Sunday, March 1, 2015

Guest post - Tim Major on Cosy Catastrophes and Heavy Knitwear SF

The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ was coined by Brian Aldiss in his science fiction history ‘Billion Year Spree’. Cosy catastrophes are stories involving a sudden non-violent event that wipes out most of civilization; the cosiness refers to the conceit of a band of survivors left to rebuild society in relative comfort. Aldiss originally used the phrase to describe (with a hint of criticism, perhaps) John’s Wyndham’s novels, particularly ‘The Day of the Triffids’.

There’s something peculiarly British about the cosy catastrophe. It’s a stereotype that we Brits enjoy a good moan, but there’s truth in it. However, I think we also relish situations in which we must roll up our sleeves and get on with something practical, too. Cosy catastrophes are wish-fulfilment fantasies linked to left-leaning politics, environmental idealism and frustrations with the complexity of modern life. When I’m mired in convoluted processes in my day job, I read post-disaster fiction and I’m almost envious of the characters’ simpler goals.

Cosy catastrophes seem dated nowadays. In modern fiction, if there’s a disaster, the world afterwards is going to be awful. Rather than shacking up in cuddly communes, we’ll be staggering about in wastelands like those depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. However, some cosy catastrophe elements have prevailed. On the Mild Concern film website, Tim Brandon coined the phrase ‘Heavy Knitwear SF’ to describe a particularly grubby, down-to-earth vision of the future, a muddy subset of the post-apocalypse. These books and films contain little in the way of technology. In general, the threats and the solutions are humdrum.

I love these types of stories. I enjoy the smallest of leaps from the contemporary world to one entirely changed, because it leaves characters and locations intact and recognisable. Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ backgrounds all of society’s technological advances in order to concentrate on the fate of a small group. Jonathan Glazer’s astounding film adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘Under the Skin’ grounds the story in a Glasgow so recognisably alien that we accept the ability of an actual extra-terrestrial to navigate it without comment from onlookers.

It’s about grime, I suppose. Every frame of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’—my favourite SF film—is suffused with dirt. Every character has soil beneath his fingertips. It’s easy to identify with characters that spend their days tired, hopeless and covered in muck. Alfonso Curaon’s superb adaptation of ‘Children of Men’ barely features any elements of colour. The biggest success of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ is not the monster, not the terrific cast, but the filth. The sense that the Nostromo is truly inhabited makes its invasion far more galling.

In my novella, ‘Carus & Mitch’, I’ve played with these conventions. It’s a cosy catastrophe story, at least at first, and it features a number of items of heavy knitwear and a great deal of grime. However, Carus and Mitch themselves don’t fully understand quite what dangers lie outside their remote house. I hope that readers will enjoy sifting through the clues to determine what kind of dystopia the world has become.

Tim Major’s dystopian novella, ‘Carus & Mitch’, is published on 23rd Feb 2015 by Omnium Gatherum. Find out more on GoodReads.

You can follow Tim via Twitter (@onasteamer) or his blog, coincidentally named ‘Cosy Catastrophes’.

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