Fiction Reviews

The Wall

(2019) John Lanchester, Faber &Faber, £17.99, hrdbk, 276pp, ISBN 978-0-571-29870-9


This is a remarkable, near-future novel of mundane SF that demands a wide readership.  Yes, it is a near-future novel but it also speaks to us today in the comfortable developed nations' SFnal world of profligate plenty.

I begin by mentioning ' SFnal world of profligate plenty' because at one point the novel's protagonist muses that our (real-world) present – of one where we can have a choice of out-of-season, international foods all year round – is a bit like having food available by a science fiction replicator.

But enough of the teasing, and on to the novel…

That the Wall is cold is one of the first things its Defenders come to learn.  It is a mass of concrete that surrounds Britain to keep out the rising seas and, as importantly, the Others.  Life on the Wall is hard and everyone has to do a two-year stint as a Defender unless you are physically unfit, cannot undertake other defence work, or possibly have connections with the Elite.  It is a tough two years…

Kavanagh is new to the Wall at the start of his two-year stint.  Through his eyes we see what life is like on the Wall as well as to glimpse life in a not too distant and, worryingly, an all too possible future Britain.

I am not going to go into detail as to the plot for risk of spoilers (this is a book review and not a critique).  Yet, as someone whose real-life work has intruded somewhat on climate change science, I cannot help but comment on how this novel is possibly prescient, as well as noting a current potential political trajectory that could very well take us to such a future as The Wall depicts.

The novel's backdrop is set somewhere beyond the mid-21st and possibly up to, if not in, the 23rd century.  The seas have risen a few metres so inundating all the planet's beaches: hardly any chance of kids building a shoreline sea castle in this future.  The big development happened with the Change (sometime in the protagonist's, if not his parents', past) that saw the sea level jump.  But we also learn that there have been other step-changes elsewhere in the world since.  It becomes clear that this future sees a more impoverished middle class with a substantial gap between the bulk of the microchiped population and the political elite.  There is also something of a psychological wall between the generations with the younger ones resenting what their grandparents had done to mess up the world so badly.  Then there is an underclass of Others who made it into Britain and who chose to become part of what is effectively a servant caste of Helpers over being returned to wherever it was they came from, or euthanasia.  There was also the option of becoming a Breeder; that is if you did not worry about bringing someone into this forlorn future (most did mind).  The Breeder choice got you better accommodation, better food, and a good education for your offspring. You also got Help: a Helper whom the state fed and clothed for you (a cost for which is why few others, than those of the elite, had their own personal, full-time Help).  Then, for a few – if you were lucky, proved your value – there was a remote chance of joining the Elite: a tantalising prospect that, though rare, was not an unrealistic goal to which to aspire. And if you did make it then you would get the chance to do things that only the Elite could, such as fly – yes, fly – to other countries and meet other nations' Elite.

This novel speaks of a future that, from human ecology and climate science perspectives, is quite plausible.&nbsm; Many forget that the UN's UNEP & WMO Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Assessment Reports (1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2013/4) have a substantive get-out-of-jail, small print clause in that its forecast scenarios deliberately exclude what we call 'long term feedbacks' (you can download the PDFs of the Assessments for yourself and word-search that caveat phrase which they repeat many times but which nearly everyone overlooks). The IPCC set asides 'long term feedbacks' because we do not know exactly how some parts of the Earth system (ice sheets, soil carbon, atmospheric circulation) will respond to, and feedback on, global warming.  However, it is virtually certain that the Earth system has components within it to – if you will – engender 'tipping points' that will carry the system through a 'critical transition' and across a 'climate threshold'.  The author does not mention all this in such detail, but he does at one point emphasise that while Britain may have experienced the time of the Change, that elsewhere, subsequently, other events happened making life for the Others from lower latitudes seek refuge in the higher latitude developed nations.

This novel also speaks alludingly to the present.  We have had the Calais camps in France of refugees seeking entry to Britain.  We currently (the late second decade of the 21st century) have the synergistic, demographic and corrupt regime pressures driving populations from sub-Saharan nations, as well as the despot and super-power fermented refugee crisis in the Middle East driving people to Europe, not to mention the corrupt regimes of northern South America, pushing people towards the US.  President Trump literally wants to build his wall. Fortress Europe is literally relying on the sea.  The parallels John Lanchester's novel has with our present time are very easily dawn.

It has to be said that the principal protagonist is not that well drawn; it is his circumstance and the sparsely sketched backdrop that pulls the reader along: we can't help but want to know more about this world. Indeed, that the backdrop presented to us is incomplete, given in bits and bobs, that it leaves the reader to join the dots. Here, the picture that emerges is disquieting.

This novel is topical. This is so not just for the afore-mentioned elements of climate change, human migration and politics, but because matters are moving at such a pace with aspects frequently appearing in the national/international news.  Just a couple of the recent, numerous examples of these include the IPCC (2018) Global Warming of 1.5 °C report and the WWF Living Planet Report 2018.

This novel is likely to do well, if not very well.  It will appeal to SF genre readers as the ground The Wall covers has been oft trod by SF authors, be it from the resource-depleted future of Make Room, Make Room (1966) to Stan Robinson's New York 2140 (2017). We have even had climate critical transitions touched upon, such as by Paul McAuley's Quiet War quadrilogy (2008, 2009, 2012, 2013), though he called it the 'Overturn'.  It will appeal to non-genre readers and especially – with the novel's clear point-of-view focus – to litcrits.

Expect in 2020 The Wall to be short-listed for a number of awards.  If it does not make the Clarke (book) Award long-list (assuming Faber & Faber submit it) I would be very surprised!

Jonathan Cowie

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