Size / / /
Clade cover

By the half-way point of Clade, the world has changed. Setting out for a walk, Ellie, an artist, helpfully reminisces about the history of the valley she now calls home. The pastoral farmland she knew as a child was replaced by managed carbon-capture plantations in the twenties and thirties, which have themselves now—following bankruptcy—given way to a return to wildness. It's an effective tour, local history implying the changes underway in the wider world, which Ellie knows as news: drought in Asia, flooding in Europe, unspecified "horrors in Chicago" (p. 119). She fears a tipping point, collapse. But she also has more immediate concerns. Her biracial grandson Noah, evacuated from England without his parents, is coming to visit for the first time. And she is distracted by the potential of her latest project, a study of bees that she hopes will capture both their longevity and their vulnerability to climatic change, and perhaps communicate what she feels when she looks at them, "something that is not quite wonder, not quite grief, but somehow both" (p. 116). The clash of scales and concerns—the planetary and the personal; ephemeral and enduring—is typical of the best parts of James Bradley's fourth novel.

It is a novel shaped around the story of the family of which Ellie is a part. It's obvious from quite early on that the Leiths, as middle-class professionals in a rich nation, will be insulated from the worst environmental crises; elsewhere hundreds of thousands may starve or drown, but for the Leiths such events are, for the most part, remote. Intellectually, Ellie knows that mass migrations are underway; but Noah, who is in the country because she and her husband were able to wrangle him through the bureaucracy, is the only climate refugee she has actually met. So when, on a later walk, she encounters Amir, the keeper of the beehives she has been studying, and discovers that he is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, whose wife and child are dead, she is thrown. When "trying to imagine their lives" she is unable to move beyond easy outrage that their situation is "ridiculous, monstrous"; awareness of the inadequacy of this response leaves her feeling uncertain, "raw as a teenager" (p.131). A few pages further on, Amir—a doctor in his previous life—asks Ellie to pose as the parent of a friend's child, so that they can receive emergency surgery without questions. She asks why Amir didn't say anything sooner, says she could have helped, and Amir replies sharply: "Could you? How? We don't just need access to hospitals, we need medicine, schools, jobs, not to be frightened all the time" (p. 136). It's the first glimpse the novel has given us of one of the other narratives implied by the future the Leiths are living through.

It's also a moment that points to the most serious critique of Clade, namely that it is a novel about crisis in which the lives of those most affected take place off-screen. There are strong arguments to be made that that is not enough—moral arguments, that suffering should not be mood music for the privileged; narrative arguments, that it would simply be more dramatic. Amir's appearance is, on the face of it, a rebuke to the first of those points; yet not as forceful as it would be if he, and not Ellie, had been the viewpoint character in their encounter. Bradley, I think, sticks with Ellie as a reflection of his own privilege (and an assumption about that of his audience), but deliberately so, because one of the questions Clade asks is: how can someone insulated from its worst effects learn to internalise, and respond appropriately, to a global crisis affecting millions of people over decades? Humans, by and large, crave personal connection, yet there is a real sense in which individual experiences will never be sufficient to grasp the whole of what we are doing to our planet. Put another way, there is a risk that inventing Amir's experience would provide false catharsis to readers like me. The challenge is to achieve a broader empathy, and come to terms with a story that is fundamentally impersonal.

Structured as a novel-in-stories, Clade flows from now to the second half of the twenty-first century, and for at least its first half is sure-footed about its juxtapositioning of the immediate and the emergent. Bradley begins with Adam Leith—the closest thing the novel has to a central character, in that he headlines three of the ten chapters—on a research trip to Antarctica, waiting for news of Ellie's fertility treatment. They are a contemporary cosmopolitan couple; Adam reflects on the ease of their meeting and how, "though neither was quite sure how it happened, they found themselves a couple with careers and a future" (p. 9). What they don't have, however, is children, and their failed efforts to conceive become a barrier between them, one that sends Adam deeper into his research on melting permafrost and shifting ocean currents. There he finds, or perhaps justifies, a reluctance to become a parent at all: Bradley is detailed about the moment-to-moment see-saw of Adam's emotions, but I think leaves it up to us to decide to what extent his abstract understanding of the future is defining his choices in the present.

The second chapter takes place a few years later. Adam and Ellie have a young daughter, Summer, and the world is warmer. (Subtlety in character names, you may have gathered, is not Bradley's strongest suit.) In Australia, the power grid is struggling to cope with the demand for air-conditioning; on the news, famine and floods in South Asia. (Reading the novel a second time, I wondered what Amir's life was like at this point.) Adam and Ellie's relationship remains tense. Responding to another rant about climate-denying journalism, Ellie accuses her husband of self-indulgence: "I think you get off on being angry" (p. 29). Adam recognises some truth to her comment, though he won't admit it out loud; he "does not know the person he is becoming," feels himself "falling faster and faster without any idea of when and where he will land" (p. 30). Once again it is hard to separate Adam's frustration with his family from his impotence in the face of accelerating climate crisis; his emotions are as much a product of the world as of the people in it; the two are inseparable. After a couple of chapters away from Adam—during which we meet Maddie, Ellie's mother-in-law, and then Summer as a rebellious teenager—we rejoin him for the novel's big disaster set-piece, a tropical storm that devastates the South of England while he is visiting for a conference and the one time when Leiths are directly in harm's way. Travelling out of London to visit Summer, Adam looks at the landscape in a way that anticipates Ellie's valley walk. The idea of a "natural" countryside has been a fiction for centuries, he thinks; England's hedgerows were always as much an imposition as the new "triffid" trees intended to suck carbon from the air. We have always remade the world. Left unrecognised (by Adam) is the extent to which the world has remade him.

Adam and Ellie's reflections on changing landscapes are, for me, the crossroads of Clade. To this point, the novel has been entirely a story of life in a time of escalating environmental crisis, with a tone often reminiscent of a writer like Maureen McHugh: personal but crisp. Yet after these two chapters, we inexorably leave Adam and Ellie behind, and the future becomes something else. Subsequent chapters focus on Lijuan, a teenager whose family are killed by a pandemic, and who ends up more or less adopted by Adam; Dylan, a twentysomething programmer (when we spend time with him) who will eventually become Lijuan's partner; Noah, by this point an astronomer; and then, finally, Lijuan's daughter Izzie, going to a party out in the Floodline fringe of her city. None of these chapters is quite as successful at exploring character as those dealing with Adam, Ellie, and Maddie, but each of them grows the clade, makes it more than blood, incorporates more disparate personal narratives: this is good. Moreover, the decisive shift to a new generation reframes environmental crisis as the environmental status quo, without it ever being clear that we have done much to stabilise the situation (the carbon-capture plantations in Ellie's valley went broke, after all). New and more conventionally science fictional changes compete for the characters' attention, be it the creation of AI surrogates for dead relatives, or a rekindled search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The novel feels slightly less specific, slightly less possible. In the end, if Clade is asking how we might internalise impersonal stories, its answer seems to be that, as a species, we won't: we will just drift on and make do.

The other thing that is happening in the second half of the novel, however, is a thematic broadening, revealing climate change as a specific example of the more general challenge of wrestling with change over time. And Bradley, it turns out, has been here before. His second novel, The Deep Field, was published in 1999 and set in a version of 2010 imaginatively recreated by a narrator living in the twenty-second century. On a line by line basis it doesn't have the cool focus of Clade—at times it feels rather strained—but the extraordinary conflation of timeframes achieves the same end as the restless structure of the more recent novel, exploring a human experience while ensuring the reader is always aware of the fleeting nature of that experience. It is a theme to which I am deeply sympathetic, that I wish was more central in contemporary SF, and for which I will forgive a lot; so if in Clade it requires accepting an increasing narrative diffuseness, I accept, and if it means that it becomes slightly too easy to decompose the book into its component parts and separate out the bits that work and the bits that do not, I will look away. Because in the end I'm with Noah, the astronomer, who knows that looking up into the sky really means looking out into time.

A coda about categories. Clade is obviously not published in isolation. Already this year Sara Taylor has used a similar structural conceit to related ends in The Shore, and Antonia Honeywell, Kirsty Logan, EJ Swift, and others have published novels that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis; and they are only the latest crop. All of these examples are, obviously enough, kinds of science fiction, but there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves. For one thing, climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared. For another, precisely because it is already happening, there are entirely contemporary books that should be included in any such discussion; Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour (2012), which is set in one time and place but uses a different structural conceit to open its readers' perspective out to the global and ecological, would be a fine example. So there is this interesting cluster of work, which may not quite be a subgenre of SF but which certainly contains a lot of SF and SFnal thinking, that I want to talk about; but unfortunately I don't think anyone has yet got the terminology for it quite right. "Apocalypse" (soft, contemporary, or otherwise) and "dystopia" now flatten and obscure more than they illuminate—Clade is neither but has been described as both. A more recent coinage with some traction, "cli-fi", a) tends to be used to claim that what it describes is an entirely new thing (erasing the existing history of environmental SF and indeed environmental non-SF literature), b) is the brainchild of a man with an unfortunate propensity for relentlessly haranguing people who disagree with him, and c) is just a supremely ugly collection of letters. Then at the more esoteric end of the debate we have suggestions such as Jeff VanderMeer's "hyperobject fiction," which he proposes in part because it is unlikely to catch on, but which nevertheless describes a book like Clade quite neatly. At least, it does once you know that a hyperobject is, as defined by Timothy Morton, "an object so massively distributed in space and time as to transcend localisation"—which is why it is unlikely to catch on. I'm carping, but not just that; categories matter because, like families, they both include and exclude. The rejoinder to the charge that Clade's viewpoint is unduly privileged is the psychological specificity it employs, but that defence only carries weight if it is an equal member of a literary family that also includes, say, The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (2013), a novel that explores the Aboriginal psychology of landscape as it responds to climate change with great vigour and inventiveness, but which has not received nearly the same level of international attention. I should end all this with a pithy suggested label of my own, naturally, but unfortunately I don't have one; just a sense that this is a vital literary area, and that we need to get better at describing and discussing it.

Niall Harrison ( has reviewed for publications including Foundation and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
No comments yet. Be the first!


%d bloggers like this: