When the effects of climate change are brought up there are usually a certain set of responses: denial ("it's just fear mongering"), hopelessness ("we're all screwed"), grim fatalism ("humanity might die out but the earth will survive"). Then there's the optimism that humanity's ingenuity will save the day, the belief that future generations will figure out a way to fix everything. Antonia Honeywell's The Ship deals with that baseless optimism, examining what it's like to be a member of that "future" generation who has to deal with the mess left behind—while the adults around you live on in ignorant bliss.
The Ship is set in a world where climate change has exacerbated an already crumbling world order. Our main character, Lallage Paul, is the daughter of a man who has managed to profit from society's breakdown. Michael Paul is the creator of Dove, a system used to keep track of citizens in the UK. Without a Dove card (a screen that can call up all your information), not only do you miss out on government rations; you're likely to be killed in the street by soldiers, your death unrecorded as without the ID you are no longer considered a citizen or even a human being. Many people face this situation when their Dove cards eventually burn out. But not Lalla: as the daughter of the creator of the Dove, she has a whole bag of screens behind a closet door.
But even with his singular wealth, papa Paul still knows that even his family can't stay in London. The government is carrying out mass culls of citizens to keep the consumption of resources low, and food is growing scarcer by the day. Knowing that it's only a matter of time before things completely fall apart, Michael secretly starts stocking a luxury cruise liner with provisions for five hundred people, so that they can escape and build a new, perfect society (he's like Bioshock's Andrew Ryan but with his kingdom on the waves instead of under them).
All five hundred souls onboard the vessel are carefully selected by Michael Paul. They are all "good people," kind human beings who have sought to help others even as the world was burning around them. There is, however, one passenger on the manifest who doesn't have any noteworthy feats to her name: Lalla. Sixteen-year-old Lalla has spent most of her life being protected from the harsh realities of the world by her parents, going on trips to the decaying British Museum with her mother while her father procured everything needed for the ship. No one holds this against her, though. After all, Lalla was the reason Michael built the ship in the first place, so everyone onboard is grateful to her for their salvation, despite her indirect part in it.
Lalla's mother is reluctant to leave London when there are still so many other people in need, but when she is injured the choice is taken out of her hands and she joins her daughter and husband in escape. The first couple of chapters of the book are gripping as the Pauls race to the Ship, pursued by both the military and an angry mob. Unfortunately, once the boat leaves port both it and the story start going around in circles, both literally—as Michael Paul keeps turning the ship around aimlessly—and metaphorically, as Lalla fails to effect any change on the ship.
Even that might not be so bad if we had an interesting narrator. Lallage Paul is, however, to put it politely a brat. The novel puts this to good use early on as her mother lays dying in the ship's infirmary. The doctor, Roger, has given Lalla's mother enough painkiller to knock her out so she can die peacefully, but Lalla figures that her mother would rather be conscious so they could say their goodbyes to each other: "I looked up at the plastic bag and the drip, drip, drip of the drugs that were keeping her still and quiet, keeping her away. The doctor was sedating her. Therefore, by stopping his drugs, I could wake her up. I could ask her what she wanted me to do. I reached up and turned the valve, and the dripping stopped" (p. 51). Her mother does in fact regain consciousness, but instead of exchanging tearful last words with Lalla she dies screaming, in agony.
It's a great moment, but unfortunately one of the few times where it feels like Lalla actually does anything of note, or that her selfish actions have repercussions on those around her. At the start of the book there seems to be a clear arc set up for Lalla—she is a sheltered, privileged teenager but by interacting with her shipmates she will become more self-aware and less spoiled. There are certainly feints in that direction. Several minor characters share their woeful backstories with Lalla in an attempt to help her see the world for what it really is. They also get exasperated with Lalla as she continues to be the one person on the ship who doesn't want to be there. Late into the book Roger tells her, "Take some advice. Skip the bit of your life where you have to rebel and go straight to the part where you embrace what your parents have done for you. Skip the part where you throw everything away and cut straight to being happy" (p. 224). But of course, if she did there wouldn't be much of a book at all.
Despite coming off as oblivious and naive, Lalla is right about a lot of things—or at least right to challenge what everyone else on the ship takes for granted. For the first few weeks into the voyage, the passengers on the ship watch news bulletins showing what is going on back in London. During one distressing bulletin the government is shown gassing the British Museum, killing thousands of squatters living inside the dilapidated building (Lalla is especially upset by this because of those childhood visits with her mother). Afterwards, Michael Paul urges the people of the ship not only to stop watching the broadcasts but to take down the mast which allows them to catch the signal. Lalla takes a stand against her father, insisting that the Ship needs to turn around and go back to London. "'Turn the ship around,' I told my father. ‘We need to be in London. We need to help. We've go to stop them before they gas the National Gallery too, and St Paul's . . . '" (p. 96)
But Lalla's idealism is no match for Michael Paul's sway:
"I did not bring you onboard the ship for a ringside seat at the end of the world. I brought you that you might have life, and have it in abundance. We've left all that behind—the state murders, the mourning, the misery." Frustration broke through his voice. "I brought you here to be happy." He swallowed, and pulled himself up tall. "The past is over," he declared. "There is nothing now except what is here, on the ship, with us. We are the world. We are the entire universe. The old world is turning in on itself. We are no longer a part of it." (p. 97-98)
The mast comes down. While everyone else on the boat worships her father, Lalla is the only one to question his motives. When a shipmate shows Lalla that the ship has enough food to last them decades, Lalla points out that they don't have any seeds. What will they plant when they finally make landfall? And just where is the ship going anyway? And why does the sun seem to rise in a different part of the sky every day?
The truth is, everyone on the Ship has already reached their destination: they have all accepted that they will live out the rest of their days in luxurious safety and have no desire to go back to the land. The cult-like attitude of the people onboard is genuinely creepy and it's interesting having the main character almost break down the fourth wall by pointing out how unsustainable their chosen way of life is.
But often the book positions Lalla's privileged upbringing as the thing that protects her from falling under Michael Paul's thrall:
The difference between his chosen people and me was simple. They could rush forward, immediately, and throw themselves headlong into the riot of learning and experience my father had put before them. The only prospect before them was of better things, wonderful things, a richer, more beautiful, more profound life than they had any hope of before. There was no risk.
But my inclusion had been automatic. No one had made sure I was starving before they set a feast before me. (pg.275)
This is especially incredible considering that many people on the ship were chosen because they had acted out against totalitarian governments. We're supposed to believe these same people would happily live submissively in Michael Paul's happy-happy death cult?
Lalla's rebellious nature would be more impressive if she actually did anything. Between her mother dying and the last chapter, I can't think of one major decision of Lalla's that has any impact on the plot. Most of the middle section of the novel is concerned with Lalla's romance with Tom, a green-eyed boy on the ship. Tom gets a bit more fleshed out than most of Lalla's shipmates, but on the whole he is just another member of the chorus urging Lalla to don't-worry-be-happy.
Even with her love interest urging her to drink the kool-aid, however, Lalla resists. She sees accepting life on the ship as giving up hope, and she's not wrong. Whenever Lalla worries about how future generations will cope, her father brushes her off by saying he has faith that they will figure something out (the same kind of attitude that led to the novel's cli-fi dystopia in the first place). Lalla points out that one day the ship's engines will rust, the stores of supplies will run out, the people will die. Her father and everyone else on the ship accept that but Lalla can't. In the end she finally sets off to make her own way in the world. It's the right choice in that there is no future on the boat, though between her still-present naivety and the wide expanse of ocean before her, seeing Lalla set off in a little dinghy isn't exactly a for-sure happy ending. On finding landfall, she says:
They will welcome me, because I have given everything I have, everything I am, to find them. I will steer my little boat on the high seas, and one day, if I am lucky, I will see the vast trunks of the wind turbines towering above me, their giant arms reaching for the stardust in the air. Maybe my hands will be the ones that reconnect the wires. (p. 308-9)
It's daring of Lalla to leave the safety of the ship, but, considering the pains the novel takes to show how bleak the rest of the world is, it seems especially naive to think that she will be welcomed with open arms when (or if) she finds land. She may have stood up to her father and rejected his plan for the future, but in this way Lalla still seems to share at least some of his optimism. Still, unlike her father, she at least knows that things aren't going to fix themselves. With Lalla at least there is a chance of a future, rather than waiting out the end of the world with everyone on the ship.
Shannon Fay is a freelance writer who has recently moved from Canada to the UK. She has also recently released a collection of short stories called Clever Bits. She can be found online at www.ayearonsaturn.com or @ShannonLFay.