Climate fiction, like so much of climate science, is an artefact of the history of justification. It’s disaster and deliberate ignorance come together in a slow apocalypse, and the reason that apocalypse has been allowed to continue is that it’s so easy to justify what has and hasn’t been done.
And as much as I wish it weren’t so, a lot of that justification has been done by scientists. Please do not take this admission as a reason to disbelieve the vast, vast majority of researchers who have rightfully accepted the overwhelming evidence of what is happening to our world. Please do, however, take it as an admission that science, like every other vocation, is vulnerable to corruption. Just as scientists working for Big Tobacco buried unprofitable data about the medical effects of smoking, so scientists bought by Big Oil have done the same for the effects of fossil fuels on the environment. And yes, there are mortgages to pay, and children to put through school, and that excuses, for some, the decision to work in fields that exacerbate rather than ameliorate the climate crisis.
It is not an excuse. Which is why, as someone with a background in science, I take particular interest in narratives that bring these compromised individuals front and centre. Fiction is a mirror to the world, a chance to explore the psychologies of others—and those psychologies include their justifications. Always North, by Vicki Jarrett, does just that. The protagonist, Isobel, is a scientist headed for the Arctic Circle, in “the first commercial survey since the Arctic Protection Agreement of 2020 banned all exploration and drilling” (p. 8) within the region. That state of affairs is clearly not going to last—“big money has found a way” (p. 8)—and Isobel’s on the side of money.
Her scientific training has quite obviously not included any ethics. Mine didn’t either. The medical students had it, but marine science? Nope. We’re just supposed to get along, apparently; treat science as a thing apart, as if application is as far from our sphere of concern as Andromeda. Don’t get me started on the contempt a lot of STEM advocates feel for the humanities. At times I wonder if it’s a preventative measure. If scientists are forced to grapple with context, with ethics and consequence, it can only make their jobs harder. Best to look the other way then—and Isobel does, but it’s noticeable that her looking away comes with contempt for others who do the same. I’d like to compare, here, two paragraphs that are less than a page apart. Here is the second:
Not all that long ago, everything around here was untouched by all but a very few people. Now, icebreaker-class cruise ships sail to the Pole in summer and tourists crawl over it, taking selfies. I’ve even heard that the operators break up swimming-pool-sized areas of ice to let holidaymakers bathe in the sea right at the point where all latitudes and time zones converge and the only direction is South. Extra snow has to be flown in to keep the area from looking like the damp patch of trampled slush it’s rapidly turning into. (p. 12)
“Not much anyone can do about that,” (p. 12) Isobel goes on to state, but the contempt for these holidaymakers is clear. A devastated ecosystem, and these tourists are paying tour companies to make it worse for selfies. To indulge their own egos. But just before Isobel’s condemnation of others comes her assessment of herself, and that is the meat at the heart of Always North—the compromises, and the justifications, that people can make in the service of apocalypse.
The survey vessels we work on are looking for oil and we’re helping them find it, so the obvious conclusion is that we’re part of the problem: aiding and abetting, or at least enabling, the plunder of the world’s natural resources. That’s not the way I choose to look at it. We are simply explorers, charting the terrain at the bottom of the sea, pulling information from deep within the bedrock. We are in no way advocating what people do with that information. We only provide it. (p. 12)
This is, of course, moral cowardice of the highest order. Isobel and her research partner Grant are paid—and paid well—by corporations not overburdened with consciences themselves, and it is absolutely clear to even the meanest intelligence what the information is going to be used for. Isobel, however, chooses to look away. To her, the tourists—less educated, less aware—have more culpability. This is the splitting of hairs of science, the consequences of the burgeoning gap between science and the humanities—the same gap that leads to medical researchers experimenting on unwitting patients with syphilis, or that leads to physicists converging to create a weapon that annihilates entire cities in atomic fire. Not all scientists, it must be said. Lise Meitner, for example, was invited to work on the Manhattan Project and refused on moral grounds. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was blown open by the epidemiologist Peter Buxtun, who couldn’t stomach what his government was doing.
Isobel has no such backbone. She is not a Meitner, nor is she a Buxtun. Given her gaping lack of moral fibre, however, and given how early it is illustrated in the book, I fully expected, when reading, for Jarrett to confront Isobel’s chosen blindness, and for her experiences to change her perspective. That is the way the story goes, isn’t it? Ethics seem to be absent alongside the absence of empathy, and some people are simply incapable of empathy until they are suffering themselves. We all know the type—the ones who only start caring about women’s issues when they have a daughter, because then injustice hits too close to home, and they can no longer easily ignore it. The ones who only start caring about the rights of the sick when they start to lose their own good health; the ones who only start caring about the planet when their own backyard water source fails.
So, I expected Isobel to suffer. I was actually hoping for it. I hope for it in real life, too. It doesn’t make me a good person, I think, that hope, but if “good” gets you drilling in the dying Arctic, then it’s time to take a flamethrower to people who only learn what hurt is when they get burned themselves.
Light that bitch up, Vicki, I thought.
Isobel’s hurt, it turns out, comes not in flame but in bears. In one bear, particularly, because that bear gets aboard their research vessel and goes for throats. The expedition is a bloody failure. The entire crew, Isobel included, is left scarred and traumatised.
It will be no surprise at all that I was rooting for the bear. That bear, by the way, is beautifully portrayed. The way that Jarrett uses bear-imagery in this book is outstanding—all the more so because Isobel, with bears always on her mind, comes to take on bear-like characteristics herself. Only in small ways, little surreal moments that leave her confused and off-balance—a sudden desire for blood manifesting in the middle of a sexual encounter, the red bites and scratches that ensue. It seemed to me, initially, that this blurring was a result of guilt. Isobel may not much care that she’s doing wrong, but she knows that she is, and the identification with a threatened species, with a violent, vengeful individual of that species, is not in itself incredible.
It’s also not what’s happening. There’s a time jump in Always North—when two decades after this failed expedition, Isobel is living in a distinctly apocalyptic world. We all know the type—there are camps and hunger and raiders, murder and sexual assault. The climate has turned, the oceans are rising, and the world has gone to shit. It’s all fairly indistinct from other crapsack worlds of its type, but the bear remains. Out of the Arctic, it’s in a research lab, undergoing vivisection, Snow White pinned and comatose in a glass coffin.
His cranium is shaved, the dark exposed skin studded with a skull cap of silver wires and electrodes. Bolts at his temples and another in the centre pierce the skin and drive into the bone. Tiny lights blink decoratively. His eyes are closed but the lids puckered in a way so redolent of grief and loss that the emotion hits me in the chest.
Stretching back from the base of his skull, a six inch wide channel of fur has been shaved following the course of his spine. More wires and bolts protrude from the black skin, locked into the vertebrae. … That sound, so low and so very slow it has been absorbed into the hum of the many machines, divorced from its meaning. It flows back and forth in shallow waves, with long pauses between each reversal. I struggle to interpret its meaning, to hear it for what it is.
Breath. (p. 104)
There’s a reason the bear is being experimented upon. There’s a reason it’s this bear. Polar bears—in this book anyway, I can’t answer for real life—have no sense of time. Everything, for them, is present. And due to a handwavium of quantum physics and mind mapping, the bear that so hunted Isobel on that long past expedition can be directed, somehow, from the future … directed in such a way as to disrupt the expedition which was the turning point in the changing climate. It’s time travel, essentially, wrapping a warning up in bear skin and sending it back to bite sense into people who have chosen to have none. Naturally, Isobel is the best choice: the most suitable candidate to merge with that chained and brutalised creature in order to have it hunt her younger self.
The attempt is not guaranteed. She likely won’t survive it. She does it anyway, and that is where the book ends—on uncertainty. We can tell, from those small surreal moments, that something of her does transfer into the Isobel-bear of violence past, but whether it’s enough?
Of course it isn’t. Jarrett leaves that ending open, and it’s done effectively, but it’s not enough, and I will tell you why. There are two reasons, both of which have been illustrated here. The first is that corruption is not an individual phenomenon; it is a social one. The second is that corruption is ongoing.
Early on in this book I expected empathy to arise from suffering, and ethics to arise from empathy. They did not. The bear is a lab rat. It’s torture for that animal, and Isobel knows it. She just doesn’t care, or not enough. One bear against the horror that the world turned into? She might feel for the bear, but this was a woman willing to offer up an ecosystem for personal gain. Vivisection is nothing to that. You cannot save the natural world from being treated as an exploitable resource by treating the natural world as nothing but an exploitable resource. You just can’t do it. More of the same will not save us.
More crucially, however, is the social nature of corruption. It’s tempting, in these stories, to have a hero. To have one person make the difference, but that is an answer that ignores scale. One person cannot make a difference. Not when it comes to climate. Change has to be drastic to make a difference, and that can only happen on a global level. Stopping one boat, one survey, would work if Isobel and her team were the only corrupted scientists in the world. They are not. If the Isobel-bear eats fucking Isobel, then the next corrupted Vichy traitor swines of scientists, disgraces to their profession that they are, who are sent out into the sad remains of ice, will just have bigger bear guns.
And all of this, further, is an underlining of the refusal to accept reality that climate science is so impeded by. Fuck up the world with greed and corruption, and the stripping of idealism from the method that brought us out of darkness and superstition, and I’m sorry: you don’t get a do-over. The time travel solution is just more looking away. It’s the equivalent of a parent who, refusing to vaccinate and having their child subsequently die of a vaccine-preventable disease, looks for the TARDIS to help instead of going out into the world, acknowledging their culpability, and using their experiences to save other children thereby.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it for its portrayal of compromise and corruption … and for that tragic, glorious bear. I just hope there’s enough of the bear left in the Isobel-bear to make Isobel die screaming, because she—and all those like her—utterly deserve it.
There is no room left in me for forgiveness.