The slow, rolling nature of the unfolding changes to the planet’s climate stump many storytellers, who fall back on the set-pieces–mega-storms, pandemics, floods–rather than focus on the subtler effects on the planet of rising CO2 levels. The long timescales are another problem; some transformations might be noticed in a human lifetime, others may take millennia to play out. These phenomena can overwhelm an attempt to show the influence of global warming on human relationships, which can flare and fade in the space of a few days.
Australian author James Bradley has found a way to balance the bigger picture with the pattern of human life and love, which continues in all its forms despite the imperceptible yet inexorable change happening all around. In Clade (the word’s root means “branch” in Greek, as in a branch of the tree of life), Adam Leith, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist, have a daughter, Summer, but she is a troublesome puzzle to her parents. As the early and sometimes deadly effects of a warming climate take hold, Summer has her own son, Noah, diagnosed as autistic, but high-functioning. He spends much of his time absorbed in “virch,” that is, virtual worlds that are easier to control than the real world. Summer, however, is unable to cope with her “special needs” boy, and abandons him with his grandfather, now separated from Ellie. In a surprising and delightful ending some 70 years after Clade’s opening, Bradley turns the autistic stereotype on its head as Noah achieves an age-old dream.
Clade is science fiction, but it doesn’t feature any spaceships, aliens, or malevolent robots. Clade’s technology is believable advances of gadgets we’re already used to. Science, in the form of climate science, plays a subservient role to the drama of human beings attempting to adapt to a new environment while coping with the ancient drives and fears all men and women experience. Sci-fi lovers, including me, get excited about speculative future technologies and out-there social effects, but Bradley takes the better route by putting science in its literary place. It’s about the people, not the algorithms.
Though Bradley performs the necessary nods to the popular Katrina-like-hurricane-over-London scenario, and the pandemic that always starts in Asia, he doesn’t overplay these disasters, instead keeping the reader focused on how the characters attempt to preserve or mend relationships with each other as well as the friends who orbit the family. If anything, Bradley shows how human nature–good and bad–is unlikely to change even as birds disappear along with Arctic ice and beach property. In language that is calm and lyrical, even as the larger world morphs into something unfamiliar, Bradley shows that all is not lost.