Review: A faux-paleo world with email stumbles on its contradictions

Knocking on Heaven's Door, by Sharman Apt Russell
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

A strain of environmentalism sees civilization as a mistake, a wrong turn in history taken 10,000 years ago at the invention of agriculture. The error sparked a chain of events taking us down the path to global warming and if you extend the trendline, global apocalypse. It would’ve been better if the first seeds sown by humans had fallen on rocky ground or were choked by weeds, goes the logic.

That civilization might be an intelligent adaptation to a harsh, dangerous, and above all unpredictable environment (Will I find game this week? Are enough berries ripening this season?) doesn’t figure in this thinking. The success of farming and the resulting rise of urbanization has meant a paradise lost. Fiction writers in particular are prone to view our hunter-gatherer past with envy, seeing our ancient ancestors as “in harmony” with the earth.

In the worst case, they romanticize indigenous people as remnants of this purer time, conveniently forgetting in the case of North America that some tribes only stopped killing each other after white people invaded (who then started killing each other as well, but that’s a different blog post). The latest twist in this sentimental view is “rewilding,” which includes aesthetic practices of ancient skills such as flint knapping and spear-making as a path toward healing man’s relationship to nature.

Nature and science writer Sharman Apt Russell expresses this longing for civilization to go away in her speculative novel Knocking on Heaven’s Door by imagining a virus wiping out 99 percent of humanity, but not before biologists bring back Pleistocene predators, such as the saber-toothed cat and the short-faced bear. With the population decimated, mammoths roaming the earth, and the climate wrecked by excess carbon, the remaining humans seize the chance to recreate the (imagined) good old days and set up a new hunter-gatherer way of life. It’s rewilding at its logical extreme.

Except that people get it both ways in Russell’s story. The death of civilization leaves behind things no one wants to give up, including email, the internet, laptops, and enough scientific apparatus to explore a theory that posits we’re all a hologram. In this absurd world traipses Brad the “lab rat,” Clare the faux-paleo hunter and writing instructor, Luke/Lucia, a gender-switching hermit, and Dog, a direwolf that can read minds.

Russell nearly succeeds, particularly in scenes portraying life in a new tribal society and the jealousies endemic in human relationships, whether it’s in the office or the wickiup. The novel is ambitious and wildly imaginative, but it tries too hard, particularly when Brad resurrects a human being, complete with its old personality, from a fragment of DNA. If Russell had left out the kitchen sink, Knocking on Heaven’s Door might have been more plausible.

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