So let’s take it from the start. It’s the 24th century, and things aren’t, for the Earth, going well.
Because global warming has, of course, managed to eliminate a whole lot of the planet’s population. (What’s a few billion between friends?) Between increasing heat and rising sea levels, a whole load of the planet is now uninhabitable, and what’s left of humanity keeps a brave face on while moving towards the poles, in the hope that the areas of declining iciness might provide a place to live, at least for a time.
That’s the setting of Craig Ensor’s debut novel, and it’s a pretty timely one, if you’ve paid any attention to the climate catastrophe on our doorstep. And as far as cli-fi goes, this is a pretty great first salvo. And while the overwhelming fuckery of a dying earth is the stage for the story, the meat of the work is the relationship of a young boy, Finch, and a married woman, April Speare. Yes, we’re aware that the seas and mercury both are creeping up, and that that is horrifying, but the twists and turns of interpersonal relationships are always foregrounded.
After all: don’t you think about your family more than you think about the ice caps? Even though you know that Big Issues are critical, it’s almost impossible to internalise such things. Sure, we all know that we’re going to die. But how many of us internalise that, or make peace with it until it’s almost upon us? Likewise, the characters in The Warming focus on their relationships, on their failings, even in the face of a world where enormous escape-pods are constructed for the wealthy to make a nautical escape upon.
The relationships in the novel, particularly that of parents and their children, are finely drawn. The author has a great eye for emotion, and the manifold confusions of interpersonal communication. The way words fall short and emotions overplay themselves is conveyed adroitly, and a lot of the text reads like uncorked memory. There’s a slipperiness to some of the chapters which puts me in mind of Carey’s writing: at once factual but full-throated in its emotional heft.
Music – composition particularly – is key (ha) to the novel, and so it’s unsurprising that the book’s arranged in movements. (The duel meaning obviously is important, given the couple of changes of locale which feature as time passes and heat increases.) The idea of repetition, of thematic variation is important, too; the novel revisits ideas and thoughts again and again, replaying disappointments and joys in other emotional keys to provide some alternate meaning.
This sense of harking back to things is important, as Ensor’s writing does not unspool neatly in chronological order. Rather, the narrative’s short chapters have the feeling of recounted memories, and contain all the pitfalls and unreliability of own own reminiscences. Parts of the story only become clear later on, and there’s a continual revision, continual refinement of the reader’s understanding of the story. I found plenty of little AHA! moments throughout, and it kept pulling me through the major characters’ lives.
While it’s set in the future, none of the novel is particularly outlandish in terms of tech. Everything seems pretty much in line with what you’d imagine may occur, and there’s no huge paradigm shifts. Avoiding a technological MacGuffin, Ensor manages to make the future appear as the present with a better phone system and shittier climate. It’s subtle, and it underscores how quickly today may become tomorrow.
Where the novel excels in proper SF-style terms is in its description of the ravages climate change levels on the earth. There’s a portion of the book describing a trip to a ruined Sydney, and it is a properly Ballardian excursion. Similarly, the futuristic Hobart skyline – yes, really! – is finely drawn. The speculative part of the fiction is so firmly grounded in fact that it’s almost impossible to view it as speculation. It seems that it’s something that will come to pass. Which, let’s face it, is an enormous bummer, though not one that stopped my reading.
It’d be great to believe that The Warming will be an alternate version of our planet’s future. It’d be wonderful if it proves to be quaintly outdated in the years Ensor writes about. Too much of it, though, rings true.
If, as I suspect, we’re all stuck heading southwards in heat-shielded cars, I hope readers of the future are able to take some solace in the portrait of dreams, love and the downfall of hopes portrayed here.
Ensor’s created an enjoyable bummer with The Warming. Whack it on your shelf next to On the Beach; the pair would make a good tandem read.
(My Goodreads profile is here.)