Recent Climate Fiction – Four Brief Book Reviews - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

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  1. Even If Everything Ends by Jens Liljestrand (Scout Press, 2023)
  2. Mobility by Lydia Kiesling (Crooked Media Reads, 2023)
  3. The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins (Atria Books, 2023)
  4. The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow (Tor Publishing Group, 2023)

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  1. Even If Everything Ends by Jens Liljestrand (Scout Press, 2023)

According to New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, “Novels are better indexes of the temper of their time than any scholarly history”.  If that is true, readers in the future may get a sense of the 2020s from eco-fiction like these four examples.  Young characters also play key roles in this group of novels, in keeping with this issue’s Youth theme.

A female Internet influencer appears in Even If Everything Ends, by Swedish novelist Jens Liljestrand.  This character, Melissa, voices one of four linked first-person accounts in this novel about coping with an environmental crisis.  Melissa is wrestling with a drug dependency in Stockholm when Didrik, an old boyfriend, turns up with his infant daughter in tow.

Didrik narrates the second segment.  He and his family — including wife Carola and two older children — have had a nightmarish escape from widespread deadly wildfires during a beach vacation up north.  The family members got separated from each other while fleeing, and Carola has gone to search for the older kids.

The chaos of the climate emergency is superimposed upon the ongoing mess of their personal lives.  Stockholm traffic is gridlocked by refugees from the fires.  Climate activists have resorted to violence and vandalism in the city.  Didrik’s desperate fire-escaping measures — breaking into a house for provisions, breaking out of a stranded train — were captured on CCTV and have now gone viral on the web.  Can violating the law be justified in these extreme circumstances?

Didrik’s marriage is falling apart, his credit cards are maxed out, his older children are missing, his baby daughter is bitten by bedbugs.  But Melissa is more focused on finding painkillers than rekindling the romance with her parasitic ex-lover.

The third narrator is Andre, the spoiled young-adult son of a former tennis star.  This section of the book is a somewhat superfluous departure from the main plot.  Andre makes off with dad’s sailboat and picks up a group of self-styled climate activists who have been tagging, trashing and burning affluent properties along the Swedish coast.  Their antics bespeak class resentment rather than a genuine environmental concern.

Didrik’s 14-year-old daughter Vilja relates the fourth and final segment of this story.  Vilja outgrows her earlier whiny, entitled attitude as she volunteers with a rescue group to procure supplies for the children in a refugee camp.  Her new-found selflessness provides a counterpoint to the negativity of the other voices.

The interpersonal maelstrom that ensnares these four narrators may be seen as a microcosm of the environmental chaos that modern civilization has inherited from our defiance of nature.  Even If Everything Ends is not always a comfortable read, but it’s a page-turner.

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  1. Mobility by Lydia Kiesling (Crooked Media Reads, 2023)

An American family is at the centre of Mobility by Lydia Kiesling.  This clever novel follows the daughter Bunny from 1998 to 2022.  Introduced to the reader as the child of a US diplomat in Central Asia, Bunny is a bored, yearning teen with a crush on older men.  She begins her lifelong devotion to bourgeois obsessions — designer labels, cosmetics, luxury travel and fad diets.

A decade later, back in the States after her parents’ breakup, Bunny finds work as an office temp at an engineering firm in the burgeoning Texas oilpatch.  Her obvious intelligence catches the eye of the bosses, and as her career blossoms Bunny reverts to her more suitable birth name, Elizabeth.

At this point Mobility reveals itself as a stealth eco-novel.  Climate change is not mentioned until page 137, but henceforth the energy industry is in the crosshairs.  The history of worldwide fossil-fuel exploration and production is unveiled through conversations and debates among the characters.  Elizabeth, a closet liberal in a very conservative milieu, navigates her way into the renewables tributary of the business, eventually finding her purpose via Pink Petro, promoting the role of women in energy.

Through the years various family dramas play out and old relationships are revived.  Floods and other disasters intervene.  The subtle subtext of this gracefully written novel is the shared attachment to affluence that blinds the characters to the seismic shifts in their environment.  Throughout its 25-year span Mobility remains entertaining and informative.  The coda jumps ahead to the year 2051 as a new generation arrives to meet the challenges of an overheated planet.

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  1. The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins (Atria Books, 2023)

Another teenager is a key character in The Great Transition, an impressive first novel by Nick Fuller Googins, which is set some decades into the future.  Emiliana, an anorexic 15-year-old, is researching a school project on the history of the global climate crisis and the activism of her parents, Larch and Kristina.  The family now resides in Nuuk, Greenland, as the polar regions have become more habitable than cities like New York, which was flooded out after the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf.

Kristina, an enviro-activist since her youth, has gone to New York to help with restoration work, but when she goes incommunicado amid other suspicious events, Larch and Emi fly to the Big Apple to find her.  Then the narrative morphs into a spy mystery of sorts, as we learn more about the politics of the earlier climate collapse and the resulting reorganization of society after a workers’ revolution.  The Great Transition of the title is the catchphrase of this evolving new world order.  However a Big Brotherish vibe lurks in the background.

“The ocean took the Everglades.  Fire got the Great Smokies.  Big Bend went to drought.”  But a global cooperative movement reminiscent of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps has enabled humanity to repair the planet and reach net-zero carbon emissions.  Now (perhaps around 2050?) this success is celebrated with an annual Zero Day.  The author’s descriptions of algae farms, ubiquitous solar and wind arrays, and defenses against recurring storms and wildfires, paint a credible portrait of a post-climate-crisis future.  The tale travels on high-speed trains, intelligent drones, high-tech batteries, etc.

Later The Great Transition flashes back to the origin story of Larch and Kristina as a couple, an unconventional courtship in uncertain times.  They meet while fighting wildfires and spend several years as environmental warriors during the Transition, sometimes together and sometimes apart.  Larch is the narrator of their love match, and it turns out that there is much about Kristina that remains shrouded in mystery.  Is she involved with the guerrilla underground that has been assassinating climate criminals?  Has their daughter Emi been kidnapped by the bad guys?  You’ll have to read The Great Transition to find out.  This novel signals the urgency of a zero-carbon future and the personal sacrifices it will take to achieve and maintain it.

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  1. The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow (Tor Publishing Group, 2023)

The latest work from prolific Canadian-born author Cory Doctorow, The Lost Cause, is described on the book jacket as “a novel of truth and reconciliation in our polarized future”.  It’s a winner.  The tale is told by a young man named Brooks, a couple of decades from now.  Orphaned as a child, Brooks is sharing a ramshackle house in Burbank, a suburb of L.A., with his redneck granddad.  The old man and his MAGA-hat buddies are fighting a rearguard reaction against the green transition, which is well under way as temperatures and coastlines rise.

Brooks and his progressive cohort in Burbank have prepared a warm welcome for a caravan of immigrants, climate refugees from the parched agricultural interior of California.  The hosts put them up temporarily in “People’s Airbnbs” and backyard tent cities.  The communal vibe of this youthful tribe is spiced with hipster lingo, lip-smacking vegetarian recipes, green transportation and a budding romance.  Their hardscrabble existence is contrasted with the Flotilla, an offshore armada of yachts, cruise ships, even a repurposed aircraft carrier, populated by “plutes” (rich folks).

Housing is at the heart of this rollicking yarn.  (A timely topic, given the current worldwide shortage of affordable accommodation.). After the death of his Gramps, Brooks decides to convert his old house into a mid-rise apartment building.  He and his friends riff on plans for rapid prefab sustainable construction and carbon-neutral infrastructure upgrades throughout Burbank.  But they are stymied, first by building restrictions at City Hall, then by a violent militia-led counter-revolution against their guests and all their Green New Deal innovations.

The title of Doctorow’s novel references the Lost Cause in American history, a myth of the Confederacy that the Civil War was a noble defeat, not really about slavery but rather states’ rights and the Southern way of life.  A similar mythology animates the “plutes” and white nationalists in The Lost Cause, yearning for a return to an imagined past without the inconvenience of immigrants, people of colour, and climate change.

The invasion of multiple wildfires toward the end of the novel renders these views moot, as both sides find themselves in the same metaphorical lifeboat.  Survival depends on the inspiring efforts of the guerrilla-style builders, but also the integrity of the police and the legal institutions.  Cooperation is the talisman of The Lost Cause.

Ross Thrasher has enjoyed a 30-year career as a librarian at post-secondary institutions in Canada, the U.S. and the South Pacific. Most recently he served for 8 years as Library Director at Mount Royal College in Calgary, leading the library’s transition to university status. He maintains an active interest in literature, travel and the performing arts.