Review: Peak oil fuels this dystopian survivalist novel

Cover image for In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation
In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis
Scientists, pundits, and self-appointed prophets paint the impact of climate change with brushstrokes of extreme weather, upended economies, and pandemic disease. It’s up to writers and artists to imagine the effects of these changes on human relationships. More and more writers are examining the possibilities and dangers of life in a warming world, including Jennifer Ellis, author of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, a dystopian survivalist novel that explores how people who grow up in a world of abundance cope with instantaneous privation.

Ellis’ imagined future may be happening right now. Economists say that we may have found all the oil that’s economically feasible to extract. From this moment of “peak oil” forward, further extraction costs more and more money. Production falls sharply, disrupting advanced economies. Natalie and Richard, a Vancouver, BC power couple before the peak, move with a select group of friends to a isolated farm in the British Columbia interior. Over the next few years, society collapses around them, and when we meet the couple and their tiny, self-sufficient community, slaving gangs roam the empty roads and overgrown countryside attacking isolated homes and towns. The farm’s inmates greet each stranger with suspicion, and guns settle arguments as often as words.

The strain doubles when a group of newcomers is invited to the farm under mysterious circumstances. The new arrivals divide the established community and set off a chain of events that threaten to destroy the outpost. Set within this external drama are the internal struggles of a man in love with his brother’s wife, and a wife torn between loyalty to a egomaniacal husband and a man afraid of his own desires. Mix in the mini-dramas caused by the slow death of industrial systems that kept First World people fed, clothed, housed, and healthy for two centuries, and you have a complex novel that borders on labyrinthine.

Ellis’ characters are sharply drawn and consistent to the point of predictability. None seem to grow much through the story, though Natalie, the protagonist, does make the expected choice at the end, and destructive secrets are acknowledged. A key confrontation between two important personalities is resolved through the unexpected death of one, leaving open the question of whether the conflict would ever be resolved. This may happen in real life, but in fiction it’s a cardinal sin. Zero-sum games are unsatisfying. Ellis is ultimately pessimistic about how the broader society handles systemic failures, though some episodes in Mosquito Constellation offer hope that, as Lincoln put it, the “better angels of our nature” will lead us to a less-frightening future.

Interested in short fiction about climate change? Check out Climate Stories, a contest in collaboration with 100,000 Poets for Change.

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