writer) she would write it herself. What does it all mean? In her last months on the surface of Paradise she found true love for the first time, then lost it again when her lover Mac was swallowed up by one of the reapers (thus joining the planet itself rather like the linguist Marius Thorndyke does in The Eye of the Queen). She and Mac are also, however, able to assist the last of the Dendrons in its act of parturition, sawing it in half (its form of giving birth) and thus – possibly – enabling the species’ future survival.

Of course it goes without saying that this is an eco-fable, but it’s nothing as simple and straightforward as (for instance) Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972), written back when the green movement was new, at the end of the 1960s. The eco-poetry of our own times has, it appears, grown darker and stranger – and thus more akin to the dark mechanistic visions of that Polish polymath Stanislaw Lem, writing at the height of the cold war.

Paradise is clearly, in one sense, a “fresh, green breast of the new world” (as Scott Fitzgerald puts it in The Great Gatsby) like all those new European colonies in the Age of Exploration – like Yorkshire-born Mann’s own adoptive New Zealand, in fact.

Is it time for the interlopers to cut their losses and get out? So the Economic Subcommittee of the Space Council has determined, but it’s hard to see this decision as being sustained exactly by the complex balance of profit and loss in Mann’s story. It’s time, certainly, to change the ways in which we have hitherto exploited the land so questionably acquired – but just how, exactly?

Mac and Hera’s cutting apart of the Dendron by chainsaw (a little like Mike Smith’s impromptu demolition job on the lone pine on One Tree Hill?) may not – in itself – guarantee the perpetuation of the species, but at least there’s now the faintest glimmer of hope where there was none before.

Our two heroes’ relations with the Reaper are somewhat more complex. Mac is, in a sense, adopted by it in order to become a kind of spokesman for the land, a Pākehā Māori adapted to this plant-based, single-consciousness world. As in Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel The Black Cloud, the burden is too much for his individual identity, which is annihilated by the experience, but not before he is able to convey some idea of the planet’s plight to Hera herself.

I suppose, parenthetically, a good deal of the pleasure to be found in The Disestablishment of Paradise comes from its affectionate referencing and sampling from the immense corpus of twentieth-century Science Fiction: Lem, Harrison, Le Guin, Clarke (whose Rama series also seems to offer interesting parallels), and all the others woven into his text.

As in Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982), though, the question of what all this suffering was actually for must finally be faced. In Lessing’s book, it results in the creation of an entity capable of almost perfect empathy with another’s pain. In Mann’s, I suspect, nothing so resounding can be expected: the questions are put up, examined from as many angles as possible, debated, weighed, analysed, and then thrown back upon his readers in the hope that they will now be able to make up their own minds.

Matters to do with the planet are, after all, the province of all of us, not just our brave pioneers of Speculative Fiction:
‘New ideas often manifest themselves first in fiction.’

‘But Science, Dr Melhuish, if it is to have any validity, must deal in facts. ...’

Just so. Mann has tried to give us the facts. That he’s done so in the form of a very readable (though undeniably weighty) work of fiction is just the icing on the cake.


Landfall 227 – Vital Signs (2014): 183-85.

[1458 wds]

Landfall 227 (2014)

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