My best book catch of 2019

Every now and again, when I go fishing for books, I catch something unexpected that delights me. In 2019, the book that did that for me was a collection of short stories’ that I picked up without much thought because I knew a few of the authors.

I ended up spending three months reading the collection and wrote reviews of six of the twenty-six stories.

  The book is “Loosed Upon The World” edited by John Joseph Adams, the editor of Lightspeed Magazine, which I think is the best SF short story platform published today.  

He’s pulled together a collection of twenty-six Climate Change Fiction stories that imagine our future in a world undergoing dramatic climate change.

I found this anthology that is horribly plausible, deeply frightening and that fills me with guilt about the mess the generation now in school will inherit from us.

The message that they have in common is that the next generation will be facing some hard choices, that science may mitigate the effects of climate change but that the way we live today will not survive. Most of the stories give grimly pragmatic views of how the next generation will play the hand we’ve dealt them. I find the stories so depressingly credible that I feel I need to apologise in advance to the next generation. 

It’s been six months since I finished the anthology and one story, in particular, haunts me: “The Precedent” by Sean McMullen, perhaps because, if I survived to this future world, I’d be one of the people on trial in this story.

It takes place in 2035, when Greta Thunberg will be thirty-two, and imagines the punishment her generation might mete out to mine. I can’t help feeling that we deserve it. 

Here’s an extract from the review I wrote in June: 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is precedent.jpg

Whereas other stories in “Loosed Upon The World” 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.

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