Claire North seems to delight in taking common and much loved science fiction tropes and making them her own. She has done dystopia (84K), body jumping (Touch), multiple lives (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) and death (The End of the Day). So while there plenty of new post-environmental-apocalypse books around, North’s new novel Notes from the Burning Age, partially succeeds in putting a new spin on this genre.
Notes From the Burning Age opens with both a revelation and a tragedy. Narrator Ven, still a young boy at this time, is caught in a forest fire with his friend Vae and her older sister Yue. In the midst of the fire, Ven sees a mythical creature but he also loses Vae to the river in which they are sheltering. That creature, known as a kakuy, is one of the kaiju-style creatures that rose to put an end to humanity’s environmental collapse (the Burning Age of the title), killing millions in the process but also putting the survivors on a road to living more harmoniously with their environment. But this is many years later, the kakuy have retreated into myth and a group called the Brotherhood, who style themselves as ‘humanists’ who once again want to take rapaciously, is rising.
The rest of the narrative is a kind of spy thriller crossed with a war story. Ven goes undercover to try and prevent the spread of contraband information. That information is giving the Brotherhood the knowledge technology to build old weapons and commence their conquest of Europe. But there are spies on both sides of this conflict and plenty of betrayal and close scrapes. Ven first works for the power behind the Brotherhood, a man called Georg. And it is this relationship of conflicting philosophies and mutual respect that drives the heart of this book.
Notes From the Burning Age both suffers and benefits from North’s particular style. There are plenty of long speeches and discussions setting out arguments on both sides of the conflict, but in the end the narrative wears its heart on its sleeve. But the message is an important one, and the possible personification of the Earth’s environmental response through the kakuy is a nice touch. Ven himself is a typical Northian hero. Similar to Theo Miller in 84K or Charlie in The End of the Day, he is an odd cross of passive observer and action hero. Ven is a spy who spends most of his time quietly watching and reacting but can bust out a lengthy discursion on the state of the world or some serious action moves when cornered.
In the end though, it is likely that readers’ patience with Notes from the Burning Age will depend on how willing they are to spend time in another post-apocalyptic world. North does plenty to set her post-Burning Age world apart. It is a relief, for example, to find that North’s future is not dystopian. It is almost solar-punk in its use of renewable and recycled technologies. The existential threat comes from the resurgence of fossil fuels and the rise of human-exceptionalism and destructive consumption. That said, there is also something of a wry celebration of the banality of social media. That, and the spy-thriller style, helps the environmental message medicine go down.
But what Notes from the Burning Age shows again is that North can take any science fiction or fantasy trope and make it her own. That she can bring something new to the table and make well worn ideas and messages seem vital and new again. And that in itself is no mean feat.