Award-winning novelist JL Morin’s latest novel, Nature’s Confession (Harvard Square Editions, 2014/15), is a newcomer to the stable of the newly named genre (or perhaps sub-genre) of cli-fi (climate fiction, associated with sci-fi) novels, and is a rollercoaster of a story that valorises creativity and imagination in the face of the imponderable climate catastrophe looming on the not-too-distant horizon. My recent post on Peter Paik’s paper concerning Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island, also resorted under this category of cli-fi, although I was not familiar with the term then.
The term “cli-fi” is the brainchild, apparently, of journalist and climate activist Dan Bloom, who created the sub-genre as a “wake-up call”, with Margaret Attwood as his inspiration (read her Oryx and Crake, and you will understand why). (You can find out more about Bloom here.) JL Morin does the genre proud with her new novel, which combines cli-fi and sci-fi in a gripping narrative of planet-saving, galactic proportions, while delivering corporate short-sightedness, born of unmitigated greed, a merciless critical blow.
A word of warning is called for here. Don’t think for a moment that because this is fiction, it is irrelevant as ecological critique of, among other things, the insensitivity of corporations (first and foremost Big Oil) and of so-called world leaders to the plight of dying species, and of future generations of all living beings on the planet. There is an indissoluble link between the aesthetic and the political, insofar as the aesthetic represents a way of perceiving the world, and as such, instantiates an alternative to “normalised” ways of perceiving, which is today the neoliberal reduction of everything in the world — nature as well as people — to commodities for generating profit. Morin’s novel is the literary embodiment of a distinctly different way of perceiving, and one that will no doubt work its aesthetic, as well as political “magic” on everyone who reads it, in the process transmogrifying their perception of extant social and natural reality.
The kind of work that reinforces corporate domination in the world constructed by Nature’s Confession is “busywork” — a neologism that conveys precisely its function of keeping workers “busy” — so busy that they do not have time to reflect on the ecological damage that corporate operations are doing to the ecosphere — busywork keeps them locked in an ideological, or discursive, prison. The link between corporate logic and enslavement is made explicit by prefacing the names of things with an “e”, rendering eParliament, eHarvard, etc. The meaning of people’s lives has been defined by their corporate enslavement, which goes hand in hand with the incremental pollution of the planet in the name of profit.
But fortunately there are some people who will always be looking for alternative answers to the question, what the meaning of their lives is, and there are several such characters in this consciousness-raising novel. One of them is a boy (“Boy”, because he has not been named yet), another is a teenage girl, Valentine, whose father persuades Boy to direct his prodigious (but unconventional) intelligence towards ways of undermining the merged corporate and political hegemony. Then there is Boy’s equally gifted sister, Kenza, and a female droid called Any Gynoid, Boy’s parents, Eleanor and Porter (both of whom play a significant role in the narrative), Eleanor’s purple, horned, three-armed “alien” friend, Yda, who sobs mirthfully instead of laughing, and a six-legged “hupcha” called Cuppy.
This variegated bunch of characters already says something about Morin’s inventiveness. But it gets better when following them along the undulating passageways of action, which take one to Boy’s nocturnal meetings with Valentine’s revolutionary father (“the client”) in the school computer room, where Boy works on writing a new programme or cyborg language (a “benign virus”) that would enable computers to sort through all the electronic books and manuscripts elicited from people all over the globe to come up with solutions that would combat the environmental degradation around them. Here’s how the Scottish “client” informs Boy of the dire situation they’re in (p20 – does it look familiar?):
“The world’s going oan eight billion fowk with poisoned food supplies, rising sea levels, catastrophic climate erosion from the last decade’s pollution, and another o’ corporate takeover in the name of fightin’ ‘terrorism’. You know as well as I do that corporate personhood is evil, a so-called person who has no regard for life, no goal other than profit an’ pollutin’. If we keep gawn pollutin’ like this, the planet is doomed.”
Boy’s programme turns out better than anything in his wildest dreams — it actualises any tech-enthusiast’s goal, to create self-aware machines. Except that in this case they become more than self-aware: they become alive, and the “living computers” play a major role in the ensuing events aimed at rescuing the earth from the ravages inflicted on it by corporate rule. I shan’t give the game away by saying more about the way the plot plays out.
Suffice to say that there are casualties along the way, of course, such as “the client”, who is assassinated by the corporations’ agents — an event which turns his daughter, Valentine, against Boy, who has admired her from a distance. She blames Boy for her father’s death, because he had chosen Boy before herself as the likely developer of the needed cyborg language, thus placing himself in a position where he was tracked down by corporate agents. Valentine is also a prodigiously talented computer programmer and, it turns out, physicist (she and Kenza, also a physics student at eHarvard, become friends), who discovers a new particle, the “timeon”, that opens up vast new intergalactic possibilities.
The narrative turns on the quest to save nature on Earth, liberating humanity simultaneously, and this takes our protagonists across the universe to a planet where Eleanor eventually finds herself appointed ambassador to a planetoid by Starliament, and Porter becomes an ambiguous hero (or is it heroes?) on the other side of time-bending travels with Any Gynoid. The fact that young people play a crucial role in the attempt to rescue civilisation in Morin’s novel is hugely significant. And I’m not talking about the present “civilisation”, which is civilised only in name, but about one that has been rehabilitated, and respects the bond between humans/humanoids and nature, as well as among all (intelligent) life-forms. The young people are a metaphor for a rejuvenated relationship between a (newly “young”) humanity and the natural environment.
Their role is all the more powerfully conveyed because it is set in the context of an education system that does not encourage genuine critical thinking, but only the kind that serves the “busywork” of the corporations — reminiscent of what is today referred to and encouraged as “lateral thinking”, which is always within the dominant paradigm. When Boy, who does very badly at school, asks probing questions in class, which lift the obfuscating cloud of corporate indoctrination, he is severely castigated by his teacher.
The novel comes with illustrations and topics for discussion at the back, where readers are encouraged to focus on questions concerning sustainable energy, exploitation, artificial intelligence, the sanctity of nature, work in the guise of “busywork”, and the link between economic incentives and pollution. This book should be prescribed to every student and school-going child on the planet — reading it is an exercise in conscientisation.