Entertaining – and the science is good

I am spending some time dealing with family business so am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few day.

I reviewed this book recently, but its worth repeating. It’s fictional, but it’s about an important issue – climate change.

It’s also written by a local science blogger Gareth Renownden


Book Review: The Aviator (The Burning World) by Gareth Renowden

Price US$4.99 (Kindle); NZ$6.00 (Epub).
File Size: 641 KB
Print Length: 341 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Limestone Hills Ltd (August 14, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English
ASIN: B008Y0MFTM
Text-to-Speech: Enabled.

This science fiction novel is set in a post-catastrophe world – in the not too distant future. Hardly an unusual scenario but I found its approach to the question of post-catastrophe social organisation intriguing. How would society reorganise after social collapse brought on by a world-engulfing crisis? In this case one of the possible outcomes of climate change? The usual scenario is some sort of tribalism, and usually a warring tribalism. But would it be that simple? After all, humanity would still have reservoirs of knowledge. Surely that would make simple tribalism unlikely?

Gareth Renowden’s solution is simple. Consciously or not he has simply extrapolated the ideological or issue-advocacy obvious in today’s internet blogs and forums into the post-catastrophe society. Today’s digital “silos” become tomorrows tribal groups. And, yes, they are just a inward-looking, suspicious and hostile to others as today’s silo communities are. Except they have real weapons. These tribal groups, or ideological ghettos, give scope for some nice irony and humour in the book.

Renowden’s post-catastrophe societies include the inevitable fundamentalist religious communities. But also communities based on artificial intelligence, technophobia, libertarianism, cynical “green” politics and so on. And, yes, there is even a climate change denial community – actively denying the world-wide catastrophe had anything to do with human-caused climate change. In fact still warning about an imminent ice-age (naturally caused of course)!

So you can imagine the scope for irony and humour there. Especially as Gareth Renowden is an author the climate change denial community love to hate. And they don’t hold back on expressing that hate.

Author’s credentials

This is Renowden’s first venture into fiction. His earlier books include Video -The Inside Story (1982), The Olive Book (1999), The Truffle Book (2005) and
Hot Topic – Global Warming and the Future of New Zealand (2007). The last book was short-listed for the Royal Society of NZ’s inaugural science book prize. He also writes regularly about climate change issues for the influential Hot Topic blog.

I must at this stage declare a common interest in the defence of science against science deniers, and to being a fellow SciBlogger of Gareth’s. But I know a good read when I see one and believe Gareth has adjusted to a fictional style very well. (I can already see a number of jibes about this coming from the local climate change denial ghetto – if their denigration of truffle farmers is anything to go by).

An entertaining story

The story involves the hero (Lemmy) and his romantic partner (Kate) travelling the world in a high-technology blimp (hence The Aviator). Home for them is New Zealand – specifically D’Urville Island at the top end of the South Island. They encounter the ideological ghettos during their travels, mainly in the USA – or what remains of it. Many of these encounters end in conflict, and a few shoot-outs – but they form a working relationship to one rich high technology group. A group based on concepts of interaction between human and artificial intelligence and belief in the ‘singularity‘ –” a point where the exponential acceleration of technological progress, especially computing power, would bring a merging of human and machine intelligence.”

Room for some interesting concepts and adventures there. Jenny, the blimp’s autopilot – herself an artificial intelligence which may even have some scope for emotions or something similar – contributes. There are some interesting interactions between Jenny and Kate when Kate receives artificial intelligence implants during treatment after an accident. This is enhanced by Jenny’s ability to interact with Kate’s thoughts and feelings – that puts a real damper on Kate’s love life!

So there is plenty of scope there for an entertaining story. With adventure, romance and humour. All this appealed to me as I prefer hard science fiction which is reality-based. With technology and machines not too unexpected or “magic.” Not set so impossibly far into the future that its hard to relate. I really don’t like the common fantasy genre of much of today’s science fiction.

So here comes my only complaint. Part of the story-line involves a certain amount of genetic engineering (hence the goat on the cover). Not too far-fetched as New Zealand has plenty of current research in these fields. Just that I found the effects on humans by the product produced by the genetically engineered goats are bit “magic.” OK I guess if you enjoy a little fantasy, but not quite realistic science. I’ll leave that to readers and I am nit-picking as it didn’t really destroy the credibility of the story for me.

Catastrophic but not alarmist

As you might expect, Renowden has a serious message behind the adventure, humour and entertainment of his story. After all, he writes often on the issue of climate change and he starts the book with a quote from Ray Bradbury about writing Fahrenheit 451:

“I WASN’T TRYING to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

He makes his message clear in a brief appendix:

“The Burning World is our planet, but not as we know it. It is one future, a place that might be born of the things we do today. As long as we carry on increasing the carbon content of the atmosphere by using it as a cheap sewer for the waste from the burning of coal and oil, and continue felling forests, then the earth will continue to warm, and some of the things that Lemmy experiences in his short life will come to pass. Not as I have written them, perhaps, but in some form and to some extent these impacts — the rising seas, the extreme weather, the melting ice, the changes in rainfall patterns — will shape the lives of everyone on this planet over the next hundred years and for millennia beyond.

The Burning World is not a prediction. It is intended as a warning, an illustration of the potential consequences of our actions. In its imagining I have tried to stay within the bounds of realistic possibility — stretched a little in the interests of the story in one or two places (or throughout, some might argue) — but most of the main climate change impacts to be found in The Aviator are grounded in things we can see today, brought forward in time. When Lemmy and Thunderbird fly over the Greenland ice sheet and note that even the highest levels are melting, at the time of writing (in 2011) I thought that might be a reasonable projection of the state of the ice twenty to thirty years hence. And then, shortly before publication I learned that it’s already happening. We can only hope the same is not true for some of the other impacts I have dreamed up.”

An important clarification – but it won’t stop Renowden’s harshest critics from calling him “alarmist.” They will do so even without reading the book.

The fact that home base for the blimp was New Zealand, and realistically so, appealed to me. I have watched New Zealand develop a respectable batch of fictional writers during my lifetime, but we are still short of science fiction writers. Hopefully this book will contribute to a growth in this genre too. The cover describes it as “The Burning World Book One” – so that looks promising.

I highly recommend this first book to science fiction fans and am certainly looking forward to the next book in the series.

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