Extreme Weather Patterns in Fiction: A Riverine Book Review

Extreme Weather Patterns in Fiction: A Riverine Book Review

September 3, 2013 05:22
by J. Wylie Donald

One of the guidelines for this blog is to stay away from extreme views. The effects of climate change do not need to be amplified to merit reasoned discussion and thoughtful application of what we as lawyers do. So what were we to do with a request from Simon & Schuster that we provide a pre-release review of Rivers by Michael Faris Smith, an "incidence of fiction presenting an all-too-real possibility." "All-too-real" meaning "a series of devastating storms has pummeled the American Southeast in the years since Hurricane Katrina. The federal government has drawn a boundary known as the Line, and everything below it has been declared uninhabitable." Ahhh! Climate change equals the apocalypse, nuclear armageddon without the nuclear.

Of course, we have a number of issues with that. First, climate science does not anticipate that the severity of tropical hurricanes is going to increase. Second, El Niño and La Niña control the Atlantic hurricane season and Mr. Smith omits any mention of their importance. Last, there are a heck of a lot of inhospitable places on the earth, but, to our knowledge, governments don't abandon those areas, whether the inhospitableness is due to man (think the Niger Delta) or nature (think the North Slope). Instead, they are exploited for their resources and taxed.

So we were prepared to be skeptical. But just as one willingly suspended disbelief as one enjoyed On the Beach and Planet of the Apes, so too here. Mr. Smith crafts a fine novel with apt foreshadowing, three-dimensional characters, and a well-spun yarn that kept us turning the pages. You know you are in the hands of a master when the title shows up multiple times in various manifestations. I counted at least five. Here's one: it had rained every day for 631 days and when you were caught in it it felt like this: "The water ran down his head and face and arms and legs. Under his skin. In his bones." "In his bones."  Anyone caught outside in a hurricane, flipped out of a kayak for more than a moment, or working for a living in heavy sea states can grasp this sense of continuous immersion.

One of the more significant things about all this rain is that it washes away everything. Even names. Not one of the characters has a last name. Some don't have proper first names either. You can read about one particularly odious preacher-polygamist-type fellow, Aggie, on the book jacket.

We'll stick with the main character, Cohen. He has remained south of the Line for several years, nurturing the memories of his wife and baby girl, when a misjudgment sets in motion the theft of everything and he ends up at the camp of the afore-mentioned Aggie. Suffice to say, things don't go well there and he is off with a small family (new-born, six- and 16-year old boys, 19-year old girl, and two breedable (see Aggie) women, one pregnant and one not) in a small caravan. Not the type of road trip one would willingly take to the beach, much less to a war zone, but they had hope.

Or did they? They cower against the omnipresent storm in an abandoned store, which still has its roof. As the storm howls,

"They were small things against this big thing. Against this enormous thing. Against this relentless thing. Small, exhausted things whose lives had become something so strange and extraordinary that it didn't seem possible that they could be anywhere but sitting in this abandoned building in this abandomed land in this storm-filled night in this storm-filled world. They sat still and exuded exhaustion. Maybe even hopelessness. Maybe even helplessness. The day had begun with the idea of a finish line, but that idea was being washed away in the torrent of despair."

But they persevere and make it to the Line. Which we imagined as some sort of customs checkpoint, with Civilization on one side and Barbarity on the other. But that was based on the explanations provided by the poor souls who had been stuck south of the Line for years. In the interim, Barbarity had moved north, and the hoped-for refuge was more illusion than reality. Still, one could actually get a hot meal, and clean sheets, ... And a bullet, or several, for your troubles.

Sarah Connor survives another end-of-the-world saga in the Terminator series and carries on. Cohen does similarly, but with twists and turns and shades of meaning that are unanticipated.

Rivers may not be good climate science, but it still is a very good read.


Climate Change

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