For most of my reading life, I passed right over the fantasy and science fiction read by many of my peers and headed straight to the world of literary fiction. As far as I was concerned, The Lord of the Rings was a decent doorstop, Dune was a prime spot on the beach from which to check out the swell, and 2001 meant only a year of once-distant promise, and now spiralling dread.
Science fiction in particular struck me as wearisome, its attendant world-building often falling on the page as heavy slabs of exposition. There were exceptions: I admired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), both of which read as maps to the anxieties of their presents, and whose import subsequent history only served to deepen. But for the most part, I preferred the crisp documentary-style of Helen Garner, the slyly analytical writing of David Ireland, the tactile lyricism of Gillian Mears or Michael Ondaatje and, later, the high-syntax of Henry James and the swirling modernism of Virginia Woolf. I self-consciously carved my own reading path, finding literary fellowship with those whose tastes matched my own, and disdaining those who read differently.
But literary discussions about science fiction became increasingly conspicuous and difficult to ignore. Ursula Le Guin was regularly suggested as a writer worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Speculation mounted that China Miéville’s playfully cerebral novel Embassytown would be longlisted for the self-consciously ‘readable’ 2011 Man Booker prize (it wasn’t). William Gibson’s almost unnervingly prescient neo-noir Neuromancer (1984) became the obligatory reference point for writing on the virtual and the internet age. Even despite all this, I retained my suspicion that the sci-fi genre was best read in small doses. Miéville beguilingly described this schism in the perceptions of sci-fi and literary fiction as ‘the literature of recognition versus that of estrangement’. I viewed recognition as the more elusive target, and so literary fiction as the greater achievement of a writer’s craft.
James Bradley’s The Resurrectionist (2006) changed my view of science fiction. This pitch-black, deliberately baggy, but ultimately transcendent novel assured me of its author’s literary credentials, and so granted me permission (I know, I know) to read Bradley’s earlier The Deep Field (1999). Set in a crumbling Sydney of the near future, where exploding inequality tears precipitously at the social fabric, The Deep Field possessed a command of prose that was unmistakably literary and was firmly grounded in the city of my birth. It finally broke open the genre for me. Although not necessarily an obvious sci-fi text, The Deep Field ‘s imagined future seemed possible, and its resonances made sense. Bradley demonstrated to me that the mapping of contemporary cultural anxieties which I had encountered in the works of Huxley and Orwell ran deep in the DNA of sci-fi.
Since its inception, science fiction has operated as a reaction to and a reflection of political, social and technological change. As historian Dominic Sandbrook argued in his BBC Two series Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction, sci-fi first emerged as a genre in the mid- to late-Victorian era. This meant that its common theme of exploration was inextricably linked to that half-century’s period of accelerated imperialism. Beyond this, sci-fi was also extraordinarily good at reflecting anxiety about the pace of change. Possessing all the power of fable, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is one of the earliest and most brilliant examples of this, an imaginative exploration of the potential for scientific possibility to outstrip the principles of morality.
Science fiction imagines the direst consequences which can be wrought by change, and attempts to ameliorate these through comprehension. However, as James Bradley argued in a recent article in The Weekend Australian, the future that may be brought about by climate change is particularly difficult to render in literature:
Because it tends to focus upon character and psychology, fiction often struggles to find ways to represent forces that cannot be turned into obstacles for its characters to overcome, or which take place on time frames that exceed the human.
The difficulty of representing the intimate across a vast unpredictable canvas is something Bradley tackles head on in his new novel, his first for nine years. Clade opens with scientist Adam Leath stationed in a vast but crumbling Antarctica, as the ice near his feet cracks and falls into the brimming ocean. In Sydney, his partner Ellie – an artist fascinated by intricacy – awaits the results of her latest fertility test. In the first of several jumps through chronology, we briefly circle back to Adam and Ellie’s courtship and a coincidental interest in a 19th century sketch of an ammonite by German scientist Ernst Haeckel. This artwork, a meticulously represented shell and formerly home of a now-extinct mollusc, precisely encapsulates the novel. The tightly coiled shell is simultaneously an artefact of enduring loss – representing as it does the last great extinction event 200 million ago – and a symbol of frail yet enduring modes of connection.
From this still point, Clade’s narrative branches out widely, never entirely losing sight of its original couple. A rapidly warming globe prompts new and wildly varying rain patterns, which bring scorching droughts and wild floods and trigger economic collapse and a mass of refugees. Adam’s katabasis across a storm-wrecked England is the novel’s centrepiece, and is just one example of Bradley’s ability to balance human experience against indiscriminate forces bent on erasure. Australia’s relative isolation holds off the worst initially, but even as the novel’s characters cling to the outward signs of normal lives, change is inexorable. Coffee becomes expensive and rare, the sky is robbed of its birds, and acidifying oceans cause fish populations to crash. The rising heat, a collapsed global economy and a deadly pandemic ensure that Australia’s isolation from change doesn’t last:
It never fails to surprise how easily and irrevocably the present replaces the past, how what had seemed immovable, permanent, simply fades and vanishes.
Within this period of tumultuous change, there are moments of tender recovery. Beehives are kept from collapse, a hand is taken in another, the ‘great cycles of the planet’s existence’ promise a future. As some characters fall and others persevere, Bradley is always concerned with characters’ attempts to connect, however closed off they are by circumstance or personality.
The novel’s title is drawn from biology, referring to all the descendants of a single ancestor. The unfamiliar title initially feels odd, but in this future-facing novel, which is dedicated to the author’s daughters, it proves to be exactly right. Before it is about anything else, Clade is about family.
Clade’s literary ancestors are the works of Charles Dickens. There’s a real Dickensian sweep to both its structure, and its passionate despair about humanity’s dearth of improvement or compassion. Bradley’s prose has an unerring clarity, though some of the explanations could have been withheld just a little to better preserve the sense of a world become unknowable.
Complex and beautifully paced, Clade is the first great novel of climate change. So well does it predict our possible future, it is unlikely to be the last.