The destroyers of the climate go to prison, the Martian travel guide, the interiority of the bees, etc.
Power on test
In a future where people hold those responsible for the climate crisis accountable, what has changed?
Denial: A novel
by Jon Raymond
Simon & Schuster, 2022 ($26)
Writing science fiction is often a form of activism. It can generally be said that the act of writing fiction springs from a place of hope – a celebration of the best in us, an attempt to imagine a less terrible reality. But most genres don’t have the audacity to abandon the rules of physics and technology to create worlds where today’s seemingly intractable problems can be solved or transformed in ways so dramatically that we put put aside our preconceived ideas to adopt a new perspective.
This is why storytelling plays such a crucial role in the fight to find a way out of the climate crisis. If we are to make the enormous sacrifices that are necessary—if we are to change as a species, in other words—we will have to replace our old, outdated narratives. This is the power of great militancy.
by Jon Raymond Denial rests on this kind of radically optimistic outlook. It’s set in a future that’s been devastated by climate change, but not nearly as bad as it could have been, thanks to the kind of unified, challenging, and transformative change that our current world seems so incapable of making. Protest movements succeeded in breaking the power of corporations that profited from environmental devastation, and leaders who orchestrated such exploitation were tried and jailed for life.
I so want to believe in this future, that we can change our behavior and hold the worst profiteers accountable. But Denial doesn’t go far enough to convince me that it’s possible. Oddly, the world itself seems all too familiar and even mundane, despite being repeatedly assured that big changes have taken place. There are occasional references to distant wildfires and hologram communications, but coffee shops, basketball games, and road trips all remain unchanged. At one point, the protagonist’s car breaks down in a small Mexican village and he is unable to communicate meaningfully with Spanish speakers. Yet the technology for effortless (if imperfect) translation already exists on every smartphone, and the fact that Raymond missed this opportunity to imagine a future in realistic detail is one of the many glaring distractions.
I can appreciate the desire to present a world sufficiently similar to our own – to connect the dots between the grim present and a scenario where only the worst outcomes have been avoided. But certainly any force powerful enough to collapse power structures would also alter culture and progress.
It has been said that gender is a conversation, and everyone is welcome to participate at any time. Denial is Raymond’s fourth novel and appears to be his first work of science fiction. Some of my favorite works of speculative fiction, for example, are from outsiders to the genre, like Kazuo Ishiguro Never let Me Go and Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad. But if you are embarking on a dialogue that has a rich history, contributions that you might find interesting and new may already have been discussed at length. The impression one gets is of a writer excited about the genre’s possibilities and history but unaware of its diverse present.
In the end, the biggest challenge of the book is not a question of genre but of character. The protagonist is a journalist who tracks down one of the most notorious corporate executives who escaped punishment – a kind of Eichmann’s version of Argentina’s climate change – and befriends him to corner him. with a spectacular confrontation and arrest on camera. I love this new concept, exploring how we could hold people accountable for crimes against the planet.
The problem is that our narrator journalist doesn’t pay much attention to the underlying issues. It tackles in the abstract the ethics of condemning a kind old man to die in prison while acknowledging that the man deserves to be punished. But he himself doesn’t have strong feelings about the larger themes of climate destruction or the ambivalence many of us feel toward radical, necessary change. If he hated the former leader’s guts or believed that punishing individuals for collective behavior is deeply wrong, I would have cared more about the character and his arc. But his motivation seems fragile. Given the promising plot, the experience of watching it unfold is oddly empty.
Climate fiction (often shortened to “cli-fi”) is now its own genre, with many emotionally resonant novels and short stories that successfully imagine a better future and spur readers to action. Recent books like Claire North’s Burning Age Notes and Becky Chambers A Psalm for the wild mounts imagined bright, beautiful, and harsh, unsettling futures while rooting us in a dynamic central character who wants and feels things so strongly that the reader does too. In these worlds, humanity has changed at great expense and after great suffering while retaining a strong familiarity. It’s the thrilling tension that the best stories about the climate crisis navigate well: which parts of “human nature” are unchangeable, and which are socially determined and subject to change?
We need braver books like Denial who imagine a future that isn’t dystopian, but can show us how we might get there and who we will become when we do.
Finding Fear in Unsolved Equations
Fantastic numbers and where to find them: A cosmic quest from zero to infinity
by Antonio Padilla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022 ($30)
Cosmologist Antonio Padilla Fantastic numbers and where to find them is an exceptional compilation of modern mathematics and its applications in the real world. Nothing is clearer than Padilla’s love for his work, which will be especially inviting to lay readers. In a subject matter that may make some eyes twitch, this is a quick and dramatic retelling of the history of mathematics that ultimately aims to convince us why we should care. As Padilla guides readers from the imperceptibly small numbers (what does 10−120 really look like?) to the existentially large numbers (the rate of expansion of our known universe) that surround us, collide and bounce off of us all, he interprets the Herculean task of not getting lost in the details.
Conceptualizing the application of abstract mathematics in the real world is every teacher’s dream for their students, and Padilla makes it a reality. In a conversational style, he jokes with the reader, frequently making familiar asides and drawing pictures – using twin sea serpents, for example, to represent the frequency of electromagnetic radiation. Padilla bends light through Jell-O, explains entropy by invoking the football rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool, and guides us through the work of Max Planck by referencing squid gamethe massively popular Korean TV series.
Readers are invited to consider captivating concepts such as the relativity of time through popular knowledge (like Usain Bolt’s sprint speed), but never without guidance. Padilla goes to great lengths to hold our hands in the discoveries he wants us to make; just as we feel existentially overwhelmed imagining the compression of spacetime, it leads us to the uncertainty principle, for example, with a small line to make sure we have reached the finish line safely. There is no quantum entanglement to be found here.
The physics and mathematical equations we use to understand our universe can seem almost impossible, too big or too small or too strange to be real. But Padilla shows us that there is nothing more exciting than an unsolved mathematical equation: is gravity real? What does the surface of a black hole look like and is it really black? Is Googol a number that a layman has ever needed to use? Why aren’t the answers to these questions so simple?
Reading this book will leave readers with awe, enough fun facts for many cocktails, and a deep appreciation for mathematicians like Padilla who can explain how understanding a googolplex leads us to the existence of look-alikes. —Brianne Kane
The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars
by Simon Morden
Pegasus Books, 2022 ($26.95)
Contemplating outer space can elicit existential dread as well as arouse wonder. But The red planet, a geological and historical survey of our neighbor in the solar system, is more like a compelling travel guide. Simon Morden, award-winning science fiction writer and PhD in geophysics, enthusiastically embraces both, whether he’s explaining the emergence of volcanoes on the planet or fantasizing about swimming in salt water. martian. When the planet was in its infancy, Morden places readers on the “cording” and “blocking” surface; later in Mars’ life, dust storms create “a faint sonorous whisper, a thousand whispers just beyond our spacesuit helmets”. The red planet does not innovate in terms of scientific discoveries (don’t expect big scoops on life on Mars, for example). But this is space writing at its best, exposing alien mysteries and convincing us to care. —Maddie Bender
The mind of a bee
by Lars Chittka
Princeton University Press, 2022 ($29.95)
Complex alien spirits are all around us and deserve more of our curiosity and respect. This is the argument at the heart of The mind of a bee, an in-depth and thoughtful introduction to the interiority of bees. Once thought of as just a hive-mind species where individuals function like cogs in a machine, bees here are shown to be profoundly intelligent and capable of rich sensory experiences. Recent work, for example, indicates that they can imagine shapes and objects in their minds. Author Lars Chittka draws on his experience as a behavioral ecologist, deftly weaving between history and primary and secondary research to map how bees learn about the world around them, develop unique personalities, and perhaps even understand them and their emotions. His thoughts prompt questions about how bees are treated by humans, making this intimate portrait of one of Earth’s most important species appealing to enthusiasts and researchers alike. —Mike Welch