I’m not necessarily convinced that reading the blurbs on the inside of a book’s dust cover is a valuable use of your time, but I did find myself reading the blurb for Hurricane Fever, and in the first paragraph the copy writer says that “Roo is an anti-James Bond for a new generation.” I think that’s a useful idea, and it’s stuck with me, because most of how I feel about the book can kind of be revolved around that idea. I mean, in theory Hurricane Fever is a novel I should like a good deal: it’s an action-packed genre piece with thoughtful worldbuilding, a meaningful engagement with real-world issues, and a responsible approach to the social problems endemic to its source material. Even so, actually reading the book I never really managed to feel much more for it than “yeah, it’s okay.” There’s something about it that isn’t quite there, and the novel sometimes feels on-the-nose and easy in a way that just isn’t quite satisfying. Read more
It’s probably fair to say that Forty Signs of Rain is more compelling than it has any right to be. I’m probably an outlier in that I’ve never really considered science and the environment and politics boring by any means; if you want to give me the GRIPPING DRAMA OF DRAFTING ENVIRONMENTAL LEGISLATION AND NATIONAL SCIENCE POLICY I’ll say yes, please, and without the irony. But the book is really successful at framing that stuff in the context of characters and human drama that keep things from getting too dry or technical, and there’s something anybody with any sort of activist leaning or interest can relate to in the book’s cast of desperate Cassandra. Even the smug, cynical know-it-all Frank gets to be an engaging and nuanced person in spite of what a sleazy jerk he is. There’s something I really like in how the book tries to reconcile the scientific and the human, the detached, somewhat condescending position that aims to be purely objective and free of the limitations and uncertainty of myopic human subjectivity, and the unavoidable fact that no human will ever be free of bias and the limitations of their own perspective. Characters who start off trying to be avatars of pure reason eventually learn that there are other ways to look at things, that striving for pure reason is its own kind of madness, and even though it eventually takes the book on a weird tangent that’s fairly minor but still baffling and distracting (I’m not sure I needed the ancient Tibetan prophecy that’s just a little too on-the-nose, or the “they think my son might be a reincarnated lama” subplot), on the whole I think it’s a really effective and important theme.
My initial reaction to Flight Behavior was a little lukewarm, but I was surprised by how quickly I warmed up to it. There’s something about the whole rural, southern, small town thing that puts me off, because to put it bluntly if we’re going to look at things through a “country mouse/city mouse” dichotomy I’m pretty much a city mouse through and through. Even so, within the first couple of chapters I found myself appreciating the novel’s portrait of a world and most importantly a perspective distinctly unlike my own. The basic lifestyle stuff isn’t what’s most interesting to me here, even if it is different from my own experience; I’m pretty far removed from any kind of manual-type farm labor, and even though I’m familiar enough with meager Christmases and failing to make ends meet my family’s never had it as rough as Dellarobia’s, but Tennessee isn’t really so far from here and it’s not like a rural American lifestyle is something so unfamiliar that it blows my mind. What really gets me, though, is the mindset of Dellarobia’s world–the religiosity, the at best barely-concealed racism, leaning everything on sports, spurning education and distrusting science, it–just–well, I’ve heard enough horror stories that I maybe don’t have quite the “I can’t believe this” reaction Ovid displays, but I think it’s safe to say my feelings on the whole are similar to his. Like, so much of the small-town mindset this novel illustrates is so completely contradictory to what I believe and how I see the world that there are times when the story seems downright bizarre, but I actually really appreciate that. The fundamental dichotomy of rural and uneducated vs. urban and educated that Flight Behavior addresses is one of those things that’s pervasive in American society and especially politics; it’s something you can’t avoid, something that’s endemic to American life and that you can’t help but internalize even if you personally don’t fall quite so neatly on one side or the other. But where this kind of thing lends itself to a lot of rhetoric and vitriol, stereotyping and tribalism, Flight Behavior deals with it in a way that’s thoughtful, personal, and human, and that’s something I like to see.
There’s something very odd, tonally, about The Collapse of Western Civilization‘s textbook-from-the-future shtick. It’s an interesting, novel approach to the problem of making people care about climate change and understand that the consequences are, in all likelyhood, going to be much more severe and much more severe than we want to believe. Nobody can say for sure what’s going to happen or how exactly climate change is going to play out if we keep following the path we’re on, but Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway do their best to lay out a plausible series of events grounded in scientific predictions and our current understanding of how climate works. There’s a certain self-consciousness to the book’s approach, with a heavy reliance on events and revelations from the immediate actual real-life past and a much vaguer, more general approach to events that have not yet happened but might. They’re aware of the pitfalls of the kind of book they’re writing, and they go out of their way to minimize the amount of “oh, you didn’t get this right” nay-sayers can fuss over by setting the book farther out in the future and preferring to speculate about overall trends over periods of time rather than trying to pin down specific dates and events. It’s an informative, well-researched book that’s extremely incisive and on point about a major issue that affects the human race as a whole.
And yet, reading it I can’t help but feel like there’s something insufferably smug in the tone, even as someone who is 100% on board with the book’s ideology and what it’s trying to say. And that feeling is really something inevitable about what The Collapse of Western Civilization is trying to be. Because, ultimately, we can’t predict the future. We can make educated, informed guesses based on historical patterns, scientific evidence, and current trends, and that’s really all the book does, but something about presenting your speculation in the detached, objective voice of scientific literature lends the whole proceeding an air of “neener neener,” like you’re saying “I’m right and you’re wrong” before it’s actually been proven, taunting your opponents from beyond the grave except actually you’re before the grave. And, I mean, I really don’t think that’s the intent, and even if I’m picking up a weird air of smugness from the thing, the fact is that they’re pretty much right, at least in their analysis of the current trends.
When it comes to exactly how the climate is going to change in the future and what the human consequences are going to be, yeah, okay, who can say? I can’t, you can’t, and Oreskes and Conway can’t either, not with absolute certainty. But what we can say with absolute certainty is that the evidence of a looming potential disaster is there, that evidence is convincing, and the potential consequences are too grave to just ignore it. We can also say that we are ignoring it, and we can look at the conversation and the reasons why we’re ignoring it, and we can say “it’s these people and these interest groups and these ideologies that benefit from and actively encourage not dealing with the problem.” And then we can write a book about what this might all look like 100 years from now if the worst comes to pass, except we don’t have to because somebody already did.
And honestly, the sad truth about this book is that it doesn’t really matter that the arguments are on-point and how effectively it points the finger, because nobody’s going to listen. We already know that energy moguls are greedy, self-serving modern-day robber barons who put their own profit above any human or environmental cost, and who not only have no remorse about doing that but believe it makes them righteous. And we know that nobody is going to do anything about it because they’re in bed with the government and basically operate like Prohibition-era mob bosses. Like, the information is out there, and it really isn’t in question, and all of those things I just said are genuinely true (we’re talking about companies that flagrantly ignore environmental regulations because they’ve lobbied them into toothlessness and they make more money paying off the token fines than not breaking the law), but yet even I kind of roll my eyes and go “yeah, yeah, there’s Jesse up on his hippie liberal rich-folks-are-evil high horse again” after saying it because that’s how powerful the myth of American neoliberal capitalism is. So, you know, thanks for spreading the word, Erik and Naomi; it’s just too bad nobody’s going to listen.