This month I had a chance to speak with Bruce Castle, the low-key Indie author of a deeply underrated tale with a lot of interesting structural elements underpinning the story. A Tale of Two Islands is a showcase of comparisons and contrast, told from the perspective of two very different men visiting very different island communities. The complexity lies in how the various gears of each story – the characters, the locations, the seasons – mesh and engage, grinding between their teeth questions of morality and belonging.
Bruce, you describe the Hyacinth commune in A Tale of Two Islands as both idyllic and anarchic. In what way is the social structure of the commune more inspired by anarchist ethos than communist or democratic ethos.
I have used “Anarchist” as short-hand for a non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical society. As the Communards say themselves, they don’t relate to any particular doctrine. The commune is communistic – the idea of the gift economy: from each their ability, to each their need. I think many people forget by definition communism means the withering away of both state and plutocracy… the end of remote, unaccountable governments and corporations… and here it conjoins with anarchism, which is itself a philosophy which should never be confused with permissive libertarianism. Anarchism is not at all nihilistic as it imposes a high degree of responsibility on the individual, not just responsibility for oneself but for one’s community too. To quote Albert Camus, “The Absurd (individual freedom) does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorise all actions.”
It is the responsibility of every Hyacinth resident to attend local meetings and to be heard; apathy is not an option – the Communards consider this to be democracy, more so than voting based on distorted information or self-interest once every four or five years for a representative you have never met.
Hyacinth is idyllic because the island is picturesque, the gift economy guarantees material security for all, and the leaders may lead, but they can never command or dictate.
Do you have any personal experience with living in a commune, or other communal lifestyles?
No, not really. The New Town of Hyacinth is based, to some extent at least, on a sixties university campus, which is the mindset of the Communards: the desire to live in a relaxed bubble of erudition and civility. Hyacinth is collegiate as much as communal. This raises an important infrastructure issue: the people of Hyacinth live in an entirely sensible and practical way – there are none of the yurts or residential old buses one might find in a stereotyped hippie commune.
More broadly, then, what inspired the story?
As there are two stories, each has a different origin.
The Hyacinth tale’s origin is literary. I was inspired by utopian/dystopian works, but these tend to be very similar: utopian novels describe the society from the wide-eyed, credulous perspective of a guest; dystopian from the view of an oppressed individual within the society. Mix it up and you have a prodigal son who rejects utopia on the basis of bloody-minded resentment – he is selfish, opinionated and dismissive of the ideals of the commune. I thought it more interesting, or original, to make the protagonist familiar with the principles, yet still be an attack dog for reactionary “common sense”, and have him argue against the commune ethos.
The Barron tale came about from a news story about the lack of fresh vegetables on the Falkland Islands – ping! The idea was formed of sending a naïve idealist off to the South Atlantic to build a vegetable garden.
How do you think living on an island, as opposed to say, a river or interstate corridor, or even an isolated rural area, affects the local society?
Islands, even in the 21st century, can become isolated. It’s an essential part of both narratives. Hyacinth is able to be “alternative” without the general public coming to gawp and stare – or persecute. Barron is left in a time-warp because no one goes there and no one is interested – the language and culture have evolved in isolation. The inability of outsiders to gain uncontrolled access to the communities is more feasible if they are on remote islands.
However… both communities can be seen as metaphorical: Hyacinth as an intellectual, liberal elite; the Barron “natives” as a disenfranchised, alienated and abandoned working class. These two groups have a degree of separation from wider society without the need for oceans.
On a more meta level, how do you think the structural element of telling two stories in parallel impacts your storytelling in terms of plot, characterization, etc?
Wow, big question! And the crux of the novel.
The two threads are alternating, contemporaneous circular narratives, both on the “hero’s journey” model. They proceed along (around?) this similar pattern without truly intersecting. There are any number of orthologous characters, groups and situations as I try to explore the idea of opposites – I call them “anti-parallel binaries” – through the two narratives. For example, the seasons: Barron goes from spring to autumn as Hyacinth goes from autumn to spring – because they are in different hemispheres.
In terms of characterisation, I had to be careful. The trap would be to make characters good or evil, whereas I explicitly reject the notion of Good versus Evil. Again using an example: Hyacinth’s Karl Dittersdorf is kind and generous, yet there is a dark shadow in his past; Barron’s Governor is personable and helpful, but scheming and manipulative. They are also opposites in one important sense – Karl claims no ascendancy over Hyacinth even though he is its founder; the Governor of Barron, for all his drunken bonhomie, is seeking to control.
It sounds really complicated! What was the biggest struggle you had with making the world-building cohesive?
Well, the problem with Barron was basing it on the Falklands and then changing everything, all manner of little details, so it was clearly NOT the Falklands – to avoid causing offence.
Hyacinth is not much like the actual Channel Islands, Jersey, Guernsey et al – especially with regard to politics! One fact I did use: Jersey has very productive agriculture and horticulture industries for so small an island, which is really useful if you want to build a sustainable community.
Using real islands as a basis means the geography is already pretty cohesive, and that leaves more freedom to play with the societies.
You mentioned that sustainability is a big element of A Tale of Two Islands. How well do you think the concepts outlined the novel scale up to larger societies?
Another reason for the setting of two islands. A community of eight-hundred is easier to cater for than a city of ten million. I don’t think this makes everything irrelevant and inapplicable to larger societies though.
The green energy described for Hyacinth is real and practical; it is happening gradually all around us, however often the oil,coal and nuclear industries brief about its impracticability. Bio-fuels are more controversial because they occupy either agricultural land required for food production or entail the destruction of rain forest (such as for palm oil plantations), which is why I had only a few Hyacinth fishing boats use vegetable oil for fuel.
Growing vegetables at the location where they will be consumed is an interesting subject. Yes, it is possible. During WW2, no one in Britain starved; in fact the nation was the healthiest it had ever been. The country moved from importing billions of tons of food to near self-sufficiency in a year or two. Many people took to vegetable growing in their gardens or on allotments. Basically, give a family 400 square metres of fertile ground, a few packets of seeds, a dozen potatoes… and time to dig… and it can produce all the vegetables it needs. Excess in the summer can be frozen or otherwise stored.
How to explain the insanity of flying green beans from Kenya and potatoes from Egypt to the UK every day, when they can be easily grown in everyone’s garden? People don’t grow their own because they don’t have to, not because they can’t.
In that case, what is it about the infrastructure of Hyacinth that makes it more idyllic than West Barron?
If you look carefully at the supposed locations of the two islands they are at a similar latitudes, north and south. The pleasant climate of Hyacinth is down partly to the Gulf Stream, the warm currents of the Atlantic surrounding the island contrasting with the icy winds from the Antarctic which rake Barron.
This is only part of the answer, the geography. The general atmosphere of each island is very different; this due to Hyacinthians engineering the island’s infrastructure, compared to the lack of constructive intervention on Barron.
For example, the west coast of Hyacinth is dotted with large wind-turbines facing into the teeth of the Atlantic gales and, in harvesting the energy of the wind, reduce its ferocity across the island. They have planted woodlands, maturing by the time of the story, and have placed New Town at the eastern end, away from the prevailing storms.
Contrast this with Barron, where less investment in the infrastructure means the environment remains hostile, written off as good for nothing but sheep. Except for the Governor’s house, where trees and windbreaks create a micro-climate; the English garden in the midst of bleak moors is a way of signalling the Governor’s privileged position.
Are there any cool elements of the infrastructure set-up in A Tale of Two Islands that you’d like to expand on?
I must give a pun alert, as the coolest piece of infrastructure is cryogenic energy storage. It’s a single sentence in the novel, saying how the wind energy can be stored for when the wind doesn’t blow. I don’t expand on it at all in the novel. But to explain the principle briefly: excess electricity is used to cool and compress ordinary air, which is then stored in large insulated and pressurised containers. When the energy is required the evaporation and expansion of the liquefied air is used to drive a turbine. Hey presto – you have the energy back. It’s a real technology currently being explored.
Much neater and more cutting edge than my original thought – I was going to build a large, artificial reservoir in the centre of Hyacinth where water could be pumped and stored, and then released to generate hydro-electric power.