April 23, 2013

Hamish MacDonald is the author of four novels and the creator of the DIY Book podcast. It was this last that I heard of first a number of years ago, and it struck a chord. The idea of being in control of the publishing process right from the first germ of an idea through the writing and printing and binding all the way to selling the finished book online was (and is) an intriguing one. The project is now complete and the complete archive is accessible for free at the link above. I highly recommend you have a look if you’re interested in publishing your own writing.

It was with this background that a few of us met MacDonald last year at the International Alternative Press Fair in London. I almost always leave events like the IAPF having spent our entire take on small press books and magazines, and that day wasn’t any different. One of the things I picked up was MacDonald’s novel Finitude, an adventure story set in the midst of catastrophic climate change. This year I’m supposedly catching up with my unread backlog, or at least making a sizeable dent in it, and so a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading Finitude.

I shouldn’t have waited so long — it’s a great little book. Although set in an almost-Earth engulfed by the devastating effects of changing climate, it doesn’t read like a polemic. It remembers to be an entertaining story first; it’s a fable of climate change. It helps that MacDonald has Douglas Adams’ ear for dialogue. The world might be falling apart around them, but the characters in Finitude never sound anything other than human. Wittier than most of us, but human nonetheless. It is this bounding good nature that carries the episodic narrative through to the book’s beautifully gauged conclusion.

Even if this was a normal book I’d recommend it, but if you are interested in DIY publishing, you need to pick up one of MacDonald’s creations, if only to understand the kind of quality that is achievable by doing things on your own. Finitude is beautifully written, strongly edited (often a key failing of self-published books), well designed and constructed. I’ll be reading more, and so should you.

- Euan

Hope for the Best and Prepare for the Worst

January 10, 2010

In Hamish MacDonald’s ‘Finitude,’ humankind teeters on the brink of extinction after failing to clean up its environmental act and save the planet

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Over the past few months Taiwan-based journalist Dan Bloom has become more and more concerned with climate-change issues, notably the prospect of humanity retreating to new cities built in the polar regions to escape rising temperatures elsewhere. So when he strongly urged me to read a new novel, published online and set in an environmentally devastated future, I felt duty-bound to take a look.

E-books are the modern version of self-publishing. Contrary to what many choose to think, this is an honorable way of issuing works, and one with a long history. William Blake printed and colored his own books, Shelley had pamphlets privately printed and then tried to hand them out to passing citizens, and Ronald Firbank self-published all his novels, now considered by many as classics, in the 1920s. Even James Joyce’s Ulysses was self-published in a way — brought out by a friend who ran a Paris bookshop rather than by an established publishing house.

Hamish MacDonald stands in this august tradition, writing novels and issuing them online, but also hand-printing and binding them in his own workshop. This combination of the newest and one of the oldest technologies feels like the true mark of a dedicated indie publisher.

Finitude is set at an unspecified time in the future. Two men, Jeremy and Victor, are heading for somewhere called Iktyault in search of Jeremy’s parents. On the road they encounter other travelers, plus whole societies, that have responded in different ways to the horrors brought on or threatened by climate change. “Terraists” roam the land, frozen ground is thawing and releasing methane that’s waiting to ignite, there are Non-Reproduction Benefits, compressed air cars (now obsolete), something intended to be edible called Mete (“no amount of cooking was going to make it better”), a city of the blind, a sea of plastic, gangs, looting and, needless to say, wars over resources.

This is essentially a novel of ideas. None of the characters is particularly memorable, and you wouldn’t lose much sleep if one of the major players disappeared in a flash of light — an ever-present possibility. But the ideas are strong — sometimes ingenious, but more often just humane. Others had “spent the wealth of the world,” says a warlord, Tydial Lupercus, in a memorable phrase; once a farmer, he began to move north as his topsoil turned to dust. Disaster struck because people debated the science of the situation rather than simply caring for the planet, argues another. And carbon trading was intended to help poorer nations, but when one of them didn’t play ball the world government (the “International Coalition”) simply invaded, and so on.

There’s some grim humor, too. The pair arrive at one destination and a character offers a toast to “the ultimate survivors.” Jeremy, however, “wasn’t sure if he was referring to them or the cockroaches.” And the permafrost is thawing, the ice in the oceans melting, and if the trapped methane suddenly erupts the planet is going to become “a big, lifeless rock.” To which a character replies: “Suddenly the fact that I’m feeling hungry doesn’t seem so important.”

The government and its efforts are viewed with considerable skepticism. It had announced a “VC (Victory over the Climate) Day,” and was now planning to launch a rocket to block the sun’s rays and so reduce the Earth’s temperature. Little goes according to plan, however. Yet the book ends on a slightly optimistic note, with any final collapse at least temporarily delayed, and the now reunited family setting off by boat towards some sort of viable future. The author doesn’t give many credible grounds for their optimism — someone mentions the possibility of a 50-year reprieve — and you feel that this ending was adopted in preference to a bleak one of total collapse, or an ecological equivalent to Orwell’s Room 101.

One curiosity is that there’s a casually-treated gay element in the story. Maybe the lack of comment by other characters is meant to represent a likely characteristic of society in general in the future. Certainly it’s never explained in any other terms.

Finitude stands in the tradition of dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. These offered visions of nightmarish futures with the implicit message that this was how things might turn out if we didn’t take action to change our ways. Huxley warned of eugenics, or tampering with the genes of our descendants, and Orwell of the totalitarianism that was inseparable, as he saw it, from communism. In the place of these fears, Finitude offers unchecked global warming, the danger almost everyone is now focusing on. The strange thing is that we haven’t been deluged with novels on this theme already.

This book reads more like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy than the science fiction it would have been classified as 10 years ago. Science fiction is supposed to deal with future events that are, from a rational viewpoint, never likely to happen. Finitude, by contrast, feels more like ecological prophecy.

This is a coherent, lively and fast-moving attempt to put a widely feared future into imaginative, fictional form. It’s all the more attractive for being available free of charge online for prospective readers to sample at their leisure. All this author’s novels are available in a format that can be downloaded to e-book readers at hamishmacdonald.com/novels/novels.html. Finitude can also be read online at hamishmacdonald.com/novels/novels/finitude.html, and hand-bound copies ordered from the home page of the same Web site.

Reader Reviews

Speaking of the End Of The World As We Know It, I’m reading a book by an amazing micropress publisher who hand-makes all his (gorgeous!) books. He’s Hamish MacDonald, and the book is Finitude. It’s not really the kind of book I’d normally read… speculative fiction, sci-fi, end-times kind of thing. But the confession is — I’m really digging it.

The world is ending because of humanity’s environmental abuses. But our anti-hero — a gay salesman who just wants to save his own ass — makes it superfascinating and not preachy.

MacDonald knows how to tell a story well, and has an imagination on par with some of the most famous science fiction writers out there. The characters are well-painted and the action is downright filmic. Thumbs up for making me read something out of my normal range… and like it.

- Sandra Alland, blissfultimes.ca

I finished Finitude at the weekend — I totally loved it! I found myself really looking forward to nabbing another 10 minutes to read some more and really wondering what would happen next. It has a right rollicking plot line (a bit like teen fiction) that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you forwards. I loved the inventiveness of the 'universe' it created — I believed it, and that's half the battle. It was also really special to hold a book made by the author themselves... it added to the experience.

- Liz Holt, LizHolt.co.uk

Hamish MacDonald has seen the future and written it down in a picaresque new novel called Finitude. It's not about the end of the world, but almost. It's about climate change and global warming, set in the near future in a parallel world which has fallen into chaos — and is borderless and nameless. It's Mad Max meets The Road. It's Douglas Adams on acid. It's a world that very well might be, and it incorporates the very real headlines of today to create a very realistic world of tomorrow. It's not a pretty picture, but it's very well written, very well plotted, very well paced and with a cast of characters that will keep you turning the pages until the very end. And it ends on a positive note... Sort of.

- Danny Bloom, northwardho.blogspot.com

* Mr Bloom has also written a longer review

Hamish MacDonald's novel Finitude should be a favourite for anyone concerned with the environment and who also doesn't want to be overwhelmed with doom. There are not too many light-hearted end-of-the-world adventure stories -with a little bit of romance thrown in- that are well-researched and optimistic in spite of the dystopian cataclysmic setting.

Like all of Hamish MacDonald's books, the characters in Finitude are fresh, memorable, and very likeable accidental antiheroes. After finishing the book, I was left hoping for both a prequel and sequel that could expand the story. A prequel because the beginning of the book, set in a near future world, was full of fun quirky details such as ingenious devices to buy privacy back from ever more invasive advertising, designer rhinestone-studded gas masks, and 'Mete', favourite food of the masses. And a sequel because most of the story takes place after all hell breaks loose (environmentally) and is a fast moving adventure spanning oceans, continents, and epiphanies on plastic gyres - that leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next in a changed and challenging world.

What holds the story together through a multitude of dynamic twists and turns, are the three main character's abilities to feel love, hope, and determination to keep going, no matter how bad things look. It is exciting to find a new author who uses intelligence, heart, and humble humour to confront the frightening environmental realities of our current world.

- Cynthia L'Hirondelle, Three Penny Publishing