The Shock of the New Normal
By Nisi ShawlSeptember 15, 2014
Hurricane Fever by Tobias Buckell
YOU CAN DEFINITELY get there from here. The near-future setting of Tobias Buckell’s latest novel is heart-stabbingly plausible: drowned islands and displaced populations, ramped-up storms raging far and wide across heat-fouled oceans, fossil fuels becoming as rare and precious as dinosaur teeth. Most of these changes are painful to contemplate, though some are probably for the better: the brown citizens of various Caribbean nations, for instance, possess more clout because they’ve combined into one political entity. That’s also why they’re able to form their own spy bureau, the Caribbean Intelligence Group. And that’s why CIG operative Zee Barlow can send his friend and former colleague, Prudence “Roo” Jones, off on a scrambling chase to stop a plutocrat’s plan to “save” the world.
If you’ve read Buckell’s immediately previous novel Arctic Rising, you’ve met Jones as a minor character. In Hurricane Fever he’s the reluctant hero; before Barlow rouses him from retirement Jones limits his battles to staving off storm damage to his catamaran and making sure his nephew attends high school. His worries about the rusting away of his tradecraft turn out to be entirely justified. When he’s forced into action Jones makes mistakes, and he pays for them with smashed bones and broken dreams.
More like Ludlum’s Jason Bourne than Fleming’s James Bond, Jones possesses a vulnerability that’s ultimately his strength. Though he criticizes himself for his cowboyish recklessness in approaching a mail drop without backup, Jones’s seat-of-the-pants attitude often pays off. Guided by instinct, he downs the wealthy villain’s swastika-tattooed villains silently, remorselessly, side-stepping their high-tech security measures with his improvised use of quadcopter drones and duct tape. The same intuitive leaps that land him in the thick of trouble also lead him to trust Barlow’s supposed sister, Kit, a French agent, with surprisingly positive results.
Even the inferior status generally assigned to him due to his dreadlocks and dark skin sometimes works to Jones’s advantage. Twice he’s mistaken for a servant while attending posh cocktail parties in pursuit of baddies; the second time, a clueless fellow guest assumes Jones is a parking valet and hands him the keys to a getaway car.
This sort of error is probably all too familiar to the author. Though he describes himself as “one white looking dude,” Buckell identifies as multi-racial. If not subject to like indignities himself, he has heard all about them from family members and close friends while growing up on Grenada and the Virgin Islands.
Buckell’s personal background adds authenticity to his characters’ racial and cultural diversity, and it furthers belief in another area as well: the layout and technical capabilities of Jones’s catamaran, Spitfire II. From the touch screen-directed winches reefing her sails to the spidersilk dock ropes to the orange survival suits fitted with desalinization filters and oxygen scrubbers, Spitfire is a marvel of thoughtful engineering. Solar panels recharge her batteries. An autopilot steers around reefs and other navigational hazards. Buckell’s clear descriptions of the catamaran make the scarcities and bounties of his global-warming scenario as palpable as the fiberglass and stainless steel from which the boat is built.
Hopefully, however, Hurricane Fever’s descriptions of acts of bioterrorism ring true because they’re thoroughly researched rather than because they draw on the author’s own experience. Scary enough in the current version, according to publicity accompanying the book they were more detailed in an earlier draft. Weaponization, genetic targeting — it’s not giving too much away to say that such dangerous concepts are fleshed out easily enough here that readers will readily understand how chillingly close they are to becoming real.
Other science fictional extrapolations inspire more optimistic feelings: “Verne Plus,” a huge gun used to shoot satellites into space from a site in Barbados, is Buckell’s fictional revival of the 1960s-era Project HARP; he makes the new iteration part of the Islands’ transformation to a more highly respected world power. Vertical farms solve the problem of arable land’s limited availability. Solar shingles, retractable shields of stormproof glass, heavy-duty plastic building blocks, and other advanced materials make life possible on coasts threatened by rising sea levels.
Page after page presents these innovations as accepted. The new normal, as one character points out, is that several hurricanes will hit every season, with mere days between them for recovery. That no one but the ostentatiously rich will drive gasoline-fueled cars. That for just about everyone, permanent safety looks to be permanently out of reach.
Buckell’s straightforward style is perfectly suited to this matter-of-fact semi-dystopia. It’s also ideal for conveying the novel’s fast-paced action, as when he shows how his hero, confronted with mysteriously slain bodyguards at his boatyard, deals with their assassin using the only weapon at hand:
"For a moment both men stared at each other.
Roo pulled the trigger.
The flare gun kicked, spitting smoke. The flare dazzled the space between them, even in the bright midday, then struck the man in the leg and ricocheted madly off down the yard as he fell over."
It’s not that Jones lacks an inner life. When he has time, he indulges in guilt, grief, and regrets —though he puts them off when they might get in his way. He’s no conscienceless marionette jerked around to meet the story’s demands, and Buckell’s spare prose is much more than serviceable —it’s a vehicle for some dangerously original attitudes and ideas.
Foremost among these is the thought that the future could well belong to nonwhite, non-Western people. That’s a proposition made by more than one author lately, but for many it’s still fraught with discomfort. In 1998, revered African American author Samuel R. Delany wrote an essay “Racism and Science Fiction” that read, in part:
"As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us...in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force--until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field."
Science fiction’s predictive powers are debatable, but Delany’s observation on the connection between the “economic heft” of the presence of substantial numbers of black writers and our encounters with racial bigotry now appears spookily prescient. N.K. Jemisin, for example, an African American woman who in 2011 won Japan’s Sense of Gender Award and whose work has been nominated for several other major awards, has been designated by one hate-filled economic competitor as “illiterate” and “half-savage.”
Given this background, Buckell’s consistent efforts at creating marketable novels with crossover potential can be seen as revolutionary acts, attempts to stand the genre’s financial hierarchy on its head. Technical competence and knowledge of one’s intended audience become tools for resisting erasure.
Buckell’s earlier Xenowealth series (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose, and Apocalypse Ocean) included quite a few tributes to science fiction’s pulpy forebears and other related genres, notably post-Romero zombie narratives, steampunk, and juvenile dive fiction. Harnessing the power of popular appeal in Arctic Rising and Hurricane Fever is mostly a matter of Buckell filling his storylines with typical spy/thriller tropes. Using wealthy criminal masterminds, high-speed chases (on land and sea), and daring escapes, he has written books which can unquestionably be consumed as familiar, frictionless pleasures—but that’s not the only way to read them.
Though arguably a less socially subversive character than Anika Duncan, Arctic Rising’s black lesbian protagonist, Roo Jones, as a dark-skinned African-descended male, belongs to a group I often refer to —only half-facetiously —as an endangered species. While they’re stereotyped as violent killing machines, in fiction both written and filmed, black men are usually fated to become casualties rather than just rack them up (a trend remarked on by the online community Dead Bro Walking) . Jones is neither a casualty nor a mere decoratively exotic foil for an all-white cast; he’s the book’s main viewpoint, the source of our understanding of what’s going on. He’s our hero, and even sexual attraction to a tourist isn’t enough to doom him, though that’s often the case with the imaginary black men of page and screen. He lives all the way through to Hurricane Fever’s end —and, presumably, beyond it.
So this book can be read as a liberating re-visioning of the spy and near-future ecothriller genres in addition to as a story falling comfortably within their boundaries.
If a version of Hurricane Fever hewing to Buckell’s iconoclasticisms were to be made into a movie —and the text appears highly filmable, with its boat- and car-chases, its glittering parties, its bloody and dramatic fights, and its moody oceanscape backdrops—that movie would earn the author even more than a book could, and thus would pose even more of a threat to those shaken by people of color’s success. It would render a minority member rich.
Which would shock the prejudiced and establish one more kind of equality as newly normal.
Nisi Shawl has contributed reviews to The Seattle Times since the turn of the millennium, and she edits reviews for feminist literary quarterly The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Her acclaimed story collection “Filter House” was one of two winners of the 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She was WisCon 35’s Guest of Honor. In 2011 she edited “WisCon Chronicles 5: Writing and Racial Identity,” and with Dr. Rebecca J. Holden she co-edited the Locus Award-nominated anthology “Strange Matings: Octavia E. Butler, Science Fiction, Feminism, and African American Voices.” With Clarion West classmate Cynthia Ward she co-authored “Writing the Other: A Practical Approach.” Her Belgian Congo steampunk novel “Everfair” is forthcoming from Tor books in 2015. Shawl is a cofounder of the Carl Brandon Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her website is www.nisishawl.com.
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