On the whole, I tend to avoid stories that involve catastrophising – there’s enough of that going on inside my own mind, thank you very much. And up until now I’ve tended to steer clear of narratives based on climate change, considering them to be too much of a lure to the spurious correlation of personal morals with natural justice. Or to put that another way, after my niece had seen the film Poseidon, she’d explained how easy it was to spot the characters who were doomed. ‘There was a scene in the film where one man pushed rudely to the front of the queue,’ she said, ‘and I knew he was going to get it.’ Quite – too much disaster literature revolves around saving the characters with names, and feeding endless extras into the gaping maw of chaos. The personal storyline dominates, we attach sympathetically to the hero fighting to rescue his wife, child, dog, from the inferno, volcano, tornado, etc, etc, and we gain a measure of tension-relieving satisfaction from witnessing the ungrateful, the feckless and the ill-mannered suffer an unpleasant death. It’s very rare to find a story that takes disaster itself seriously, and that opens up the question of what we might actually do when the future turns out to be grim.
So it was with dawning respect and a strange sort of pleasure that I read Salvage by Robert Edric. Edric is one of those writers who has been producing critically acclaimed work for many years, without quite breaking through the barrier to the territory of instantly recognizable names. His novels have been very varied in theme, but their emotional tone has remained steadily based on a cool and faintly distanced appraisal of almost intolerable distress. The blurb for the book links him to Orwell, but I found his writing more Kafka-esque.
Anyhow, Salvage is set in the UK, one hundred years hence, when the Gulf Stream has ceased and large parts of the country are either underwater or regularly inundated. Quinn, the main protagonist, is a middle-aged government official sent north to audit a remote area of land earmarked for a large and prestigious development. There are, it seems, whole areas of the country where relocation is either an urgent necessity or an imminent problem, and without great swathes of back story, the reader gains the impression that things have been going badly for so many decades now that some kind of good news, some sort of genuine hope for the future is desperately needed. A shiny new model town is just what the population wants to see happening, and before he ever gets there, Quinn is aware that his audit is worthless. When he does reach his destination, he runs into a consortium of local dignitaries – the mayor, the priest, the head of security – who have seen a different sort of future, one that is full of highly personal financial gain, and Quinn’s attempts to figure out the truth behind the build land him deep in murky and machiavellian corruption.
On the one hand, there’s the question of what the people want, and on the other, the question of what they are going to get. However desirable a new town may be, there are serious problems with the landscape that no amount of political spin can remove. Staying in the same hotel as Quinn is another government employee, Anna Laing, who has also been sent in preparation for the new development. Anna’s task, however, is even less savory than Quinn’s. She is in charge of decontaminating and filling the mass burial sites for cattle that surround the area. Various diseases, like foot and mouth, have caused all of the UK’s cattle to be destroyed over the past century, and now the land has to be made hygienically safe. But Anna instantly encounters problems; the pits turn out to be twice as deep as she has been told they will be, the area is littered with burial mounds that have not been officially registered, the contaminants are far more dangerous than the public knows, and then there’s the weather. As work on the site makes it limping progress, and both Anna and Quinn find their professional integrity pushed to the limits, the rain begins to fall again and the flood waters to rise.
There were a number of things that I found impressive about this book. First off, what sounds like it might be a dreary and depressing read is in fact highly engaging and gripping, and yet also profound. The strange twilight tone that Edric writes in really does its job of stabilizing and holding the reader in the narrative in an unexpectedly safe place. I felt like a privileged witness to a scene of chilling and recognizable reality; I was able to think about what I was being told at the same time as turning the pages rapidly out of a need to see what happened next. And what does happen next felt very realistic. Edric’s twin disasters are flooding and cattle disease, both problems that the UK is encountering right now and will continue to encounter with increasing gravity. Most climate change stories focus on big, explosive, unexpected catastrophes, whereas the more realistic scenario is a gradual worsening of a situation that is already in place. It’s essential that writers understand this if they want to warn us about the future. If we continue to envisage climate change in terms of a sudden tsunami or burning desert in place of arable fields, we cannot make the links between our current lives and the future. The things that happen unexpectedly are not things we can prepare for, or guard against. More realistic and pertinent is the realisation that what we do right now is determining the way our children and their offspring will live.
So perhaps the most impressive and subtle part of the narrative is the recognition that our desire for things to be okay, and our tenacious insistence on resisting change are more problematic than the natural disasters themselves. Also tugging at the edges of the narrative is the insight that the more out of control the natural world becomes, the more humans will try to control one another in a graceless and unhelpful form of recompense. Security and surveillance dominate life in Edric’s vision of the future, and yet the superficial gains they produce are worthless and all done for the outward effect. Characters fall roughly into three categories; those who learn to manipulate the system to their own selfish needs in a corrupt and opportunistic way; those who are victims of natural disasters and cannot find a way to either reconcile themselves to change or fight effectively for a different society; and those who carry on regardless, who are stoic, pragmatic and blind. Anna and Quinn, the main protagonists, are in a slightly different situation. They are there as the good side of power, as people who would ideally gauge risk and facilitate life in an authentic way, but whose voices are subject to powerful silencing because the truth they have to tell is so unwelcome. As a message to the contemporary world, that struck me as being a highly pertinent and deeply disturbing one.
All speculative fiction grows out of anxieties rooted in the here and now, and in Salvage, we encounter a future in which our need for peace, security and stability has overridden – and continues to override – unpleasant reality in a problematic way. It is a novel which fears that our petty concerns with entitlement will continue to plunder and damage the earth in the vain hope of sustaining life as we know it. Edric makes a very convincing case that our rights and demands will be completely irrelevant in the face of nature when the floodwaters start to rise. This is a powerful novel and one that deserves a wide and attentive readership.