Monday, September 14, 2020

STILLICIDE, necessary and beautiful cli-fi about our future...if we don't stop it


$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: New Yorker fiction writer Cynan Jones returns with a powerful climate crisis story about love and loss that offers a glimpse of a tangible future in which water is commodified and vulnerable to sabotage.

Water is commodified. The Water Train that serves the city increasingly at risk of sabotage.

As news breaks that construction of a gigantic Ice Dock will displace more people than first thought, protestors take to the streets and the lives of several individuals begin to interlock. A nurse on the brink of an affair. A boy who follows a stray dog out of the city. A woman who lies dying. And her husband, a marksman: a man forged by his past and fearful of the future, who weighs in his hands the possibility of death against the possibility of life.

From one of the most celebrated writers of his generation, Stillicide is a moving story of love and loss and the will to survive, and a powerful glimpse of the tangible future.


My Review
: A series of episodes commissioned from Author Jones by BBC 4 (podcasts linked), these stories are truly condensed and thoroughly distilled verbal essences of reality. Their heightened language avoids sentimentality, but uses the simplest and most unadorned locutions bare of ornament to create the effect of verbal stained glass: Pattern emerges from intense, simple, interlocking shapes.

I'm a fan of Author Jones's going back to The Long Dry, another deceptively simple tale of a man whose world, not to mention life, is heading into a smash. Longer, fuller than this read, it is still marvelously economical. It is clearly written by the same writer, someone whose words aren't gushing forth but are bucketed up from a deep and refreshing well, poured without slosh or slop into the reader's extended cup with neither stint nor slosh.

It is in Author Jones's negative spaces, his wordless interstices, that the reader is invited to exist inside the story. The world is different, this we know, but the people are not and nor should they be. A long chain of change and loss and compromise extends into their past, our future; Author Jones says clearly, distinctly, "Is this the world you wish to see come for your family?"

You'll know what I mean.

As always, the Bryce Method of short assessments coupled to snipped passages will bulk out my ideas and opinions of this read.

The Water Train brings us into the Hellscape of Branner's job, neutralizing threats to the train feeding water to the city. In the rain, Branner kills a boy who might've been planning to disrupt the Water Train's stolen water going to the city. At what cost to himself? That is the story. 4 stars

Paper Flowers tells us of an economic migrant who polishes surfaces for the captured iceberg that sends water on the Water Train to the great city. They awake next to Nita in her bedsit above a dry riverbed, her daughter Hillie bouncing about; the migrant misses home, appreciates Nita's makework creating paper flowers to sell, worries about the coming destruction of their home, their lives, as the Water Train's owners need their bedsit's space.
There is only early morning light. Then the Water Train passes. Different. A weight of sound. The sound of a great waterfall crashing into a pool. It has the power church bells must used to have.
Harrowing; the cost of greed made personal. 5 stars

Butterflies renders the longing of Ruth, nurse/worker, to feel something, to be fully alive, as she presents her gifted paper ticket to walk in a garden for the first time in her adulthood. She plans to be unfaithful to obsessive Colin for the first time; she expands to fill her own body in a scrap of nature, experiencing things she's forgotten in her new, dry, wealth-centered world. Names of plants mean nothing to her...but google them, worlds of meaning there, this is an English city where this garden is...
She walks. Feels sun on her shoulders; a warmth tracing her edges. Reminds her of her shape.

A buttercup bends with the ballast of a bumblebee; a bluebottle iridescent, like a piece of blue glass.

Beetles, like articles of cast-off jewelry, scuttle in the grass.

She takes some sips from her shift ration, holding the water in the funny space under her tongue.

Last time she saw a bumblebee she caught it in a cup. Rescued it from the fake daisies pattern of the staff room tablecloth.

It kept trying to come back in, after she had set it free, bumping on the window.
Ruth, full in and of herself for the first time in a long, dry time, tentatively realizes she can do what her feelings prompt her to do, she can be as full of herself as the sunshine makes the flowers, the insects, the right-feeling world she has such joyous (temporary) access to. And how criminal it is that she is denied this world until someone who can afford access gifts a bit of it to her. 4.5 stars

Coast begins the knitting of shard to fragment. David, old engineer/husband/man, watches as a berg is towed to the Ice Dock past his eroding homeplace. He was a planner of the now-replaced water pipeline whose infrastructure we first met in "The Water Train." He doesn't hear the whine of now-retired wind-turbines from the coastal sandbank any more:
The air had unfilled when they shut down the wind farm out on the sandbanks, the horrible whine dropping from the sky around the ocean.

They had not realized how much they had come to brace themselves against the sound until it was suddenly gone. The same had happened when the air traffic more or less stopped.
In that welcome peace, he collects his dinner-limpets to go home to wife Helen with. Their son Leo, Ruth's sister, pays a surprise visit and brings his gift bounty of lamb chops (part of working for the Water Train, access to better resources); as dinner ends, he receives the past in the form of a gift of his mother's jewelry to his own wife. Death got no pockets, his loving, aging, dying parents remind him. No loving child wants to hear that truth. But time and water and death have no truck with human-scale things. 3.5 stars

Chaffinch is the Big Meeting (coinciding with the Big Protest, naturally), that introduces the "needed" destruction of the lives and property of the many, many Nitas and Hallies. New homes will be provided for many...
"Shantytowns! Out of rusty metal boxes." Colin must be hard to live with.

"The reuse of containers from the decommissioned shipping yards provides a cost-effective and flexible solution with minimal eco-impact."
I swear, it's like he refuses to see it's for the betterment of the many:
"...We live in a society. It isn't always possible to take into account every individual. Policy always aims to arrive at a solution which helps the greatest number."
The needs of the many excuse the destruction of the few if it's to increase water supplies. Ruth's Colin, weedy and "looks like he eats a lot of kale but not because he likes it," is there to poke and stab the flaks. "We all benefit," they intone; "not equally" ripostes spiny Colin. The meeting moves to the roof, looking down on the Dock...also the protest. Bitter, angry people, half-a-million strong (not such a great showing, we're told), protesting the end of their lives and for the benefit of others.

There never can be a complete and completely fair solution to this issue. Never. 4 stars

Dragonfly brings back a Red-Listed apex predator in the silty gulches of the repurposed riverbed near Nita and Hallie's bedsit! Callooh! Callay! The day, the day might yet get a stay, the day of de/con/struction might yet be held at bay.

The Professor receives his research assistant's package from a chatty courier:
"I've got a gutter garden on my building," the courier said, excitedly. "We group-funded. ... And we're going to get an alittlement on the roof!"

The professor looked at the package on the desk. An itch in his fingers.

"They'll make a difference."

"A lot's got from an alittlement," the courier smiled, reeling off the jingle.
His work making the world as incrementally better as possible clearly paying off, since he hears his pet program's jingle sung at him in the streets. But what he knows is in the package, this small thing, will change everything in a flash, will stop the changes that are being protested...if it's true...
The dorsal barbs, down to the penultimate section of the abdomen. The fact of the dried silt. He has pushed back the prospect. An intuition of its species he felt instantly.

But as he sees the skin, magnified, it speaks to him as an artifact. Seems utterly sure of itself. It is.

Bloodless? That's not assured. Success isn't even assured. But Hope, like a marigold shoving her way to the light from cracks in concrete, Hope ain't dead yet. 5 stars

Rooftop is Branner, marksman extraordinaire, living the nightmare of loss-in-life while he focuses on the Big Protest, waiting for a chance to he can turn off the agony he can not shake, forget, alter, deny, or evade:
The protest now was filtering. The crowd seeming to pour.

Something microscopic in the fact the smallest tap could send a hundred-and-seventy-grain bullet three-quarters of a mile.

Move your finger just a millimeter and you could end a life; but you cannot save one. Her. Not with the strength of your whole body.
It is a close call...the professor in the culvert, seeking the eggs, instars, Branner's sights.... 4.5 stars

Lake clarifies the high personal cost of the insecurity required of the denizens who have the bad luck to live in the security state. Cora wants to make Leo some gorse-syrup ice cream on this hot summer day:
Cora's dress stuck a little to her skin.

Delicate yellow day-flying moths flew amongst the gorse.

There was a heady coconut smell to the flowers. She picked them and dropped them into the bowl. Patient when she pinned her finger. Sometimes felt showered seeds on her sin. Took a while to link the tickle to the spiky, sporadic pops, punctuations in the air, as the flat, mature pea-pods on the bushes burst in the sun.

She gently pinched the part-closed petals together and pulled; took soft buds, the faint hairs between her fingers, like stroking a small animal's ears.
She looks down the hill to wild patches above the reservoir, is accosted by armed guards reminding her she isn't safe. She spills her gorse buds around her feet in her fearful startlement.

She *was* and they tell her she wasn't.

The fury of being surprised by a lie ruins her mood, her ice cream, her peaceful happiness. Her violated self and sense of self in security of home can not reconcile the awful, brutal armed-man energy, lying about her bodily safety, to force her to obey a will not even truly his but amorphously the state's. It is trauma and fear delivered as safety, and it ruins her lovely surprise for Leo. What else will Cora need to give up, surrender, be rent from? 5 stars

Sound starts with two boatsful of men nervously jockeying for best position to get their harpoons into the calf; the shots, the running before the great calf either strikes out at them or drags them under the freezing water; then, quieter but more deadly, the anchor goes down, they meet to discuss the huge calf's fate as it groans, wallows, taking new forms as it moves free of the great shelf.

Ice is incredibly valuable after all. They will bring it into the Ice Dock, they decide; the least loss to melt, if not the highest price and so it equals out in the end. 3.5 stars

Potato Water finds one of the boys, the older one, that Branner saw from his rooftop sniper's nest fevered, shaking, frightening a grandmotherly woman who, with her gardener husband, grows fresh green crops in what sounds to me like night soil. I think it is but anyway they are among the few using this resource to grow fresh vegetables, healthy food, and the nurturer in her soul can't let this child suffer:
They are built out of energy, children, I say. Even when they are ill. They are mainly no more than energy.
The boy gets potato water from her hands, and probably has never had such nourishment in his life. As a result he grows well enough to speak, to chafe with worry over the brother and the dog who both ran away; ultimately he, too, runs away before he's really well, to the older woman's distress. But his purpose in life is to find his little brother and the dog. He must care for them, so he must find them. Well told, if quotidian, tale. 3.5 stars

Letter slayed me.
You would watch. That's all. I would not be able to help.

But this will help, I hope. I want to say some things.

I want to say that I knew in the first few minutes I was going to love you, and would love you, and would fight through things for that.

There are people together all their lives, and they don't have that. But we do. Even through the fights and niggles, and the things that come. We do.
Branner, he, well he just won't ever believe that there was nothing...something he could...he should, would have done anything.

And now it's over. Ruth, ever-caring Ruth whose life is wasted with Colin, is amanuensis for this outpouring; it slays her as it did me; and in the end the letter for John Branner is so incredibly powerfully concentrated, such a beautiful, perfect declaration of love,'ll have to read it, I don't think I know how to end this sentence.

Oh John. Treasure your letter. Read it until it falls apart, engrave it in your mind, because you will need it so very very much. The days drag and the years fly and you will never, ever be that awful, empty sorry if you know what she left for you to know. 5 stars

Patrol brings us full circle, to "The Water Train" and John Branner deciding life or death, kill or die, shoot or be shot, as the whole arc of his love for Anne Branner from the day she sewed him up to the day she ripped him apart, plays full Technicolor in a rain-soaked night patrol guarding the Water Train's precious cargo.

For other, richer, "more important" city people.
At the bitter, fearsome end, Author Jones thanks "you two, who help me be certain the future is not a bleak place."

I thank their unknown-to-me twoness as well, because without them this perfect gem of economical and powerful protest against the world unfolding before my, and the Author's I am convinced, appalled gaze, would not exist.

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