A novella that punches above its weight, delivering a well-imagined, skilfully revealed future where a young and poor underclass of ‘Firewalkers’ risk their lives to service the global billionaire elite as they prepare to escape a dying Earth and leave the rest of us to burn.
My experience with Adrienne Tchaikovsky’s books is mixed. I loved his standalone ‘Dogs Of War’ novel about genetically enhanced animals being used as soldiers but I couldn’t get into his very popular ‘Children Of Time’ series.
I decided to try ‘Firewalkers’ because I wanted to see how Tchaikovsky handled the novella ( the book is 165 pages) and because it spoke to a topical theme: the very wealthy insulating themselves from the consequences of the environmental collapse that they have become wealthy by accelerating. I’m certain that the people funding Climate Change Denial see climate change as an opportunity to winnow the world’s population while strengthening their own wealth and privilege.
I admired how much Adrian Tchaikovsky packed into this novella without ever making me feel that he was taking short-cuts or force-feeding me info dumps. He skilfully unpacks an Earth that is burning at the equator and drowning everywhere else; an Earth that has spent three generations of the poor and the desperate working to enable the mega-rich to flee the planet in huge luxury spaceships; an Earth where young Firewalkers head out into the killing heat to service the solar panels that keep the rich in air-conditioned luxury as they wait to take the space elevator up to their heaven in the sky.
The world-building is very well done. Everything feels real and depressingly plausible. It’s not a future I’d want to be part of but I can see it coming. William Gibson is reputed to have said, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ Tchaikovsky’s future is definitely already here. It’s in the burning of the rainforest in Brazil and the mining of diamonds in Africa and the refugees fleeing across the world. What Tchaikovsky does is make those things the ‘new normal’ of the future and imagine the attitudes and behaviours of the people born into it who know they can’t fix the planet and they can’t leave it either.
The FIrewalkers’ trip out into the dead desert is a great piece of road-trip writing. It’s high on tension and has great visuals. It’s full of dangerous things that are never quite what they appear to be and which hint at either total disaster or a possible way out.
I liked the fact that Tchaikovsky didn’t sugar-coat the Firewalkers’ choices wrap them in some kind of heroic nobility. He shows how little chance they have of surviving and how much they’re willing to do to keep breathing.
The ending was grimly satisfying. It also left a lot of tantalising possibilities about what might happen next.
The only weakness in the novella was that one of the main characters, a woman Firewalker with a passion for fixing things who is important to the plot, was very lightly drawn. Still, that’s the kind of trade-off you may have to make to fit all of this into a novella.
I recommend listening to the audiobook version which is wonderfully performed by Adjoa Andoh.