In a future where people hold those responsible for the climate crisis accountable, what has changed?
Denial: A Novel
Simon & Schuster, 2022 ($26)
Writing science fiction can be seen as a form of activism. Writing fiction is often a form of activism. It is a celebration of the best in us and an attempt to imagine a better world. Most genres lack the courage to break the rules of technology and physics to create worlds in which seemingly impossible problems can be solved or transformed so dramatically that our preconceived notions are discarded to embrace a new perspective.
This is why storytelling is so important in the fight to end the climate crisis. We must replace outdated narratives if we are to make the necessary sacrifices, if we are to change as a species. This is the power of great activism.
Jon Raymond’s Denial is premised on this kind of radically hopeful outlook. It is based on a future that has been devastated by climate changes, but not as badly as it could, thanks to the kind unified, difficult and transformative change that our world seems so inept at making. Protest movements have succeeded in breaking down the power of those companies that profited financially from environmental destruction. The executives responsible for such exploitation were brought to justice and sentenced to life imprisonment.
I want to believe in this future so that we can change our behavior, and hold the worst profiteers responsible. But Denial does not go far enough to convince me that it’s possible. Oddly enough, the world seems too familiar and banal, despite being repeatedly assured that major shifts have occurred. Although there are occasional references to distant wildfires or hologram communications, coffee shops, basketball games, and road trips all remain the same. The protagonist’s car breaks down in Mexico, leaving him unable to communicate 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 with realistic details is one of many glaring distractions.
I can understand the desire to show a world similar to ours, to connect the dots between the dark present and a scenario that would ensure the worst outcome. However, any forces strong enough to demolish power structures would also shift culture and progress.
It has been said that genre can be a conversation and anyone can join in at any stage. Denial is Raymond’s fourth novel and seems to be his first work of science fiction. Some of my favorite works of speculative fiction, for instance, are by genre outsiders, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. If you’re entering into a dialogue with a rich history, you might find that some of the contributions you make are compelling and new to your readers. One gets the impression that the writer is excited about the history and possibilities of the genre, but not fully aware of its varied present.
The book’s greatest challenge is not one of genre, but character. The protagonist is a journalist who tracks down one the most notorious corporate executives who escaped prison–a kind climate change version Eichmann in Argentina—-and befriends him to nail and arrest him. This is a great idea. It explores how we can hold people responsible for crimes against the environment.
The problem is that our journalist narrator does not pay much attention to the underlying issues. He wrestles with the ethics of sendingencing a kind old man in prison, while acknowledging that he deserves to be punished. He doesn’t feel strongly about the larger themes of climate change or the ambivalence that many of us feel towards radical, necessary changes. If he had hated the former executive or believed that punishing individuals collectively is deeply wrong, I would have been more interested in his character and his story. His motivation is weak. The promise of the plot is intriguing, but the experience of watching it unfold is strangely empty.
Climate fiction, often referred to as “cli-fi”, is its own genre. It has many emotionally resonant novels. Short stories that can help readers envision better futures. Recent books such as Claire North’s Notes from the Burning Age and Becky Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built have imagined bright, beautiful–and hard, troubling–futures while rooting us in a vibrant central character who wants and feels things so strongly that the reader does, too. These worlds show that humanity has experienced great change and suffered great pain, while maintaining a strong sense of familiarity. This is the tension that the best stories about climate crisis are able to navigate: Which parts of “human nature”, and which parts are socially determined and subject change?
We need more brave books like Denial that imagine a future that’s not dystopic–but that can show us how we might get there and who we’ll become when we do.
Finding wonder 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’s Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them is an exceptional compilation of modern mathematics and its real-world applications. Padilla’s passion for his work is unmistakable, and will make it clearer for lay readers. This is a dramatic and fast-paced account of the history of mathematics, which is important in a subject that can make some people’s eyes glaze over. As Padilla guides readers from the imperceptibly small numbers (what does 10-120 really look like?) He guides readers from the imperceptibly small numbers (what does 21- really look like?) to the existentially huge ones (the rate at which our universe expands), and he does his best to not get lost in the minutiae.
Conceptualizing the real-world application of abstract mathematics is every professor’s dream for their students, and Padilla makes it a reality. He is a conversational joker and draws pictures. Padilla uses twin sea snakes to illustrate frequency in electromagnetic radiation. Padilla bends light with Jell-O and explains entropy using the soccer rivalry between Manchester & Liverpool. He also walks us through Max Planck’s work by referencing Squid Games , the hugely popular Korean TV series.
Readers will be encouraged to think about difficult concepts like the relativity time through popular knowledge (such Usain Bolt’s sprinting speed). But, they should not do so without guidance. Padilla makes great efforts to guide us through the discoveries he wants to make. Just as we feel existentially overwhelmed by the squeeze of spacetime, Padilla leads us to uncertainty principle with a punny line to ensure we are on the right track. There is no quantum-entanglement to be found.
Physics can seem impossible, too big, too small, or too strange to be true. Padilla shows that there is nothing more thrilling than a math equation that remains unsolved. Is gravity real? What is the surface of a blackhole? Is it actually black? Is googol a number that any layperson has ever used? These questions are difficult to answer.
Reading this book will leave you with awe, enough facts for many cocktail parties and a deep appreciation of mathematicians such as Padilla, who can explain how understanding the googolplex leads to the existence doppelgangers. —Brianne Kane
The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars
Pegasus Books, 2022 ($26. 95)
Imagining outer space can incite wonder as well as existential dread. But The Red Planet, a geological and historical survey of our solar system neighbor, reads more like a compelling travel guide. Simon Morden is an award-winning science fiction writer and has a doctorate of geophysics. He embraces both these backgrounds with gusto, whether he’s explaining how volcanoes formed on Mars or fantasizing about getting to swim in Martian saltwater. When the planet was in its infancy, Morden situates readers on the “ropey” and “blocky” surface; later in Mars’s life, dust storms create “a low susurrus of sound, a thousand whispers just on the other side of our spacesuit helmets.” The Red Planet does not break new ground in terms of scientific findings (don’t expect big scoops about life on Mars, for instance). This is space writing at its best, laying out extraterrestrial mysteries, and convincing us to care. —Maddie Bender
The Mind of a Bee
Princeton University Press, 2022 ($29. 95)
Complex alien minds are all around us, and deserve more of your curiosity and respect. This argument is at the core of The Mind of a Bee ,, a comprehensive and thoughtful primer about the inner workings of bees. Bees were once thought to be a simple, hive-minded, species in which individuals work like cogs in an automated machine. But now they are deeply intelligent and can provide rich sensory experiences. Recent research has shown that bees can see shapes and objects in their minds, according to recent research. Lars Chittka draws from his experience as a behavioral economist to chart the bees’ learning and development. He also uses primary and secondary research to help him weave between history and secondary research. His reflections provoke questions about bees’ treatment by humans. This intimate portrait of one Earth’s most important species appeals to both researchers and enthusiasts. —Mike Welch