I get very few review copies of books these days. Mostly I buy my books, and I’m very happy with that. However, Tobias Buckell really wanted to send me a copy of his latest novel, and as he’s a friend I wasn’t going to say no. Then I worried a lot about whether I would like it or not.
When I first say down with the book I had this horrible, sinking feeling: “Toby, what are you doing? You can write better than this!” Then the penny dropped: the book is a thriller. What does that mean? Well, you get short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters; you get a simple, fast-paced, mostly-linear plot; and you get huge dollops of infodump. But it’s not science fiction, so that’s OK, right?
Well, I say that it is not science fiction, but as many people have pointed out, you can’t write a decent modern novel without including a lot of things that make it sound like science fiction, and which ten years ago would have been science fiction. Buckell’s novel is actually set a short way into the future, but there’s hardly anything in the way of revolutionary technology. What there is, is a whole new world.
As you might guess from the title, the book is set in a future in which Cl*m*te Ch*nge has become a real and present danger to the planet. (And yes, I did deliberately disguise those two words, because there are few things that you can write about online that attract such immediate attention from partisan trolls on both sides of the fight.) This affects the book in two ways. Firstly it provides a setting – the Arctic as the new Wild West in which a degree of lawlessness can be assumed without raising too many eyebrows. Secondly it presents a problem to which people might be prepared to contemplate desperate solutions involving sophisticated technology.
I can talk about that technology because it is described in detail in the back cover blurb. One of the methods that terraformers (or geoengineers as I gather they prefer to be called these days) have suggested for cooling down the planet is to build giant mirrors in space that will reflect back the sun’s rays. In the book a couple of smart and mega-rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs decide to save the planet by doing just this. But because they have neither the spacecraft nor the political blessing for such a project they do it by stealth. The create thousands of little mirrored balloons that can be controlled using their sophisticated computer systems. Most of you are science fiction readers. I’m sure you can work out what you can do with a giant space mirror made up of thousands of tiny, separately controlled, drones. And how you might destroy such a thing.
All of this is relatively conventional. Buckell, however, is not someone to settle for the conventional. His lead characters are a female Nigerian airship pilot, a freelance West Indian secret agent, and a lesbian drug baroness. That, I suspect, is a far more interesting cast than you get in your average thriller.
There are issues worth debating as well. In a world in which government has signally failed to provide a solution to a planet-wide crisis, and big business doesn’t care as long as it still makes money, how are people to react? The idea that a rich maverick can save us is, I’m afraid, a bit of a Libertarian fantasy. I mean, would you trust Tony Stark to save the planet? Would you still trust him if what was required to do so was sophisticated political understanding rather than slugging it out with some super baddie?
So while Arctic Rising might be a relatively simple and formulaic piece of genre writing, it picks away at the conventions wherever possible. Besides, I suspect that many thriller readers are deep in denial about the whole rationale behind the world that Buckell has created, so the book is nicely challenging from that point of view too. I’m all in favor of a bit of subversion, and this is a good bit of subversion. Thank you Toby, that was fun, especially the nod to Wells.
Is this book science fiction? Oh yeah! It knows where it has come from. Is it science fiction that will appear to people who “don’t read science fiction”? I think it may well be. Here’s to good sales.
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