Climate destroyers go to prison, Martian travel guide, bee interiors, and more


power on trial

In a future where the perpetrators of the climate crisis are held accountable, what has changed?

denial: the novel
by John Raymond
Simon & Schuster, 2022 ($26)

Science fiction writing is often a form of activity. It can generally be said that the writing of the novel springs from a place full of hope – a celebration of what is best in us, an attempt to imagine a less horrible reality. But most species lack the audacity to overturn the rules of physics and technology to create worlds in which seemingly intractable problems can be solved or transformed so dramatically that we put our preconceptions aside to embrace a new perspective.

This is why storytelling plays a crucial role in the struggle to find a way out of the climate crisis. If we are to make the enormous sacrifices required – if we are to change as a species, in other words – we will have to replace our old, outdated narratives. This is the power of great activity.

John Raymond denial It is based on this kind of radically optimistic outlook. It is set in a future devastated by climate change – but not as bad as it could have been, thanks to the kind of transformative, unifying and difficult change our current world seems unable to achieve. Protest movements have broken the power of companies that have profited from environmental destruction, and the executives who orchestrated such exploitation have been prosecuted and imprisoned for life.

I want so badly to believe in this future, so that we can change our behavior and hold the worst beneficiaries accountable. But denial Not enough to convince me that it’s possible. Oddly enough, the world itself seems very familiar and even ordinary, although we are sure that there will be significant transformations. There are occasional references to distant wildfires and hologram connections, but coffee shops, basketball games, and road trips all remain unchanged. At one point, the protagonist’s car breaks down in a small Mexican village, and he is unable to communicate meaningfully with Spanish speakers. However, the easy translation technique (if imperfect) previously It exists on every smartphone, and the fact that Raymond missed this opportunity to imagine a future in realistic detail is one of many glaring distractions.

I can appreciate the desire to present a world similar enough to ours – to connect the dots between the bleak present and the scenario in which only the worst outcomes were avoided. But any forces powerful enough to dismantle power structures are sure to change culture and progress as well.

It has been said that genre is a conversation, and anyone can join it at any time. denial It is Raymond’s fourth novel and appears to be his first science fiction work. Some of my favorite works of speculative fiction, for example, are made by strangers, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s never let me go Colson Whitehead Underground railway. But if you are immersed in a dialogue that has a rich history, contributions that may seem compelling and new to you may have been discussed at length. The impression one gets is of a writer who is enthusiastic about the possibilities and history of this type of literature but is unaware of its diverse present.

In the end, the book’s biggest challenge is not a question of genre but character. The protagonist is a journalist who tracks down one of the most famous corporate executives who got away – a sort of climate change version of Eichmann in Argentina – and befriends him to nail him with a stunning standoff and arrest in front of the camera. I love this new concept, exploring how we can hold people accountable for crimes against the planet.

The problem is that our storyteller doesn’t pay much attention to the underlying issues at hand. It grapples in the abstract with the morality of sentencing a good old man to death in prison while recognizing that the man deserves to be punished. But he himself does not have strong feelings about the larger themes of climate destruction or the ambivalence that many of us feel toward radical and necessary change. If he disliked the guts of the former CEO or believed that punishing individuals for group behavior is too wrong, I would have cared more about the character and his arc. But his motives seem flimsy. Given the promising plot, the experience of watching it unfold is strangely empty.

Climate fiction (often shortened to “cli-fi”) is now its own genre, with many novels with emotional resonance and short stories successfully imagining a better future and motivating readers to act. Recent books like Claire North Notes from the Burning Era Becky Chambers Psalm for building I imagined a bright and beautiful – and challenging and unsettling – future while rooted in a vibrant central character who wants and feels things so strongly that the reader does too. In these worlds, mankind has changed at great cost and after great suffering while retaining a strong affinity. It is this intriguing tension that the best stories about the climate crisis play out so well: which parts of “human nature” are immutable and which are socially specific and mutable?

We need more courageous books like denial that imagines a future that isn’t dystopian – but that can show us how we can get there and who we’ll be when we do.

Illustration by London Ladd


live numbers

Finding awe in unsolved equations

Great numbers and where to find them: Cosmic mission from zero to infinity
by Antonio Padilla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux – 2022 ($30)

Cosmologist Antonio Padilla Great numbers and where to find them An exceptional compilation of modern mathematics and its real-world applications. There is nothing clearer than Padilla’s love for his work, which will be especially appealing to regular readers. On a subject that could cause some eyes to sparkle, this is a fast-paced and dramatic account of the history of mathematics that ultimately interests us in convincing us why we should care. As Padilla guides readers from the imperceptibly small (what does 10-120 really look like?) to the existentially large numbers (the rate of expansion of our known universe) that surround, shock, and bounce off us all, it is the daunting task of not getting lost in the details.

Envisioning the realistic application of abstract mathematics is the dream of every professor for his students, and Padilla makes it a reality. In conversational style, he jokes with the reader, often introduces a colloquial aspect and paints pictures – using double eels, for example, to depict the frequency in electromagnetic radiation. Padilla bends light through Gil-O, explains entropy by recalling the football rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool, and introduces us to Max Planck’s work by referring to squid gameFamous Korean TV series.

Readers are urged to consider powerful concepts such as the relativity of time through popular knowledge (such as Usain Bolt’s running speed) – but not without guidance. Padilla goes to great lengths to look at the discoveries he wants us to make; Just as we experience existential confusion in imagining spacetime pressure, it leads us to the Uncertainty Principle, for example, with a faint line to assure us that we have come safely to the finish line. There is no quantum entanglement to be found here.

The physics and mathematical equations we use to make sense of our universe might seem nearly impossible, too big, too small, or too weird to be true. But Padilla shows us that there is nothing more exciting than leaving a mathematical equation unsolved: Is gravity real? What does the surface of a black hole look like, and is it actually black? Is googol a number that any normal person actually needs to use? Why are the answers to these questions not so simple?

Reading this book will leave readers in awe, enough fun facts for several cocktail parties, and a deep appreciation for mathematicians like Padilla who can explain how understanding the googolplex leads us to the existence of doppelgängers. –Brian King


red planet A natural history of Mars
by Simon Morden
Pegasus Books, 2022 ($26.95)

Thinking about outer space can evoke existential dread as easily as it can provoke astonishment. But red planet, a geological and historical survey of our solar system’s neighbor, reads like a compelling travel guide. Simon Morden, an award-winning science fiction writer with a PhD in geophysics, enthusiastically embraces these two backgrounds whether he’s explaining the emergence of volcanoes on the planet or fantasizing about swimming in salt water on Mars. When the planet was in its infancy, Morden put readers on the surface of “Ruby” and “Bulky”; Later in Martian life, dust storms create “a low buzz, a thousand whispers on the other side of our space helmets.” The red planet It doesn’t break new ground in terms of scientific findings (don’t expect big scoops about life on Mars, for example). But this is space writing at its best, unraveling extraterrestrial mysteries and convincing us to care. –Maddy Bandar

bee mind
by Lars Chitka
Princeton University Press, 2022 ($29.95)

Strange, complex minds are all around us and they deserve more of our curiosity and respect. This is the argument at the core bee mindA comprehensive and thoughtful primer on the interior of bees. Once thought of as a simple hive-minded species where individuals act like cogs in a machine, bees are revealed here to be deeply intelligent and capable of rich sensory experiences. Recent work, for example, indicates that they can visualize shapes and objects in their mind. Drawing from his background as a behavioral ecologist, author Lars Chitka has masterfully weaved history and primary and secondary research to map the ways bees learn about the world around them, develop unique personalities, and perhaps even understand self and emotion. His reflections raise questions about how humans treat bees, making this intimate portrait of one of Earth’s most important species appealing to enthusiasts and researchers alike. –Mike Welch

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