book review by Danny Bloom
While Taiwan is a relatively small island nation and far removed from the centers of world power and influence, a novel set in the distant future about the kind of climate chaos that could very well impact this country's entire population is not something to consign to the science-fiction corner of the local bookstore. For Hamish MacDonald, a 40-something Canadian writer who makes his home now in Scotland, has created -- with his self-published novel "Finitude" -- perhaps the most important work of literary fiction about the possibilities of future climate chaos. The novel is surely one of the most important novels written in the last 50 years.
And yet you have never heard of Hamish MacDonald. Why? Because he writes and publishes outside the circles of commercial book companies in New York and London, and most literary agents are only interested in making a quick dollar on huge bestsellers. Very few people have time for a book like "Finitude" or a writer like Hamish MacDonald.
But if you were to open his book to the very first page and begin reading, I am sure you will not be able to put his picaresque novel down. He is a witty and well-read man, and he has studied the intricacies of climate change and global warming issues. True, he is not a scientist, and he is not a climatologist, either. If someone wants to argue with him that global warming is not caused by humans burning fossil fuels as if there was no tomorrow, you can argue about this.
But if you want to read a gripping novel about what life might be like in an un-named country in the far distant future -- say 2121 or maybe 2323 -- then "Finitude" will set you straight.
The 288-page handbound novel begins like this: "The world was supposed to come to an end, but it didn't."
Featuring a character named Jeremy Chutter and a supporting cast of colorful people, male and female, the book operates on two levels: on one hand, it's a light-hearted adventure novel, a road trip, a quest, a journey; on the other level, it's a peek into what the future of climate chaos might very well look like.
When a cruise ship comes in to dock after a voyage across the newly-opened Arctic Ocean, thousands of residents of a port city come out to meet it -- but something looks gravely wrong.
Jeremy asks a woman on the pier what the problem is. "She pointed at one of the large screens. He removed the pin from his lapel and saw what she saw: the passengers and crew of the ship, all slumped over as if they'd all fallen asleep in an instant, all dead."
This is both science fiction and a speculative climate chaos story. It's not 2009 in MacDonald's book. Although he does not specify a time or a place, it seems that the novel takes place in a country much like Britain in around the year 2300. While much of the landscape is bleak and life apparently cruel and brutish, Jeremy and his friends survive and keep hope alive, even when all around them there is nothing but despair and end-of-the-world blackness.
Believe it or not, the book has a happy ending, sort of. The very last page points to a better future, to the light, to wisdom and affirmation. But it takes 287 pages to get there, and MacDonald keeps the action flowing on every page.
I read the novel in one sitting. For me, it was that good. I could not put it down once I started, and kept reading until around 4 am. It's not just a book about a journey or a road trip or a quest. It's also a book about the very future of humankind.
Will it turn you into a climate activist? No. Will it make you despair that nothing can be done
stop global warming in its tracks? No. Will it give you hope? No.
What it will do, though, is give you renewed insights into how the humans might cope with the coming climate chaos in a hundred years or so. Like Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road" (now a bleak Hollywood movie about a possible comet strike on Earth), MacDonald's "Finitude" pushes the boundaries of what we normally like to think about or feel.
It's that kind of book, it's that kind of experience.
Why the commercial book firms in New York or London were afraid to touch this book is something for history to judge. But if you liked the novels of Douglas Adams, you will enjoy reading Hamish MacDonald's take on the future of humankind. I couldn't put it down. I still can't get rid of that image of a cruise ship docking in an un-named port with all the passengers dead from methane gas poisoning.
Available at hamishmacdonald.com