There’s no vaccine for the greenhouse effect

The future is an Undiscovered Country. Things are done differently there. For those who follow the science of the climate and ecological crisis, it’s also an overwhelmingly scary place. Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is our best available vehicle with which to venture beyond the bourns of the present and into the near-to-medium future, and ‘The Deluge’ by Stephen Markley. Buckle up, it’s a bumpy ride, as I outlined in the Business Post in February.

HOW EXACTLY DO you set about telling the biggest story of them all, one almost nobody even wants to talk about and which has no happy ending? This conundrum has engaged a growing number of writers in the rapidly emerging field of climate fiction.

Yet, at first glance, the scenario is all too familiar. After all, hasn’t Hollywood’s conveyor belt of blockbuster disaster movies already inured us to the end of the planet?

Oddly, the ultimate fiction of these dystopian imaginings is that once the lights go up and the credits are rolling, we can all return to the reassuring normality of our lives, confident that the world outside is just as we left it.

Stephen Markley’s approach to tackling this biggest of stories is with the heftiest of cli-fi novels. Weighing in at almost 900 pages, The Deluge feels almost as overwhelming as the crises it elucidates.

Set in the United States, its multi-layered and dense narrative thread spans from the present day until around 2040, as rolling ecological calamities fray and then fragment the very fabric of society, tossing its motley cast of characters around like straws in a sandstorm.

“It’s pretty simple: we fight to the fucked and bitter end or we die,” says central figure Kate Morris, a firebrand political organiser mockingly titled the “manic pixie dream girl of global warming”. She tries the impossible – to shock the deeply dysfunctional Washington DC system out of its terminal anomie – and pays a terrible price for her pains.

While Markley’s consuming passion is in exploring the brutal machinations of US politics, The Deluge is anchored firmly in actual climate science. This is conveyed through the character of Tony Pietrus, a geophysicist who in the opening chapter receives a death threat along with a package containing an unidentified powder. Science has been a contact sport in the US for quite some time.

“You want the world to be this place of rational actors, but no one’s rational, Tony,” says his wife, Gail, explaining how evidence-based arguments are dashed against the rocks of human intransigence. “We’re all guided by our crazy.”

What’s unnerving about the future-scape mapped out in The Deluge is how familiar it all is. Life plods relentlessly on for a decade or two, even as the wildfires lay waste to cities and flood waters ruin vast areas of low-lying land. Many people simply retreat into immersive VR headsets where they can escape the gathering storm, at least for a while.

Markley switches the narrative voice in alternating chapters, while also interspersing fictional articles from The New York Times and other media outlets as well as dense political briefing documents. The author’s wonkishness shines through, but mercifully this often technical material is leavened with wicked humour. One protagonist “looked like she was watching her cat burn to death but had been told if she intervened, her other cat would get it as well”.

Even Tony, the buttoned-down climate scientist, gets to deliver some zingers, such as when a politician is trying to reassure him about climate models. “Fuck the models. You saw the numbers coming in from Greenland this summer and the Antarctic ice sheets are frying… yet you’re sitting there with all the concern of a happy baby in a fresh diaper.”

As the novel progresses, a confluence of events draws the protagonists through their Sisyphean and ultimately doomed task of “trying to unfuck the world”, in the words of another character called Ashir. He catalogues on the government’s behalf how a relentless toll of extreme weather events and rising sea levels is crippling society and sending the US economy into a death spiral of slow but relentless collapse.

“The difference between 2037 and 2020 is that there is no vaccine on the way for the greenhouse effect,” Ashir observes wryly.

The Deluge is an ambitious, sweeping novel, its darker passages illuminated by some sparkling turns of phrase. It is in turn an enthralling and infuriating read. I can’t help but wonder how much more enjoyable it might have been had Markley managed to compress his impressive storylines into a book several hundred pages shorter.

The Deluge by Stephen Markley, Simon and Schuster, €30.20

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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