The structure of this novel is a peculiar pleasure. Nine of the eleven chapters centre a different character, building up a view of the events from narrow viewpoints. The angles are more limited than just a close third-person perspective would create due to the additional caution of the protagonists, who each know they are engaged in a conspiracy of the utmost importance, with minimal ability to trust even their closest colleagues, all while facing an enemy far more powerful than them. They follow the best spy protocols they know, of small cells and code names.
Their conspiracy is to preserve climate change data accurately. Their code names reflect their interest in biology, and provide keys to the novel. Each of the characters has chosen a species by which they should be identified. The organisms are introduced with English common and Latin scientific names and their characteristics are described in the manner of a species introduction in a biology text. The women who have chosen these names are, in turn, characterised by their similarity to these habits and habitats.
A simple example is Buellia frigida, an Antarctic lichen: “Experiments on the International Space Station, where the lichen is exposed to the conditions of space, as well as to a simulation of Martian environments, prove that the lichen is capable of enduring both” (p. 16); the scientist using this designation is on the International Space Station herself, and was exposed to space when her space suit failed. It soon becomes clear that she is also the person who has been performing those very experiments. Another is the Glass Sponge (Scolymastra joubini), which “can freeze under observation. Some exhibit no measurable growth for over 20 years” (p. 44): this is a characteristic of great value to its namesake, who lives and works in the small, closed environment of New Zealand’s Scott Base in the Antarctic. With the seasonal arrival of new, and possibly dangerous, strangers, she stops doing anything worth observing.
That sense of an “enemy,” and of asymmetry, is critical to the success of the book: there is a need for paranoia because they are out to get you. This is a world where regressive, climate-denying views hold significant power—enough power, in fact, to deny the reality of climate change not just in the media, but in the data itself. Scientific results which focus on climate change are suppressed. Marginal data is carefully managed and the language of science is adapted and elided, to minimise the possibility of generating economically or politically unacceptable results. There are clear and obvious parallels to much of the early discourse around COVID-19, with the obvious desire of people across political and social spectra to prove that the—initially partial and still in places patchy—data supports their position. By comparison, the current data we have on climate change is clear and long established—and so this book posits a special interest’s need to go beyond shouting in the media, and across government chambers, to the actual compromising of data.
How could the world get itself into a situation where the raw data associated with climate change might be subject to systematic compromise? Initially, I had to brush aside this question to let me focus on the text in front of me, accepting the idea and living with the fear, uncertainty, and unease of the characters who are dealing with this being a reality. And so the world of the text worked its way instead into my subconscious and I started seeking explanations. For one, a cautionary tale can seem a lot more predictive over time. In an essay for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood has discussed this possibility—and her hope that the novel will turn out in fact to be “anti-predictive”—in reference to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood notes that the events in her book are taken from history, rather than invented. And there are elements of that approach visible in The Stone Wētā, too. The replication crisis in science is already creating a sense of insecurity in science, exacerbated by activities such as p-hacking—which can soon become cherry picking to create support for a pre-existing conclusion; and there’s always the well-worn phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Beyond this, there have been more active attacks or misrepresentations of data—take the Climategate events, in which climate scientists’ integrity was attacked through use of careful quotation shortly before the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change. Here, clearly, there were intentional bad actors involved. Even without discussing Hong Kong, Trump, or “cancel culture,” the premise of this book is not as unlikely as it first appears.
Within The Stone Wētā itself, there is a direct exemplar of the need to copy and distribute data: the preservation of scrolls in Timbuktu in the face of armed invaders. This may be a reference to the events of 2013 or a later, similar, occurrence; either way, the method of protection employed was to distribute material as widely as possible so that any attacker could only steal or destroy a small proportion. In the face of the corruption of climate change data, a scientist in The Stone Wētā from Mali takes the same approach: make multiple copies of data on physical drives and scatter them across the world.
It is hard, too, to see what difference it could possibly make to take hard copies of data and stash them offline, which brings to the surface a further topic from Atwood’s essay. She points out that, within the fiction of her novel, Offred’s narrative is written and then hidden, “trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand and share it.” Perhaps that is the only hope our characters have when they start to create their stashes.
The protagonists have other factors in common, too. They are all women—one of them trans—and they tend to be from marginalised cultures. They are sufficiently successful as professional scientists that they are able to attend conferences. This latter activity, as delegates blend into academic crowds, is effective protection when exchanging data in person. Furthermore, the book makes clear that the former factors—the conspirators are not white, not male—means that they go comparatively unobserved in these environments. There is an implication here that the very expectations held of them by their opponents can be used against them. This is made most explicit in a section from the perspective of Felis margarita. Sand Cat and her husband play the roles of the domineering husband and downtrodden wife, black Africans meeting the expectations of white westerners:
She served the meal in the most modest clothes she owned, kept her eyes averted. It helped that the visitors were men; they would see what they half-expected to see. (p. 75)
“We have to use the advantages we have,” said the Sand Cat. Their ability to hide, to survive under surfaces and in the spaces that others had made. “It might be useful.” (p. 77)
Everywhere, the characteristics of their code names are on show, prefiguring or refiguring the action. The leaves of the Gympie Gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) toughen with age, we are told at the start of the chapter with that title—and we are soon shown the person in action, teaching another conspirator how to toughen up. Having grown up in the Australian tropics, I recognised the stinging tree itself, and the kind of bushland it inhabits. I probably had to leave Australia to discover the truth of other elements of this chapter—at its simplest, to recognise “land lost to farming that never recovered—an ecology ill-adapted to sheep and cattle” (p. 127).
Many of us, however, will recognise, across the world and in our own constituencies, the actions of power, corruption and lies:
Lobbyists in Canberra, in capitals all over, arguing that restrictions were uneconomic, that good business meant bad sacrifice. They could afford to buy votes, the oil companies and the miners, the ones who didn’t care if the Reef went or the ecosystem died around them. They did it in daylight, too, because colonisation was always a bright and progressive perception, moving forward into Terra Nullius, opening up the empty lands for opportunity and profit. (pp. 126-7)
And yet, despite the attitude to climate change science, there is in the future depicted by The Stone Wētā clear progress in other forms of science—or at least the application of science—as the creation of a Mars colony attests. In turn, the International Space Station acts as a waypoint on the journey to the red planet—which suggests that it has continued to expand to accommodate the traffic involved. It is disconcerting, within the setting, that there is no sign here of a Bezos or Elon Musk figure at the heart of the great leap into space. It would have seemed more likely had there been a visibly cynical aspect to humanity’s planetary migration—a government or big business ‘lifeboat’ creating a new world safe from the destruction of the old, alongside an awareness that the changes both integral to and buried by the process are real.
Instead, the Mars colony seems to be genuinely science-led and provides an unexpected place of refuge, delivering an element of relief with which to close the novel. This release valve, somehow protected from the backlash of the old world, didn’t quite ring true, however: it was as if Cade had decided that the book would have been too dark, too uncomfortable a volume without a closing element of hope. The scientists on Mars can speak truth, from a sufficient distance, even when they can’t be sure they will survive. It’s an escape, but a sudden one.
At no more than 170 pages, The Stone Wētā nevertheless feels like a fully formed novel. Despite my misgivings about the setup, I found the novel’s tone of fear, discontent, and paranoia convincing. It is a book which speaks about worse to come and demonstrates further possible disasters of our twenty-first century. Yet there is also an element of hope, of the desire of good people to fight for the presentation of actual facts. Perhaps there is also a call to action for all who take seriously the primacy of objective information: to act in support of the data, and to follow where it leads, before such an approach becomes an unacceptably subversive, punishable act.