Over the past few months Taiwan-based journalist Dan Bloom has become more and more concerned with climate-change issues, notably the prospect of humanity retreating to new cities built in the polar regions to escape rising temperatures elsewhere. So when he strongly urged me to read a new novel, published online and set in an environmentally devastated future, I felt duty-bound to take a look.
E-books are the modern version of self-publishing. Contrary to what many choose to think, this is an honorable way of issuing works, and one with a long history. William Blake printed and colored his own books, Shelley had pamphlets privately printed and then tried to hand them out to passing citizens, and Ronald Firbank self-published all his novels, now considered by many as classics, in the 1920s. Even James Joyce’s Ulysses was self-published in a way — brought out by a friend who ran a Paris bookshop rather than by an established publishing house.
Hamish MacDonald stands in this august tradition, writing novels and issuing them online, but also hand-printing and binding them in his own workshop. This combination of the newest and one of the oldest technologies feels like the true mark of a dedicated indie publisher.
Finitude is set at an unspecified time in the future. Two men, Jeremy and Victor, are heading for somewhere called Iktyault in search of Jeremy’s parents. On the road they encounter other travelers, plus whole societies, that have responded in different ways to the horrors brought on or threatened by climate change. “Terraists” roam the land, frozen ground is thawing and releasing methane that’s waiting to ignite, there are Non-Reproduction Benefits, compressed air cars (now obsolete), something intended to be edible called Mete (“no amount of cooking was going to make it better”), a city of the blind, a sea of plastic, gangs, looting and, needless to say, wars over resources.
This is essentially a novel of ideas. None of the characters is particularly memorable, and you wouldn’t lose much sleep if one of the major players disappeared in a flash of light — an ever-present possibility. But the ideas are strong — sometimes ingenious, but more often just humane. Others had “spent the wealth of the world,” says a warlord, Tydial Lupercus, in a memorable phrase; once a farmer, he began to move north as his topsoil turned to dust. Disaster struck because people debated the science of the situation rather than simply caring for the planet, argues another. And carbon trading was intended to help poorer nations, but when one of them didn’t play ball the world government (the “International Coalition”) simply invaded, and so on.
There’s some grim humor, too. The pair arrive at one destination and a character offers a toast to “the ultimate survivors.” Jeremy, however, “wasn’t sure if he was referring to them or the cockroaches.” And the permafrost is thawing, the ice in the oceans melting, and if the trapped methane suddenly erupts the planet is going to become “a big, lifeless rock.” To which a character replies: “Suddenly the fact that I’m feeling hungry doesn’t seem so important.”
The government and its efforts are viewed with considerable skepticism. It had announced a “VC (Victory over the Climate) Day,” and was now planning to launch a rocket to block the sun’s rays and so reduce the Earth’s temperature. Little goes according to plan, however. Yet the book ends on a slightly optimistic note, with any final collapse at least temporarily delayed, and the now reunited family setting off by boat towards some sort of viable future. The author doesn’t give many credible grounds for their optimism — someone mentions the possibility of a 50-year reprieve — and you feel that this ending was adopted in preference to a bleak one of total collapse, or an ecological equivalent to Orwell’s Room 101.