Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: 'Garbage World' by Charles Platt

 2 / 5 Stars

‘Garbage World’ was published in 1967 (Belmont Tower Books paperback edition,144 pp.; cover artist is uncredited).

In a colonized asteroid belt, garbage is loaded into large ‘blimps’ and jetted across space to crash-land on the asteroid Kopra, the designated trash heap for the system. After decades of serving as a landfill, the rocky surface of Kopra is buried under a layer of waste 10 miles thick. The scattered villages that lie atop this strata of garbage are happy enough with their lot, picking through each blimp’s contents for salvageable items, drinking moonshine, and partying when the occasion demands it. The Koprans are hostile towards the colonists of the other asteroids, seeing them as supercilious weenies with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.

A the novel opens, a survey ship from the asteroid belt government lands on Kopra. Its two passengers, a bureaucrat named Larkin and his assistant, Oliver Roach, have bad news for the Koprans: the layer of trash surrounding the asteroid has grown so large as to make the asteroid’s orbit unstable. In order to prevent the trash from flying off the surface and into the orbits of the other asteroids, the gravity generator on Kopra will have to be replaced. And for that to take place, everyone on Kopra will have to be evacuated. This news is met with anger by the inhabitants of the garbage world. It’s up to Oliver Roach to gain their confidence and effect their removal.

‘Garbage World’ is a serviceable, but not particularly exciting, SF adventure. It’s not really a New Wave SF tale, but it does display the expanded approach to the genre that typified the New Wave ethos. By focusing on the sociology of the Kopran civilization and its uneasy relationship with the affluent worlds that enable it to survive in its own (rather deviant) manner, Platt was effectively prefiguring the ‘Garbage Mountain’ reality of Third World life in the present day.

Take, for example, the Payatas dump in the suburbs of Manilla:

As we come over a rise, my first glimpse of Payatas is hallucinatory: a great smoky-gray mass that towers above the trees and shanties creeping up to its edge. On the rounded summit, almost the same color as the thunderheads that mass over the city in the afternoons, a tiny backhoe crawls along a contour, seeming to float in the sky. As we approach, shapes and colors emerge out of the gray. What at first seemed to be flocks of seagulls spiraling upward in a hot wind reveal themselves to be cyclones of plastic bags. The huge hill itself appears to shimmer in the heat, and then its surface resolves into a moving mass of people, hundreds of them, scuttling like termites over a mound. From this distance, with the wind blowing the other way, Payatas displays a terrible beauty, inspiring an amoral wonder at the sheer scale and collective will that built it, over many years, from the accumulated detritus of millions of lives.

Hundreds of scavengers, brandishing kalahigs and sacks, faces covered with filthy T-shirts, eyes peering out like desert nomads' through the neck holes, gather in clutches across the dump. Gulls and stray dogs with heavy udders prowl the margins, but the summit is a solely human domain. The impression is of pure entropy, a mass of people as disordered as the refuse itself, swarming frantically over the surface. But patterns emerge, and as trucks dump each new load with a shriek of gears and a sickening glorp of wet garbage, the scavengers surge forward, tearing open plastic bags, spearing cans and plastic bottles with a choreographed efficiency. 

In this regard, ‘Garbage World’ may be seen as an example of the ways in which SF can address topics and issues well in advance of other genres of literature.

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