Fiction Reviews

The Descent

(2024) Paul E. Hardisty, Orenda, £9.99, pbk, 339pp, ISBN 978-1-916-78803-9


Decades in the future, a small isolated community survives in relative comfort in a globally warmed world and in the aftermath of war and a pandemic. They regularly scan the radio waves for news of other survivors and have been picking up on a regular broadcast that recounts what happened decades ago as the world sleep-walked into the climate emergency. Back then the wealthy were out to make a buck or several billion, regardless of the environmental impact. They even made contact with the broadcaster to encourage further broadcasts.

Yu Wan was one such billionaire. He had his own climate science team and so was fully aware of what was coming. Publicly, though, he peddled an alternative, climate denial narrative and sponsored politicians that served to boost his business enterprises. Together with other billionaires, geopolitics was manipulated.

That was then, but, arriving by helicopter, the small community received murderous visitors: their radio transmission had been intercepted and their location tracked. The visitors left but had taken with them a young girl, and so two survivors set sail to get her back…

Paul Hardisty's novel is a mix of climate fiction (what some call 'cli-fi') and technothriller, rather than out-and-out science fiction. It is actually a prequel to his other novel, The Forcing (2023), but being a prequel it can be read as a standalone novel. The Forcing itself sees a North America ruled by a youthful government that deems all those older than a prescribed age responsible are for the resource-stripped state of the world and the concomitant climate emergency. The Descent reveals how this came about.

This is not a Ministry for the Future type novel which neatly packages up a fair bit of climate science together with world development sociology. I mention this because the author, a Canadian now living in western Australia, is an environmental scientist and so one might have expected this to be reflected in The Descent. Instead, The Descent is firmly in thriller territory. And this is not the author's first fiction – he is known for his crime fiction and one of his books was short-listed for the Crime Writers Association John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger Award and The Forcing itself was short-listed for a Crime Fiction Lover Award, All of which points to his work, while overlapping with SF, being firmly in thriller territory.

The novel itself is told in two strands: the flashbacks to how the world got screwed up and the chase across the ocean rescue the girl. This latter providing a quest story while the former holds a mirror – albeit a distorted one – to what is often seems to be happening today.

The Descent itself barrels along well enough, though its characters don't exactly have much depth: billionaire Yu Wan himself seems to be some sort of amalgamation of Trump, Musk et al and worthy of being a James Bond villain. This sort of made me a little uncomfortable as in the real world the climate emergency is very a genuine issue that politicians seem happy to kick into the long grass rather than meaningfully tackle: the continual increase on greenhouse gas emissions the past third of a century since the formation of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are a testimony to that. We are in truth sleep-walking into a very uncertain future in which global population and environmental degradation provide a literally toxic mix that will affect billions of lives. Using it as the basis for an entertaining thriller does to my delicate mind seem a little inappropriate: those of you that know me will be aware that I have a little interest in climate change and so here I am perhaps a little too sercon for climate thrillers: yet, this is my short-coming and not the author's. If you love thrillers, and especially those that overlap with apocalyptic SF, then this could really be your bag. And, all else aside, we do need to get the climate message out. If stories such as this help then it is difficult to argue with that.

Jonathan Cowie


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