Fiction Reviews

Notes from the Burning Age

(2021) Claire North, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 405pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51475-8


It is many centuries in the future and centuries since the cataclysmic Burning Age that saw the downfall of humanity's high-consumption global society: indeed, so many centuries have passsed that language has changed.  Yet the world has not fully recovered and is still a fragile place though the subsequent generations have painfully learned to live sustainably and now have a moderately comfortable existence.  There are a very few cars, some busses and even trains, but most get around by bicycle. Energy comes from renewable sources.  There is an internet and some have computer tablets.  The ancients seemed to have known that the Burning was coming for they left behind secret vaults of records and computer drives containing all of humanity's knowledge.  This knowledge has to be interpreted from the archaic tongues into the current language, and it has to be guarded; not all is made public.

In one, hot dry summer, young Ven Marzouki with a friend in the forest when they are caught up in a huge wildfire.  Barely surviving, Ven decides to join the priesthood whose prime purpose – beyond pastoral duties to the local community balanced with instilling fear of the supernatural kuakuy who will come and punish the heretical – is to go through archaic records from the pre-Burning Age, to decide which knowledge is fit for release to the public, and which is heresy that will encourage non-sustainable technologies and ways of life.  As such, some years later, Ven becomes fluent in some of the ancient languages.

However Ven decides to make some money on the side by selling some translations of the records he has made, and which he considers harmless, to those prepared to pay, and there are always those prepared to pay.  He is caught expelled from the priesthood.  He goes on the run from the guardia to start a new life as Kadri Tarrad working in a bar in another province (what was southern Germany?).

There he meets Georg Mestri, a senior figure in the populist Equality Brotherhood that seeks to promulgate the old records, rebuild the ancient technologies for the betterment of people and his country.  Georg brings Kadri copies of ancient records to determine whether they are the real thing. It is not long before Kadri starts translating archaic and decidedly heretical records for Georg and eventually becomes his assistant.  From this new position, Ven/Kadri is able to see events unfold and the Brotherhood grow as the prospect of war looms…

Claire North brings her Notes from a Burning Age to a world still very much divided into two cultures.  Believe it or not, for a while in Britain at the end of the 20th century, the politically correct view was that our two-culture society had ended and we were now one happy culture with the arts and sciences united. Halleluiah! And praise be…  Of course, as we now all know, the progressives became self-satisfied and ignored the left-behinds, effectively privatised further education, ditched final-salary index-linked pensions, etc, etc, resulting in increased social inequality, the rise of a substantive discontented class that gave us populism, Brexit in Britain, the 'America first' Donald trump years in the USA and Putin in Russia.  As for the two cultures becoming one, well, fake news, 9/11 conspiracy theories, climate-change deniers, anti-vaxers and the rest are a testimony that the two cultures never went away.

Claire North's Notes from a Burning Age taps into this cycle of returning populism which, in addition to the afore early 21st century events, has its parallels with those in central Europe in the 20th century's first half. Indeed, Notes from a Burning Age is set in central Europe (and we only have to go back as recently as the 1990s to see what populism did there), principally in what was Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine. Britain does get a couple of mentions but only as an aside as being the isle of the Angleas who hide behind their great sea wall, maintaining purity of race and culture despite the great migrations of the Burning. As for North America, there is even less of a mention of this distant continent which seems to have greatly suffered from the Burning.  Meanwhile the Rus (Russians) have forsaken settlements (presumably many uninhabitable following the Burning), and have largely returned to a nomadic existence on the steppes.

Notes from a Burning Age is A Canticle for Leibowitz for the 21st century.  The SF classic Canticle is also set long after a human-induced cataclysm (in this case not environmental but nuclear) and it too has a priesthood resurrecting ancient knowledge as well as reflecting history's seeming cyclicity.  It too is a warning for present-day readers.

(Actually, it was one of two novels riffing on A Canticle for Leibowitz this year (2021); the other being Derek B, Miller's Radio Life, which is even more like A Canticle and is explicitly so while the echoes in Notes from the Burning Age are either implied or coincidental.)

Notes from a Burning Age is presented firmly in point-of-view mode which some in the humanities might say makes it 'literary' fiction.  Specifically it is a first person narrative told through the thoughts of Ven/Kadri and a limited perspective at that: we only get Ven/Kadri's thoughts.  In fact it is ultra limited because we the reader do not know all of Ven/Kadri thoughts and so do not – at least at first – know how exactly he got to where he is.  In this sense Claire North gives her readers a little work to do for their supper, and sometimes she keeps the reader guessing.

Some readers will like this, others less so, and a fifth way into the novel it somewhat changes gear and becomes an espionage story.

This, catching the reader off guard, is balanced by novel's Newtonian plot arc: what goes up, must come down.  And so half way through the book, assuming that the plot arc is Newtonian, it is possible to guess the identity of a key-but-covert character. There is nothing wrong with this per se: it has served many writers well – it did Dickens no harm – but it does take some of the mystery away.

Underpinning the story is the post Burning world we are given.  We do not know how far in the future we are but it is long enough for language to have changed so much that Ven/Kadri's knowledge of archaic languages is considered a valuable skill. So arguably we are talking at least some centuries in the future.  Having said that, though place names have changed, some are similar enough to be obvious: Amerika, Vien, Bukarest and Budapesht.  It is a low-energy world of sustainable technology and mainly agrarian societies, though there must be some industrialisation to support the electronics they obviously have.

On the military front there are some small drones but nothing as advanced as tanks (until crude ones are built).  There is electronic communication and much of the pre-Burning information comes from computer hard drives. Which begs the question how they survived the centuries as well as they did.  Another puzzle is that if there was a climate-induced catastrophe – as suggested by the great wildfire at the novel's start in a hot, dry summer – then how come there are still thick snows in central Europe's winter?  Such niggles could have been overcome with brief exposition, and not doing so is a little sloppy, but I guess the author does not do hard SF.

However these flaws are minor compared to what is a genuinely engaging story in a future world of which I would be very happy to see further exploration.  That so many of its issues relate to today's means that it speaks to a contemporary readership.  So, expect this book to do rather well.

Jonathan Cowie


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