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Triangulation: Extinction coverIn the time it took me to write this review, twelve species of life on Earth became extinct. The Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson estimates that three species are being driven to extinction every hour, compared to a natural background rate of one extinction per million species per year, while the World Wildlife Fund reported in 2018 that nearly 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since the 1970s have been wiped out by “the vast and growing consumption of food and resources … destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.” [1] [2] Meanwhile, the UN bleakly estimates that nearly one million plant and animal species now face extinction by the year 2050 as a consequence of unmoderated human activity. [3] In short, what is unfolding in the background of our lives, while most of humanity remains glued to its screens, is no less than an ecological genocide to which nothing in recorded history can compare, and an environmental collapse which has the potential to destabilize and erase human culture as we know it.

To appreciate why this ongoing massacre is a multidimensional tragedy, consider that biodiverse ecosystems (such as those in the tropics) serve as a primary source of the drugs and medicinal compounds that form the cornerstone of our healthcare and disease prevention systems. Similarly, traditional knowledge of ecology, taxonomy, and the use of local fauna and flora from communities around the world serves as a source of insight for the development of new drugs and products that improve the lives of millions worldwide. In the past, these sources have led to the discovery of potent antibiotics, as well as potential treatments for HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, heart disease, and malaria, amongst other diseases. Preserving biodiverse natural landscapes and habitats also provides direct access for human society to understand the workings of our interconnected biospheres, and for developing methods for sustaining the quality and longevity of human life. [4] [5] [6] [7]

This is all in addition to the stout bulwark of ecological security, climate stability, and genetic insurance that such complex and interwoven webs of life bring to our broader environment, whose inner workings may never be fully known to us. Should such fragile ecosystems continue to be erased by wanton human activity, even as the melting polar ice caps threaten to thaw and reactivate long-dormant, prehistoric strains of microbes to which humans have had no previous exposure, the coming decades could make the events of the COVID-19 era feel as benign as an episode of Sesame Street.

So if the events of 2020 were a warning, a trailer of sorts for the events to come, then it is timely and fitting that a new book published a few weeks ago should project just how much worse things could get, while offering readers the opportunity for introspection and self-correction before it is too late. Triangulation: Extinction brings together twenty-seven short stories from around the world to explore the topic of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and species extinction, using speculative fiction to present perspectives that force readers to engage with issues which might otherwise be too inconvenient to acknowledge. With a mix of poetic meditations, dark satire, and subaltern perspectives, these stories range from the absurd to the fantastic, from the comic to the terrifying, and feature post-human narrators, intersectional protagonists, plenty of dystopia, and a little hope, amongst other things.

First are the cautionary tales, usually featuring a human protagonist in a post-apocalyptic setting being forced to confront humanity’s legacy of destruction: a bumbling researcher embarking on a quest to locate the last member of a nearly-extinct frog species which carries a vital gene (“The Bubble Tree Frogs”); a monster hunter in a magical Indonesian kingdom racing to save a rampaging dragon (“Loving Monsters”); a poor woman impregnated with the fetus of an extinct animal (“Run, Baby, Run”), a pair of primatologists adjusting to a new ape civilization emerging in their plague-ridden neighborhood (“Letters for Samantha”); or a young couple discovering the magical world hidden inside the garden centre of their local Walmart (“Will-o-the-Walmart”). These stories are moving and intricate, even if they feel underdeveloped or merely glimpses of larger narratives waiting to be explored. What makes them relevant, however, is their framing of their protagonists not as heroes, but as inheritors of a legacy of failure. As victims of a history and a set of circumstances not of their own choosing, these characters are faced with limited options due to the poor choices of their ancestors—a fate we would rather not bequeath to our own descendants.

A second set of stories analyzes the consequences of human culture through non-human eyes, using the inversion of perspective to critique the excesses of human culture: a sentient, ocean-wide, trash-consuming bacterial slime mold reflects on the demise of its human creators (“Labyrinthula Animalis”); a mermaid couple struggles to reunite after one of them is abducted by spacefaring humans (“We Only Have”); a shrub reflects on the centrality of violence to human culture (“Tales of the Shrub”); a trio of mythical creatures rejected by Noah’s Ark discusses the commercialism and patriarchy at the heart of human religion (“There Were Giants on the Earth In Those Days”); and a magical, shape-shifting gorilla struggles to accept the death of his family at the hands of poachers (“Akiki, the Magician”). Such analysis reinforces this reader’s perception that the supposed majesty of human civilization, when viewed from a non-human perspective, is actually a record of violent conquest, colonization, genocide, and extermination.

The last grouping is a miscellaneous catch-all of poetic meditations and satirical tales. The satirical tales are the clear winners. In “The Perfect Solution,” animals are extinct but people are jobless, and so the government pays people to act like wild animals to keep the wildlife tourism industry afloat. Things go well until game hunters come onto the scene. In “Four Little Bees,” a Kafkaesque government program attempts to build a residential apartment building that also doubles as a beehive designed to replenish China’s dwindling bee population. This goes about as well as one would expect. Lighthearted, yet freighted with an awareness of their underlying ecological concerns, these are actually the standout stories in this collection, deftly employing humor and irony to convey a point which other stories in the collection sometimes never get around to making, while reminding us that progress is often as much about government policy as individual agency.

In a year where the world has witnessed a global pandemic scything through communities, plus climate disruption, political upheaval, economic stagnation, and social fragmentation—all against a backdrop of an increasingly destabilizing natural world—Triangulation: Extinction is a well-timed arrival with the potential to move our thinking in the direction of a greater ecological awareness, especially at a moment in history when we are confronted with the need to remodel our societies to be more sustainable.

Foundationally, the collection forces readers to acknowledge that human history is not a pageant of glory, but one of endless conquest, parasitism, and bloodletting. Our past is characterized more by brutish and militant tribalism than our ability to rise above our shortcomings. The most dangerous creature on this planet is us, precisely because we deceive ourselves into believing we're its victims, and therefore entitled to power and compensation. Earth is actually a multicultural planet: there are other, non-human societies living here too—some even older than humans—but they’re scarcely acknowledged in our formal histories nor in the design of our societies, other than in terms of their utility to us, because our species governs this planet with an ideology of human supremacy. In that sense we’re no different from an invading colonial culture, self-justifying its primacy in civilizational terms.

Whether it’s the pogrom of a vibrant rainforest community to make way for a commercial cornfield characterized by “an eerie, synchronized monotone,” even as the air is rent “with the chemical screams of freshly dismembered plants” (“The Killing Garden”); the emergence of a strict caste system and police state on an overcrowded Earth in response to increased genetic diversity (“As Much as the Crows”); or a kingdom where a God-Emperor enjoys untrammeled public support in return for enforcing a veneer of social equality, even as his regime is rooted in corruption and oppression (“The Fire of Countless Stars”), what unites this collection is the theme that human behaviour is motivated by a desire for order, control, and security, which manifests itself as consumerism, tribalism, and despotism, which are in turn variations of our deep-seated culture of patriarchy.

Patriarchy, or the desire to have natural power over things, is coeval with human dominance. Humanity's conquest of the food chain was driven by a species-wide desire for greater abundance and security, and ultimately bred an extended social system incorporating both humans and non-humans into a teleological hierarchy, with humans firmly at the top wielding power over everything below. In a sense then, what we have is a human colonial empire over the Earth, with all non-humans (and even some humans) reduced to chattel—resources to be accumulated, battered, traded with, and discarded once no longer useful—or threats to be ruthlessly exterminated. The goal of this system is to maintain a secure, human-centric arrangement that compensates for our biological weaknesses and gives us a feeling of control, while allowing us to consume freely.

At the same time, the success of this system rests on the long-term stability of its natural environment. As many of these stories indicate, humanity’s inability to reconcile its impulses to power with its impulses to self-preservation is what leads to its demise. Herein lies the irony: left unchecked, the aggressive accumulation and consumption of resources that undergirds the power structure of this system throws the fragile balance of the broader environment into disarray. The violent, predatory nature of human culture causes resources to run out, and causes society to quickly lose its structure and cohesion as power structures collapse, making way for younger, gentler civilizations to emerge and succeed humankind.

And so that’s this collection’s takeaway: for human society to become sustainable, it needs to retrain itself to be less aggressive and consumptive, which in turn requires a willingness to relinquish control and the need to have power over others. It won’t happen overnight, but life is a cycle of mortality; if humans cannot adapt, they die, and the Earth will try again with something else. Humans are just another link in the chain, another round in the long dance of life to the music of time. If not us, then perhaps the Earth will succeed with dolphins, or shrubs, or gorillas, or even bacterial slime mold.

It is through tools like speculative fiction, and through works like Triangulation: Extinction, that we can begin imagining solutions to our problems. Indeed, it is our imagination which holds the key to our survival. We live in imagined realities, in imagined communities with imagined identities and imagined histories. There’s no reason why we can’t re-imagine ourselves to incorporate more empathy for the natural world and our non-human cousins, patterning our existence on sharing power and space with others. The concept of the phylogenetic tree—the shared, common genetic heritage of all living creatures on Earth—should have made us more humble, empathetic, and accommodating of our non-human peers, but our 12,000-year-old traditions of patriarchy endure. [8]

While the stories in this collection are stimulating, they’re merely the start of something new: a new movement in ecologically conscious literature perhaps, or a necessary reality check on the pattern of incessant aggression that has now brought our world to its knees. They serve as a repudiation of the whole pre-COVID world of large-carbon-footprint living, unsustainable consumerism, tribalism, and bordered existences, and allow us an opportunity to engage with the problems of the real world by way of allusion or analogy. For only by removing ourselves from our immediate context do we give ourselves a chance to be objective, to reassess, and to see things clearly for the first time.

Endnotes

[1] The Center for Biological Diversity. [return]

[2] The Guardian. [return]

[3] UN report. [return]

[4] Biodiversity, drug discovery, and the future of global health: Introducing the biodiversity to biomedicine consortium, a call to action. [return]

[5] Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. [return]

[6] Animal-based medicines: Biological prospection and the sustainable use of zootherapeutic resources. [return]

[7] Biodiversity, traditional medicine and public health: where do they meet? [return]

[8] Privilege, power, patriarchy: are these the reasons for the mess we're in? [return]



Prashanth Gopalan is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have previously appeared in the Huffington Post and other publications. He reviews science, speculative, and fantasy fiction works for a global audience.
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