My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review originally appeared in http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au
A near-future novel that uses the devastating effects of climate change as its setting and yet isn’t a complete downer: that’s quite an achievement, particularly as it also avoids resorting to the kind of Hollywood, gung-ho ‘Hey, we saved everyone, anyway’ device to make it all better. If I had to sum up James Bradley’s Clade in one word, it would be ‘unexpected’.
A ‘clade’ encompasses all the members of a species alive and dead that share a common ancestor. In the novel it refers most strongly to the entire human race, a clade that is in danger of being wiped from the face of the planet it has so egregiously damaged, although other clades are also being destroyed due to climate change in the book.
Clade is not so much a novel as a series of connected stories, time-hopping forward and centring for the most part on a single family and how they survive, or fail to survive, when faced with the myriad effects of a warming atmosphere. It’s an important point made by the book – but in a subtle, non-preachy way – that an increase of a couple of degrees globally doesn’t just mean we have to wear shorts all year round. It means increasingly destructive weather events, power ‘brownouts’, drought and crop failure, starvation and pandemics, not just as one-offs but as the norm, hammering at humanity again and again, killing millions: fathers losing daughters, wives losing husbands, not just statistics, but individuals. You, me and people just like us. And yet this is not a depressing novel.
Adam, a climate scientist, is worried about bringing a new child into the world with his partner because out on the Antarctic ice shelf, he can already see the end of the world accelerating towards them. Still, when Summer is born she is a gift, and her parents bring her up the best way they know how, even though it’s getting more and more difficult to pretend the world around them is normal. Fast-forward and Summer and her parents are estranged, with Summer living in England, which is being pounded by storms when her father tracks her down and finds she has a child of her own: Noah.
Now, though, the sea is returning. In recent years these fields and towns have flooded more than once, and although the windmills that drive the drainage systems testify to people’s determination to keep the water at bay, it is really only delaying the inevitable.
Those who live here know this, of course. Hence the signs of preparation, the rowboats in driveways and on lawns, the canoes and kayaks propped against walls.
There was a time when people talked about boiling the frog, arguing that the warming of the planet was too gradual to galvanise effective action, and although in recent years that has changed, delay having been replaced by panic, resistance replaced by more effective solutions, Adam still suspects that at some level people do not understand the scale of the transformation that is overtaking them. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, the reality is that this place is already lost, that some time soon the ocean will have it back, the planet will overwhelm humanity.
This isn’t a book about apportioning blame. And as the characters slide into the apocalypse and things get worse, the focus isn’t on all-or-nothing survival. Clade is not emulating The Walking Dead. If anything, it shares some DNA with the BBC docudrama Threads, which was banned by the BBC at the height of the Cold War because it showed what a stupid idea nuclear war really was. Certainly the survival element is here and the characters suffer loss, but they are still identifiably human despite what they’ve suffered. They try to understand what has happened to them. And, most importantly, they still have the capacity to hope, and find that hope in the most unexpected places:
It was sort of sad, all the trees there in the water, but it was also weirdly beautiful. The water was dark brown – tannin from the eucalypts, Dr Leith told me later – and so still you could see the grass and leaves and branches scattered in the shallows.
I would have stayed there longer, but after a while I began to feel uneasy, like somebody was watching me. Looking around I couldn’t see anybody, but then again if there was somebody it would have been dead easy for them to hide. Just like realising people had been in the house last night, it creeped me out, so I headed back.
Noah had his lenses on when I got there, his face twitching and his hands opening and closing. I watched him for a while, wondering how long the software agents and AIs would keep running if we all died. Would the games continue on without us? It was a strange thought, all those worlds left empty, waiting, their only inhabitants things of bits and light.
As I said, James Bradley has created something unexpected in Clade. He’s stripped the politics from what has become a very political issue and shown us the humanity that lies beneath it. He hasn’t made the apocalypse palatable, but he has made it something grounded and relatable to you and me. That’s quite an achievement.
I hope people read Clade. I hope they’re not scared by the world it portrays but that they see it for what it is: a future that grows more possible day by day. A future we should do everything in our power to avoid. And I hope that understanding makes it easier for them to press for change in their own lives and in whatever government represents them.
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