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I've always found Ben Elton's books a bit of a mixed bag. Early efforts, such as Stark, were amusing if a little rough around the edges, whilst later books like The First Casualty were more serious but also more assured. He's certainly never been an author where I've felt compelled to rush out and buy his latest book, although I have mostly enjoyed them when I've finally got round to them.
The end of the world is nigh, as centuries of human pollution finally make life on earth unsustainable. To survive, people race to buy "Claustrospheres" - self-contained worlds in which they live out their remaining years in safety. Meanwhile, Hollywood and the marketing industry have seen a chance to make a bit of final cash out of the end of the world.
Thematically, this is similar to Elton's debut novel Stark, which also looked at how a bunch of rich, selfish people sought to exploit and survive the end of the world, leaving the mass populace to suffer. Inevitably when reading This Other Eden, there were some interesting comparison points with Stark (not least how much sharper Elton now is as a novelist), but there were also times when I felt a distinct sense of déjà vu.
Elton's environmental and political tub-thumping can be a little bit tiresome at times. Of course, he's always been renowned as something of a political firebrand who regularly used his stand-up routines to lambast the stupidity of politicians and push the green agenda. Yet there's no doubt that Elton sometimes gets a little too passionate and overstates his point. If you are reading this book, the chances are that you already understand at least something of the green agenda, but This Other Eden constantly pushes it into your face. Rather than make the reader think about the seriousness of the pollution peril, Elton runs the risk of turning his audience off. There is a real chance that those sympathetic to the green argument will tire of the constant bombardment with facts and figures, whilst those who are cynical or agnostic on the subject will dismiss them as the ravings of a left-wing loony and pay them no further heed.
Like Stark, This Other Eden lacks the sense of balance that Elton's other books have achieved. In The First Casualty, for example, he proved far more adept at mixing "a little bit of politics" with some humour, strong narrative and serious points. Stark and This Other Eden show a man who is still learning that writing novels is very different from writing stand-up routines or comedy scripts. As a result, This Other Eden can sometimes feel a little uneven, leaping wildly between narrative, comedy and politics.
That's not to say that it is not interesting to read. Elton has always proved adept at finding the absurd in even the most serious of situations and there are plenty of very funny moments. These are a mix of Elton's usual sly observations about human attitudes and behaviour, anecdotes which are so ridiculous that they can't possibly be true (yet, sadly, are) and silly situations arising from the plot. Whatever format he is performing in, Elton has never lost his ability to be funny and there were several points in the book which made me laugh, or at the very least smile.
Excluding the over-zealous Green agenda, it is also well-written and well structured. It introduces all the main characters separately before bringing them together to show how their lives impact on each other (and by extension, how the actions of each and every one of us affect someone else). Certainly the characters are somewhat stereotypical (the vain film star, the power-crazed media magnate, the committed green hippy chick and so on) and slightly over-the-top. Yet the rest of the novel is also slightly over-the-top, so his characters need to have these attributes to work within that context.
Elton is also surprisingly balanced in his treatment. Whilst it is abundantly clear which side of the Green agenda he stands on, he does point out some of the absurdities of the more extreme Green organisations (such as their willingness to adopt terrorist tactics, whilst deploring the "criminal" activities of big business). This does mean that for all its tub-thumping it never becomes one, long anti-capitalist, anti-industrial tirade.
This Other Eden does have a very readable style. Individual chapters are split into different sections, each of which has a distinct sub-heading. Again, this very much reflects Elton's style as a stand-up comedian. Some of these are asides which have little or nothing to do with the main plot, some are anecdotes designed to show how badly mankind has trashed the world, and others are there to develop the plot. Whatever their subject, they have the effect of dividing each chapter up into easy-to-read chunks, making it an ideal book for train or bus journeys, since there is always a suitable stopping point just a couple of pages away. Some people may get slightly annoyed at the constant chopping and changing of subject, but I felt it added variety and stopped you getting bored with the antics of one character or one situation.
Yet, I can't deny that the constant pushing of the Green agenda left me feeling slightly cold and dis-engaged. I never felt truly hooked by it. I enjoyed its mix of fact, fiction and humour, yet, had someone taken it off me halfway through, I would most likely have simply shrugged my shoulders and gone off and started a new book with barely a second thought - something which is very out-of-character for me.
This Other Eden
Pocket Books, 1993
© Copyright SWSt 2011
My earliest exposure to Ben Elton came in the days when he was writing scripts for Blackadder. I subsequently caught his earlier stuff when The Young Ones was repeated (a more common occurrence than you might think), then followed him through his stand up days as The Man from Auntie. In addition to his TV appearances, Ben has written plays, musicals and novels. Michael Parkinson described him as "a bit of a clever clogs" and he certainly has a point! Multi talented and seemingly highly successful in pretty much everything he turns his hand to. Elton's writing tends to resemble an extended version of his stand up routines; he takes an issue, generally something which interests society as a whole and lampoons it, creating a story full of satire and concepts stretched to as great a degree as possible. Those of his novels that I have read have a good laugh at the expense of; Big Brother (Dead Famous); movie violence and its effect on society (Popcorn); and Drugs (High Society). In each case, Elton takes common arguments that he considers spurious and shows just how ridiculous they are. His use of the English language is superb and his observations are so sharp that they should have some sort of warning or protective device - satire of the highest quality. Despite, or perhaps because I have read a few of Elton's books I was unprepared for what awaited me in This Other Eden, one of his earlier novels which I recently picked up on one of my regular forays into second-hand-book-land. The theme of the book is the pending doom towards which our planet seems to be hurtling if the marketing prose is to be believed. Set somewhere not too far off in the future, Elton introduces us to a polluted world in which it is not safe to wander around without some sort of protection from the environment. A show down between the environmentalists who are somehow always on hand whenever an environmental disaster takes place, and those wh
o would most profit from the world going down the tubes; the inventors and marketers of the Claustrosphere, a sealed dome in which people can survive the holocaust is imminent. The Claustrosphere, modern versions of which have their own rain cycle, mountain ranges and tennis courts, has been marketed so cleverly that now anyone who is anyone has access to either a private or municipal version. The environmentalists, led by Jurgen Thor, see this as giving up on the planet and getting ready for the "rat race" - the day when everyone will have to head down into their private shelters. Instead, they argue, people should be doing much more to save the planet. Plastic Tolstoy, the man behind the Claustrosphere seems determined to convince people that the world is coming to a speedy end by any means necessary to insure increased sales of his product. Environmental disasters seem to be helping his cause and something smells a little fishy to say the very least. Of all of his novels that I have read this is the one where the satire is most biting and the characters the most ridiculous at justifying their actions. At certain points I felt that he was paying a tribute to Catch 22 by stretching the bounds of credibility to the furthest possible degree. As a result I found it a little difficult to keep track of the characters, the logic that drove them and the subsequent twists in the tale. Although not as laughing-out-loud funny as his other books, here too, Elton takes a subject which is central to society, sets up the arguments that are used by the large industrial concerns and lets rip with a good volley from his pen. Both sides of the argument come under fire, particularly as he suggests that each side serves the interest of their other in advancing their message. This is not Elton's most enjoyable, nor his most accessible novel. He is certainly worth reading however and as a wordsmith and satirist there are v
ery fe w authors who can touch him. Get your hands on Dead Famous first but make a note that this is worth a look too.
Ben Elton, as most of you will know, is a man of many talents. Stand-up comedian, comedy scriptwriter (with co-writing credits on “Blackadder” and “The Young Ones”), playwright, and of course, novelist. “This Other Eden” was his third novel after “Stark” and “Gridlock”, and was published in 1993. If you are familiar with his stand-up comedy, then you will be aware that his favourite topics seem to be ranting against political institutions and everything that he sees wrong with current society. I imagine that people of my age group or above will remember his stand-up routines, constantly and justifiably moaning on about “Mrs. Thatch” and her Tory government. “This Other Eden”, in my opinion, is a slightly longer, more complex and not quite as amusing rant. The story commences with a view into what life is going to be like in the next century for the inhabitants of Earth. The first image described is of a rat gnawing away at a man’s gangrenous leg, and the man then deciding that he is going to have to cut off the leg to save himself – mm, nice. As a reader, you think this is where the story starts. However, we discover that all is not quite as it seems and this cheerful view of the future has been brought to you by one Nathan Hoddy, a British screen writer, whose job it is to come up with ideas of how to market the end of the world. Yes, you did read that correctly, I shall endeavour to explain. The actual story is set sometime in the future – Mr. Elton does not specify exactly when, but you get the impression that it’s not too far off. The society is technically much more advanced than our own: most people (especially in America) undergo lots of plastic surgery, making them as beautiful as they want to be, AIDS is still around so people use spray-on condoms that they carry around in their bags, they use virtual reality helmets in th
eir spare time and travel seems to be more efficient. However, the years and years of human neglect of the planet have left it in a dreadful state. There is virtually no sunlight (and where there is, it is usually man-made), to go outside is to subject yourself to thousands of incredibly harmful carcinogenic rays. Britain has become the dumping ground for the rest of the world and is only too happy to accept toxic waste from all other areas of the globe (to remain best buddies with America). There are an increasing number of environmental disasters, so many in fact, that they only make the news for a matter of hours, if not minutes. Due to this impending Armageddon, referred to throughout the book as the “Rat Run” (hence the image of the rat gnawing off a leg), the people of Earth are buying “Claustrospheres” in ever-increasing numbers. A Claustrosphere, in case you were wondering, is a self-sufficient environment within a large dome-shaped enclosure where, depending on its size, a family or families (or hundreds of families) can live quite happily for many years, never needing (or in fact being able) to leave it. I suppose you could call it the futuristic version of a nuclear shelter. The mere fact that Claustrospheres exist, however, is a cause of great annoyance to those people who still believe that the world is not a lost cause; the environmental terrorist organisation “Mother Earth” and their political wing “Natura”. These two groups are in a constant battle with the Claustrosphere company who they claim is profiting from the end of the world. They believe that for people to buy a Claustrosphere means that they are accepting that one day the Earth is going to die and they are not going to do anything about it, they are, in effect, speeding up the process. By choosing a Claustrosphere, they are turning their backs on the rubbish heap that is earth for their own personal manufactured “edens”. The pictu
re on the front cover is of a Claustrosphere, cleverly illustrated in the shape of an apple (“This Other Eden”, you get it?). The story is not just set in Britain; it flits between America, Britain, Ireland and various parts of Europe. It is told in the third person and follows the fortunes of a variety of very different characters. The first person we meet, as briefly mentioned, is Nathan. He is trying to pitch the ‘rat gnawing off leg’ idea to the most powerful man in the world, American television guru and head of the Claustrosphere incorporation, the unusually yet appropriately named, Plastic Tolstoy. Plastic has achieved this position of power through convincing the world that marketing is all that matters and that, beforehand, there really were too many programmes breaking up the adverts. Plastic Tolstoy, therefore, is the creator of the “advertainment”, an extra long advert whose aim it is to capture people’s attention whilst also selling them things. Of course, soap operas still exist, but they are full-to-bursting with product placements, they all have the same content and are automatically and simultaneously dubbed into thousands of languages, thus making their production much cheaper and the rewards much greater. Televised news also exists but is itself subject to Tolstoy’s megalomaniac control, meaning that news of disasters is always cleverly followed up by Claustrosphere adverts, encouraging people to buy one while they still can! The other main characters include Max Maximus, a very popular American actor (who stars in advertainments and virtual reality games), Rosalie Donnelly, an Irish Mother Earth activist, Jurgen Thor, the sex-god Scandinavian leader of Natura and Judy Schwartz, a geeky looking MALE FBI agent. The heroes of the piece are Max and Rosalie, who have a kind of chalk and cheese relationship and who are together, trying to save the world (Max is joining in though, mainly
because he fancies Rosalie). I did not entirely understand what Judy’s role was in the whole thing. I think he was supposed to be some kind of comic “straight” man or something. I didn’t understand his motives for finding out about the environmental disasters even though he was the most believable of all the characters. I suppose you could class this story as soft sci-fi, if you can call it sci-fi at all. Although we are told about the technical inventions and the problems the Earth is having, I do not feel they are described in sufficient detail for you to imagine them clearly enough or for them to seem realistic (there are various bits that just don’t add up either). In my opinion, the novel is more an excuse for Elton to vent his bile about everything he sees wrong with today’s society. He lends chapters to moaning about taxi drivers, movie directors, people that throw gum on the floor, baggage handlers at airports, theatrical agents, and so on and so forth. To be honest, this book, for me, is a thinly veiled rant against western society and our apathy in general. Sometimes he sounds like an old man down the pub, moaning about the state of everything. The tone of Elton’s writing in this book is generally tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic. He obviously holds a very bleak view on the future and of mankind in general, and a very cynical view of our governments. Of course, he takes the situation to the nth degree but this is sometimes a good thing as he has valid points to make and by exaggerating, it captures your attention more. From an environmental point of view, this book could be successful in shocking people into taking a closer and more cynical look at the society around them and not just trusting blindly in their governments and Hollywood films. He successfully puts across his view that all of us are selfish in our own way – the people flocking to buy claustrospheres care more about saving thems
elves than saving the planet, Jurgen Thor cares more about his image and his sex life than he does about sticking to his morals and fighting for the planet, Plastic Tolstoy, well, Plastic Tolstoy is everything that Elton thinks is wrong with our commercial society rolled into one. The only people he makes us like are Rosalie and her family, they are the ones who have been least affected by the trappings of modern life and still have morals and something to fight for. Parts of the book also seem to be about innocence lost – the naivety of youth and thinking you can change something, growing into age and experience and the slow and sad acceptance that you’re really not that important after all and unlikely to ever change anything. I sometimes thought some of the characters might be metaphors for Elton himself. The hapless writer constantly battling to get his original thoughts heard by monstrous moviemakers. The geeky but incredibly intelligent guy, the once naive environmentalist becoming cynical about it all. I did have problems with this book, however, which is why I haven’t given it a very high rating. I felt that the characters were all a bit stereotyped – the heart-throb young actor, the fiery red-haired Irish girl, the fat cat corporation owner, the large, powerful looking nature-loving Scandivanian and the geeky American Federal agent – they are all easy to picture and yet not three-dimensional enough for my liking. I was interested in the plot though and especially how it was going to turn out, for example, was the world actually going to end? Were they going to get to the bottom about who was causing the environmental disasters (although, that was pretty obvious)? Were Rosalie and Max going to get together and stay together? There are amusing aspects to the novel too, although it did not make me laugh out loud. I would recommend it, if you are interested in seeing a disturbing view of the future and
like a fairly interesting plot. If you want really interesting characters, a stunning plot and are not interested in reading Elton’s opinions on the world and its dog, then don’t read this, or don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Regular reader of my opinions will notice I’ve become quite a fan of Elton’s books recently. This is the longest and probably the best thought out book I have read of his so far. At the outset, I didn’t think I was going to like it, as it got off to a very slow start, but once you get a feel for the story and the characters, it becomes a lot more enjoyable and interesting. It’s an adventure set in the not too distant future, with a bit of humour and a little politics thrown in for good measure. At the time of the book, the end of the world is not too far away, the way we have treated the earth over the years has finally caught up with us – there are massive holes in the ozone layer raining cancerous sunrays down on the earth, poisonous gases and liquids that must be disposed of, things aren’t looking too healthy. Enter media giant Plastic Tolstoy, President of the Claustrosphere corporation and one of the most important men in Hollywood. The end of the world is the best thing that could happen to him, as he sells little Biodomes (Claustrospheres) in which the public can live safely after the Rat Run (end of the world). That’s all well and good, but there are people opposed to the Claustrospheres. Natura are the future equivalent of the Green Party, led by Jurgen Thor, who argues that by buying these Claustrospheres, the public are becoming complacent about Green Issues – after all, why should they care about looking after the world if they are going to be able to step into these little worlds after the death of the planet? Rosalie is a prominent terrorist in the Mother Earth organisation, a more militant wing of the Natura party, determined to force change by actions. Max Maximus is one of the biggest stars on the planet, perfect to star in the type of film to promote Claustrospheres even further. However, by chance he meets Rosalie, becomes besotted with her, and chases her round the world
, despite the obvious conflicts of interest. This allows Rosalie a glance at the world from the inside, and soon they start to put two and two together and getting and answer that neither of them really likes. I was almost at the point of giving up with this book – it’s quite long, at a shade under 500 pages, and the first 100 pages are pretty tough going, as it gets a little confusing as the plot takes a fair while to develop, and for a good while there really isn’t any clear indication as to what the plot is even going to be. This makes reading slightly laborious, and I only managed about a chapter in a sitting. The writing style isn’t as relaxed in his other books, it’s less chatty and requires a lot more concentration on your behalf, and a lot more thinking. However, persistence pays off, and once the book does start to pick up and you get an idea of the plot, it does get a little more exciting, and every thing starts to speed up from the initial slow pace. It’s divided into 27 chapters, and the first few chapters take turns in introducing us to the main characters, and allow us to get a feel for them and get to know them. I feel he does it well this way, building the characters up at the start rather than us learning about them along the way, as once the plot starts to get going, knowing what the characters opinions are and how they think makes the book make more sense. It also allows for a lot of surprise as the characters change tack and go off in directions you wouldn’t expect them too, as they harden and soften their views according to their situation. You have Max – typical arrogant movie star, obsessed with his image and what people think of him. He provides a lot of the humour, as he has to come to grips with life in the real world – people who actually do jobs for a living and don’t go out partying all night. This naïve sense of the world gives him some great lines
, as well as some funny situations, where his acting really excites him. Rosalie is the absolute contrast to him – brash and opinionated, headstrong and independent, able to make it quite easily on her own. While the unison of the two is unexpected, the book has crafted the characters so that it is believable, and you can see the effect they have on each other as they come to understand each other’s ideas, and how they mange to work as a team for the better. Plastic Tolstoy is an excellent villain, despicable and completely selfish, seeing other people for what they can do for him and nothing else. Controlling the news networks means he has virtual control and allows him to screen adverts for his Claustrospheres after each disaster, tempting the public into buying one and safeguarding their future. Judy Schwartz is the FBI agent investigating Mother Earth’s militant actions and he manages to get drawn into the world and ends up taking their side. A nerdy, small man, he has endured a life of ridicule at the FBI, no one taking him seriously, and sees this as his opportunity to gain respect in the bureau. Jurgen Thor is another self-important man, as obsessed with his own image as he is with saving the planet. In a way, you can see how much he and Tolstoy have in common yet they are so different. The book works well because it manages to combine people who seemingly shouldn’t get on together, but manage to overcome this and work together for the good of the planet. Because the book builds up their characters so well it does become believable, as you can see past their jobs and facades and have an idea of their true character underneath, what they stand for, and what they want. It’s great to see the characters change as the story goes on; they see what they believe in falling around them and how they overcome it. Looking at the characters at the end of the book, it’s hard to believe it’s the same characters as
seem to grow as people during the book. The book is nicely thought out – it keeps throwing twists into the cauldron to keep you on your toes and prevent you getting to comfortable in what you think is going on. The book shows what some people will do for power and how two faced people can be when a little bit of responsibility is thrown at them, and how they manage to justify their actions. Once it gets going, the story is quite fast and exciting, with a good mixture of action and humour. The humour is mostly spoken humour between the characters, either from Max misunderstanding something in the real world, or a witty remark from some one, or a sarcastic one liner. Sometimes they’re quite subtle and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss them. There’s also a fair amount of visual humour, it isn’t the falling over type of slapstick humour, but more the type of them getting into difficult situations that don’t go quite they way they plan it. It isn’t laugh out loud funny, but there is plenty to keep you smiling, and coupled with the speedy plot it makes an enjoyable read. It’s quite a satirical book. It isn’t highly political, but you can see subtle digs at society during the book. With the book being set in the future, it allows Elton to write about the way things will proceed if they continue the same way they are at the moment, so we have the European parliament with no toilets because no country wanted to say they made the toilets, the government still as ineffectual as ever, films being replaced my two hour adverts overflowing with product placement, and the public still lapping up talk shows so much that it’s the people without problems who feel dysfunctional now. Elton never allows the satire to get in the way of the plot, but you can always see it bubbling away underneath the surface, this also adds a lot of humour to the book, it’s quite like some of the st
uff he talks about when he does stand up, like how easily the public are lead by television and so on. It’s a very enjoyable book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. On the surface it’s an “us against them” battle off the small people against the corporate giants, with a fair smattering of humour thrown in for good measure, but look underneath the skin and you see a book with a fair amount of truth in it, and it is quite scary to see Elton’s view of the future. Definitely worth a look.
This book doesn't have many bad points. It's funny even though it's about Armageddon, which is usually not portrayed in a humourous way, and why should it be? Ben Elton has an imagination that runs wild throughout the plot, and the futuristic evolvements that he describes kept me captivated because although some were a bit far-fetched (complete identity change through plastic surgery in one afternoon), others were possiblities (virtual reality helmets in every household and electronic books). This is a novel that cannot be taken too seriously, because although we all know the end of the world is nigh, it won't be in our lifetime and Elton makes irony part of the lighthearted feel. Read it and smile people, I did.
So what do you get from this Ben Elton novel? Like every other there is political correctness, stand-up observational humour splattered throughout liberally (sic), and this time a pretty decent plot too. Okay so it’s not earth shattering or going to win the Nobel Prize for Plot Complexity but it’s way better than Gridlock and adds to the enjoyment. Nathan is a British writer and has written what he wants to be a blockbuster movie. Only problem is someone really doesn’t like his movie and really doesn’t want Nathan to stay alive to make it. The earth in on the brink of environmental disaster and for the Eco-terrorists, Mother Earth, it is their opportunity to blow up things and say how awful things are, whilst for Jurgen Thor it is the opportunity to sell Claustrospheres (a survival chamber for those rich enough to afford it when the Earth finally dies). Gone is the huge print of Gridlock to pad out the book and back is the small print of Stark, required to cram it all in. Plenty of hilarious rambling and laugh out loud humour (I’m keen on that) and only slightly marred by the slightly nauseating and too convenient ending. Don’t let it put you off though as you’ll be wetting your pants way before the vomiting begins! Excellent stuff if you like his political correct humour. If you’re not sure try Popcorn first, or Stark if the violence and abusive language of Popcorn doesn’t appeal.