“The Precedent” by Sean McMullen in “Loosed Upon The World” edited by John Joseph Adams

“Loosed Upon The World” is a collection of twenty-six short stories that imagine our future in a world undergoing dramatic climate change.

“The Precedent”, by Australian writer Sean McMullen, is the ninth story in the collection and is the most original, unexpected and discomforting that I’ve read so far.

Whereas other stories in this book are about fighting climate change or surviving climate change, “The Precedent” is about getting revenge on the generation who caused climate change and tipped the world over into chaos.

The first line sets the tone:

“Even when the climate crime is so serious that death is not punishment enough, one still gets an audit.”

The dispassionate acceptance in that sentence is chilling, yet there is also a sense that the narrator is judging the process and, if not disdaining it, then regretting its necessity.

The year is 2035. The younger generation has taken power in the form of a World Audit that assumes the Tipper generation, anyone born in the twentieth-century is guilty of climate crime until proven innocent in an Audit.

The narrator is a climatologist, now in his eighties, who spent his life campaigning to prevent or delay climate change. He intends to beat the audit. We get a ringside seat on the audit as he attempts this.

An audit is designed as a ritual punishment and extermination of Tippers in ways that are both brutal and heavy-handedly symbolic. Perhaps the least gruesome way to die is by hanging, but even this is accompanied by painful symbolism:

“The executioner arranged the noose to snap Harrington’s neck as he stood on the tipping plank. This was a length of pinewood that extended out over the drop. The other end was held down by a pile of coal. Now a procession of Wardens filed past. Each took a lump of coal from the pile. The plank began to teeter. I counted fifteen seconds of teetering, during which Harrington’s dignity and composure fled. He began to scream as the tipping point approached; he pissed his pants to try to lighten himself and gain a few more moments of life.


Relentlessly, the hands removed coal from the pile, as relentlessly as coal had once been dug out of the Earth and burned. Abruptly, the tipping point was reached, and a shower of coal catapulted over Harrington as he fell. The gallows creaked. TheWardens applauded.”

Removing the pieces of coal one at a time. Getting all the Wardens involved in the killing. The use of a physical tipping point to kill a Tipper. This is the kind of fanatical fantasy made flesh that the Khmer Rouge came up with. It’s like carving a poem into the reader’s flesh.

The power of this story comes from the plausibility of the idea and the matter-of-fact way in which these acts of institutionalised cruelty by the self-righteous young are experienced by the mostly guilty but seldom repentant old.

The narrator is in the unique position of being both a Tipper and someone who understands exactly what the lifestyle choices of his generation did to the world. He also anticipated the need of the current generation for revenge, drawing parallels between the World Audit and the witch trials that followed the great plague in Europe or the feeding of the French nobility to the Guillotine after the revolution.

I found the narrator hard to like but impossible not to listen to. He has more insight than empathy His acceptance of the inevitability of organised revenge as part of the adaptation of society to new circumstances is chilling because it is entirely based on intellect. Emotions like compassion, mercy or even revulsion at extermination are set to one side.

What struck me most about this story is how plausible it is. It’s just people behaving the way they’ve behaved before but with a few small changes in assumptions.

I haven’t read Sean McMullen before but I’ve now bought his short story collection “Ghosts Of Engines Past” because I like the way his mind works.

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