James Bradley / Hamish Hamilton
James Bradley / Hamish Hamilton By late 2009 it was almost impossible to not know something of the scientific realities of climate change. Al Gore had delivered his inconvenient truth and thousands of column inches – some sensible, others less so – were devoted to the subject. A slew of speculative non-fiction books were published. With titles like Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet and James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren, they used the growing body of scientific knowledge to imagine the climate discomforts and disasters to come. In fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, without directly naming climate as the culprit, offered a bleak, terrifying vision of days to come; similarly, in Things We Didn’t See Coming, Steven Amsterdam took leaps through time into a future that was shaped by the surprises wrought by forces outside anticipation or control. Floods and fires featured heavily. In Australia, we barely needed these prompts to imagination. The long south-east Australian drought had already reached its apogee with the Black Saturday bushfires. If anything might have been salvaged from this disaster, it was the hope that political imaginations might finally be harnessed to lead substantial political action at that December’s Copenhagen climate conference. But by early 2010 when Ian McEwan’s Solar appeared, that novel’s satirical mode seemed the best fit to the turn the climate story had taken. Media interest was waning; the solid science narrative was being consistently and deliberately undermined by populist pseudosceptics and vested interests. Since then we’ve retreated into the shallow, self-interested politics of paranoia. Climate hardly rates a mention any more in the stories we tell ourselves. It’s the front-and-centre placement of the climate change story that makes Clade, James Bradley’s bold and broad-thinking return to the novel after a nine-year absence, so welcome. The novel’s title, a technical taxonomic term that denotes an entire branch of a family tree as it is descended from a single ancestor, makes sense of the novel’s milieu and method. Adam is a biologist involved with a multidisciplinary climate change research team and Ellie is an artist whose subjects are some of the fast-disappearing biological elements of nature. They fall in love as young adults; ready to make their mark on a world they know is changing around them. It’s no coincidence that when news arrives that Ellie has conceived an IVF baby, Adam is in the Antarctic with a view to the calving of an enormous mass of the ice sheet. From here, the novel is told in short story-like time chunks whose forward leaps, combined with surprising changes in point of view, sees the generations of a sometimes fractious biological family, as parts of it are sliced away by death and disaffection, adjust again and again to flood, plague, the alltoo politically predictable rounding up of illegal immigrants and the breathtaking suddenness of the reach of a technological epiphany. Like all good speculative fiction, this is a novel about informed anticipation and performed revelation. While its time-leaps are familiar from Amsterdam’s novel, and it similarly revels in revealing its future surprises, it’s more committed than Amsterdam to making explicit how the present produces the future. Bradley takes great care to keep the stepping-stones on that journey above the water line. In one instance, a news report conveniently mentions power cuts, failed climate negotiations, sudden fish and bird deaths and an interview with a climate-denialist author. While these are potentially clumsy dumps of geo-political and scientific context that read as if they might have come out of one of the aforementioned speculative non-fictions, Clade is set on a more than straight course by Bradley’s clear, calm prose style and larger ability to make out of this an intertextual literary work. It doesn’t easily slip the reader’s notice, for instance, that Adam is the first man here, and that his descendant, Noah, survives a flood. And while it’s a small detail, an affectionate nod to Doctor Who reminds us that, perhaps more than anything, the course of narrative is shaped by time’s incessant drive forward. Human life has no agency against time except to inexactly remember the past and anticipate ourselves into what W.G. Sebald once called “the future’s resounding emptiness”. It’s in this act of imagining that Bradley finds in the human species, amid circumstances that are so replete with pessimism and disaster, resilience, persistence and even optimism.