This was the dangerous organization that was going to restore genetic engineering to a country that had rejected it, and so feed both the United States and the world as climate change, desertification, and rising seas changed the face of the globe? (p. 58)
The year is 2032. By day, Renata Black is a paralegal, who works on sexual assault cases, especially with the Quinault Nation, a First Nations group. By night, she is Caroline Denton, a member of The Org, a highly secretive society dedicated to restoring food security to the United States of America after an event known simply as “the Catastrophe.” The Catastrophe itself took place ten years before, in 2022, when, in a “million-to-one chance occurrence,” a biopharmed anti-diarrhea drug picked up a lethal soil fungus gene and killed a large number of children before the cause was detected. The resultant chaos collapsed the American economy:
Agricultural commodity markets have always been highly volatile in economic terms, but not like this. The stock market plunged, rallied, and then, after the soy poisonings, dragged the entire country into a depression. People tried to grow their own food in backyards, on decks, on rooftops. Organic farms sold out of produce as people hoarded. Hoarding caused more riots. Meridian declared bankruptcy. It looked as if, without a bailout, Monsanto and Dow might do the same. The unemployment rate soared. The violence continued. (p. 77)
After the elections that followed, GM crops were banned—a ban militantly enforced by a new State Department (the Department of Agriculture Safety, or “the DAS”)—and America began to struggle to feed itself. It was in this context that The Org came into existence:
The group was grass-roots, beginning slowly at first and then building fast with a surprising amount of hidden, illegal support from rich donors. Its goal was to rebuild the genetic engineering of crops so that, instead of enriching big agribusinesses, they could save children from hunger and malnutrition. (p. 88)
Hated by agribusiness, by environmental groups, and by the government, The Org lives a perilous existence, always one misstep away from discovery and destruction. Renata’s own life is thrown into turmoil when she discovers that an agent of The Org has been potentially compromised. But as she rushes to plug the leak, the government is at their heels: it finds their hidden farms, destroys their experimental crops, and arrests their agents. As she tries to save The Org, Renata’s worlds collide, leading to a final denouement within the territory of the Quinault Nation, where her own son, Ian, died ten years ago after accidentally eating clams laced with domoic acid.
Sea Change is a novella that is within the tradition of cli-fi (speculative fiction dealing with the impact of climate change). Kress creates a frighteningly persuasive near-future world—a world that ends not with a bang but with a whimper. Its plausibility lies in the fact that it is not a dystopia where civilization has collapsed (indeed, in Sea Change, Donald Trump is voted out of office in 2020), and bands of scavengers now roam a feral countryside (although those novels are, of course, equally important). Rather, through a step-by-step reconstruction of a ten-year-long period, Kress shows us how a combination of human hubris, human accident, and human folly can bring us to a pass that nobody really wants, and that harms everyone. The larger theme is the unsustainability of an economic and social system that is always on the cusp of unraveling through single acts of error or folly. And to those who have recently seen the sight of unmarked vans rounding up protesters in American cities such as Portland, the militancy and violence of the DAS will seem prescient: in Sea Change—just like in real-life America—“the war has come home” (although this one is triggered by a climate catastrophe and not by protests against racial injustice and violence).
Thus, Sea Change is not the worst of all possible worlds we can imagine, but it is certainly a likely one: not a destroyed world, but a world in terminal decline, where life isn’t unlivable just yet, but significantly poorer and more difficult; the choke points and bottlenecks that stand in the way of any reversal of fortune seem too numerous to surmount. For that reason, the aims of The Org are, themselves, relatively modest and ambitious (by general SFF standards): not to change the world or to save it but just to persuade a skeptical and frightened public that GMO crops cannot be banned out of existence in the interests of food security. Constricted dreams for a constricted world.
The fate of The Org is intertwined with the fate of Renata/Caroline. Sea Change proceeds through a series of alternating chapters, one of which is set in present-day 2032 (and follows Renata’s attempts to save The Org), while the other is a set of flashbacks from 2004 onwards: Renata falling in love with Jake, their troubled relationship, Jake’s meteoric rise in Hollywood, the birth of their son Ian, their divorce, and—finally—Ian’s death in the Quinault Nation territory. These intersecting storylines—Renata’s work with sexual assault survivors in the Quinault Nation, the guilt-ridden memories of the death of her son, and her double life in The Org—come together at the climax of the novel, making it both a story about climate change but also a deeply personal story. This intersection might remind readers of some of the work of Becky Chambers.
It is also significant that a crucial part of the action takes place on Quinault Nation territory. There is, of course, a temptation to turn this into a ham-handed piece of symbolism but that is a temptation that Kress manages to avoid. The Quinault Nation does not serve the role of a prop, but its presence is interwoven throughout the novella: both in Renata’s life and in the efforts of The Org and its allies.
Perhaps fittingly, the ending of Sea Change is ambiguous (reminiscent of, perhaps, The Handmaid’s Tale, when Offred wonders if she is walking into darkness or light), telling us that in the near future, while there may be hope, there are no easy—or happy—endings; indeed, there are no endings at all but only a continuing struggle, with losses and uncertain consequences. That is another way in which Sea Change paints a compelling portrait of the times we live in and the times that may be over the horizon.