February 2015

Noted

‘Clade’ by James Bradley

By Michael Lucy
‘Clade’ by James Bradley
Hamish Hamilton; $32.99

 

James Bradley is a man of many interests. He is an astute and prolific critic who seems to have read everything, a poet, and the author of three acclaimed previous novels. The most recent of these, The Resurrectionist (2006), a dark story of murder and reinvention set in 19th-century England and Australia, became a surprise bestseller after a recommendation from the Richard and Judy Book Club. Bradley is also one of the few Australian critics to take seriously speculative fiction (SF) and fantasy.

To biologists, “clade” is the word for an ancestor organism and all its descendants. In Bradley’s new book, that ancestor is a scientist named Adam, and the story follows him and several generations of descendants. Like a lot of recent SF (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar), and various IPCC reports, Clade describes a near future beset by catastrophic climate change.

The book begins with Adam in Antarctica, sitting in the sun at the summer solstice, thinking of his strained marriage with Ellie, an artist, at home in Sydney, and waiting for her to call with the results of her IVF treatment. This is a good indication of what follows: science versus art, questions of reproduction, melting ice, disintegrating relationships, imaginative if sometimes contrived scenarios.

Each chapter jumps forward in time, and each follows another character: Adam, Ellie, their daughter Summer, Summer’s son Noah, the adopted Lijuan, Lijuan’s daughter. Each could almost stand alone as a short story, and familiar futuristic tropes – from virtual people to alien contact – are sprinkled throughout. Despite the shifting viewpoints and narrators, the only voice here is Bradley’s. The third-person chapters, such as the story of an illegal immigrant turned wandering beekeeper, work much better than attempts at ventriloquism, as with the diary of a 16-year-old girl trying to survive a deadly SARS-like epidemic.

Clade asks important questions about what will happen when our current way of living can no longer be sustained, and how we will respond to that loss, and sketches some fascinating scenes in answer. If the landscapes are vivid, the characters are sometimes less so. The dialogue rarely comes alive, and the exposition can be clunky:

Ellie gestures towards the coffee.
“I hope you don’t mind: it’s so long since I had any.”
Maddie nods. Since the crop failures three years ago, coffee has become increasingly expensive and difficult to get.
“Of course not.”

For all that, the book works. It stays with the reader. In the end, Clade does what apocalypse stories do, from the epic of Gilgamesh to The Walking Dead. It tells us that life will go on, even after the end of the world. 

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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