Climate Fiction Quickies: Snowflake: A Novel, by Arthur Jeon; Denial, a Novel, Jon Raymond; The Great Transition, by Nick Fuller Googins

Here are three more climate fiction novels reviewed. Two of them are terrific: Snowflake, by Arthur Jeon, and The Great Transition, by Nick Fuller Googins. Denial, a Novel, Jon Raymond, falls short, or should I say thin, because a fascinating premise is underdeveloped, I can’t deny.

Two of them take place a generation or a couple of generations from now, with The Great Transition the bigger world, although so interesting that I wanted more, and Denial, only a generation out from today and so nearer future; both of these books deal with big changes (“The Great Transition” and the “Upheavals”). Snowflake was published almost “in real time,” taking place mid-way through the Trump Presidency, and is the most immediate and present book in every sense.

Snowflake: A Novel, by Arthur Jeon: First Person Journal

Snowflake: A Novel, by Arthur Jeon, was published in 2020 by Global Animal. Global Animal.Org is “an online news magazine and social community for all things animal, from beloved pets to exotic wildlife. It’s a virtual clubhouse for pet lovers and animal advocates worldwide to stay informed, be moved, be heard, and get involved.” FYI, Global Animal.Org has two co-founders, Leah Lessard Jeon and Arthur Jeon, who is the author of this novel, and that certainly explains the outsized role of animals in the story.

I’m not complaining, just explaining.

Snowflake is a triumph, although not without some reservations. The form of the book is journal entries from the main character, Benji, a brilliant, photographic-memory-blessed ace student who resides somewhere on the spectrum—Aspergers gets at least one mention. The book takes place during the administration of Donald Trump and more specifically across two months, starting on August 26 and ending on October 31, with an epilogue in the form of headlines that catches the reader up on events of the following next couple of months. The journal entries are well done in that these lay out the theme of the book, which in capsule form might be described as the question of one’s moral obligation for action in the face of existential global warming and excessive consumerism, with a lot of focus on animals, hence the earlier “FYI.” The writing is sound in its portrayal of high school and contemporary American culture, all expressed through the lens of the highly informed main character who lends the limited first-person perspective to the book.

As for reservations, the device of journal entries, while effective in revealing the thoughts and feelings and struggles of Benji, seems to slow down the reading pace, and not necessarily in a good way. I’m a fast reader, but I noticed that I kept looking at (reading this on Kindle) the percentage index and finding myself impatient and at times a bit discouraged. I have to wonder if Jeon didn’t write himself into a corner adhering so strictly to the journal entry form, where, as best I can see, not a day was skipped or summarized for any of the two-month duration of the main story, with the consequence of having the anguished thoughts, concerns, and challenges presented somewhat repetitively, which is a disservice to the reader. At times I found myself wondering if this suggested the author didn’t trust the reader enough to get the points and plotting of Benji.

The press release for Snowflake states “… Arthur Jeon cranks up the climate change alarms while indicting the Trump administration for their environmental destruction.” Indeed, and one interesting device was the closing of each journal entry with Benji’s climate crisis fact du jour, but by the time I progressed into double-digit percentages, it felt like overkill of information and even a confusion of the novel’s structure. I sometimes found myself wishing the author would get on with it, especially given the next sentence of the aforementioned Snowflake press release, “The result is a cli-fi thriller that’s a blistering contribution to ‘contemporary historical fiction,’ the emerging genre that tackles current issues through fictional characters.”

There was plenty of set-up for the thriller—too much, in fact.

Or maybe I’m just worried about my own climate fiction thriller series, The Steep Climes Quartet, with the first book, Kill Well out since Fall 2023 and the second book, Dear Josephine, due Spring 2024, concerned that thriller structure can compete with literary writing.

This review sounds kind of negative, right? Well, that would be the wrong conclusion to draw about Snowflake. While I vacillated between four and five stars, five stars won out because this is an impressive book in so many ways despite the faults noted above. Snowflake is very well written, as you might expect from a member of the Writers Guild of America, the recently strike-successful union. The epilogue especially made me think of Hollywood, with the sort of tear-producing heart jabs that remains a characteristic of the trade. Despite some sense that I was being emotionally manipulated, I didn’t mind, but then I can tear up at certain commercials, too. I’ll confess to particularly enjoying Benji’s rants about Trump—who he refers to as “Cretin”—and the absurdly self-centered death cult that empowers the ex-President.

Snowflake is a largely successful and impressive work of ambition that effectively addresses the traumatic bewilderment so many feel about climate change and what must be done to counter this crisis. The book’s active capture of a neurologically divergent character is one part of this achieved ambition, especially considering the already difficult challenges of representing strong teenage feelings and struggles in the world in climate crisis. Adding the component of social criticism of the culture that doesn’t really want to do that work is itself impressive.

So, yeah, five stars and this reader’s gratitude for Jeon’s work.

Denial, a Novel, by Jon Raymond:  What’s (and Where Is) the Beef?

I read Denial, a Novel, by Jon Raymond, published by Simon & Schuster, 2022, and I know that Jon Raymond is a solid writer. I know this because he has screenwriting credits for a favorite (if odd) movie of mine, Meek’s Cutoff, and some other movies I don’t particularly recall, maybe because I haven’t seen them. Even more thrilling for me is that he was screenwriter for the HBO production of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, a book that I fiercely love, and I thought that the television series based on this book was quite good.

But Denial, Raymond’s latest novel, doesn’t stand in as evidence that he is a solid writer other than his craft components, such as good sentence structure. As a novel, though, the work is thin and ultimately unsatisfying. As a would-be climate fiction (less in the strict sense of genre but clearly in terms of subject) Denial is especially unsatisfying. Oddly enough, the book jacket copy presents the strong climate fiction sense that is missing from the actual book.

The year is 2052, which is how the above-mentioned jacket copy starts and then it moves on to the following:

Climate change has had a predictably devastating effect: Venice submerged, cyclones in Oklahoma, megafires in South America. Yet it could be much worse. Two decades earlier, the global protest movement known as the Upheavals helped break the planet’s fossil fuel dependency, and the subsequent Nuremberg-like Toronto Trials convicted the most powerful oil executives and lobbyists for crimes against the environment. Not all of them. A few executives escaped arrest and went into hiding, including pipeline mastermind Robert Cave.

Then there is a brief description of the plot points driving Jack, the main character, and some flagging of this work’s themes. And then there is the book jacket’s closing paragraph:

Denial is both a page-turning speculative suspense novel and a powerful existential inquisition about the perilous moment in which we currently live.

The jacket copy gets a five-star review. Unfortunately, the novel itself gets a three-star review, and that’s because the interesting events described in the book jacket copy are largely absent from the book. The Upheavals certainly seems a rich period of time that would have a transformative effect, but other than some mention of vegetarianism and improved car batteries, the Upheavals remains a mere plot point. And, gosh, the “Nuremberg-like Toronto Trials” sure sound interesting, but there’s little interesting coverage of the trials in the book even though Jack is a reporter with special interest in historical records. In fact, there is really no sense of what the Upheavals or the trials were like, or much in the way of long-term consequences other than that some under-described corporate bad guys are punished. A major societal shift—called the “Upheavals,” after all—would have more carry-on consequences even if from something like 20 years in the past. Unfortunately, the economy seems largely like today’s economy, including consumption. Also, If I read my history right, the Nuremberg Trials continue to influence our culture to this day.

Even the consequences of climate change within the environs of the main character’s movements are given short shrift, suggesting the same for Raymond’s research on extrapolations of climate change. Sure, there’s some mention of problems here and there, although not particularly in Jack’s place of residence, which may or may not be in some city in the Northwest, but this lack of specificity is all too common throughout the book. Some of the action takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico, and some unspecified Pacific coastline northwest of there, and there’s some dust, some smoke, some homeless, and some suggestion of economic hardship, but it appears that Jack timed his flights down to coincide with great weather. Speaking of flying, there are a couple of round trips Jack takes and even his new-enough-to-still-be sort-of-girlfriend jets down for a couple of days, and little is said about how jet travel may have changed post-Upheavals, but I think we can all imagine that flying will be significantly more expensive, which makes the hard-pressed single mother’s visit a stretch. And if air travel is now fine and dandy, let’s have some sort of mention of some new tech, say by having Jack think that the new biofuel jets have done nothing to make flying anymore comfortable.

I see that the complaints so far might seem niggling points, but the problem is that such failures are endemic. Now, perhaps Raymond really had no intention to write a climate fiction novel, but even then, there’s no denying that the future world of Denial is underimagined.

The main plot has to do with Jack uncovering an “Empty Chair,” one of many fossil fuel executives who had been tried and convicted in absentia, and Robert Cave has been leading a nice life in hiding. Well, for someone in hiding from a prison life-sentence, Cave turns out to be charming, sympathetic, and a chatty cathy. There is also some pointless prion health scare for Jack, which is meant, I guess, to bring in “the struggle with mortality,” but this itself pretty much gets dropped, as if Raymond had grown tired of the whole prion kit-and-kaboodle.

Yeah, I know. I’m being a bit mean here. Here’s one reason: the novel is more like a script treatment, where the expectation is that the actors and director and location will flesh out the story. Makes sense, considering Raymond’s professional work, although he’s got three earlier novels and some short stories, too, but I’m now disinclined to read them simply to put this thesis to the test. Here’s another reason for my pique: the author is established and published by a major trade publishing house, and the design and physical feel of the book is impressive, but it’s an empty suit; readable, but empty calories. Fiction that incorporates the climate crisis has some responsibility to provide more than lip service to this significant cause of planetary trauma.

The Great Transition as Climate Fiction Triumph: What the World Might Look Like Two Generations Hence

The Great Transition, by Nick Fuller Googins, published in 2023 by Atria Books, is story of what the world looks like after the world of harsh and pervasive climate crisis gets its act together and takes action. The action is the great transition of the title and after a while there is another important date, Zero Day, when the world achieves net zero emissions of greenhouse gases. The book takes place in the sixteenth annual celebration of Day Zero, along with an epilogue-like denouement that falls a year or so after the main story ends. Sixteen years after many proclaimed victory at hand, this novel looks at what such victory means. The Great Transition was fundamentally an uprising of the many against the “world destroyers”—the One-Percenters and their minions—and all the work needed to set the biosphere back on track and build vast schemes of amelioration.

The theme of the novel is in the questions of “What is my personal responsibility in regard to fixing the world?” and “Is climate victory to be marked by a holiday or is it an ongoing endeavor?” By the way, the answers to these questions, respectively, are “Everyone is responsible and must act through solidarity and cooperation in the service of something greater than themselves,” and “The fight again selfishness and the rejection of responsibility only to self is never over.”

Fortunately for the reader, these themes are handled entertainingly and will promote many to rethink our current assumptions, including the very relevant contemporary question of “free market” capitalism and its carryover, corruption. Googins pulls this off by creating compelling characters and doing a pretty good job showing the positively changed world, although on this latter point I found world-building is limited, with the larger scale of the post-The Great Transition era only suggested.

The book’s structure works well, with two of the three main characters providing first-person perspectives, with the fifteen-year-old Emi, daughter of Kristina and Larch, the focus of many chapters, and her father Larch taking up the other chapters. A lot gets known about Kristina, with one particularly effective device being facsimiles of transcripts of a school assignment interview by Emi of her mother about her background and her experiences in The Great Transition, and the homework is charmingly commented on with hand-written notes by her teacher.

Kristina happens to be very famous for her role in The Great Transition, and even more so than the very well-known Larch, and over the course of the novel the reader gets to see how each came to their reputations and how they fell in love.

The Great Transition is a sizable novel, but not monstrously so, and that I was sorry to reach the end speaks well for the story and characters and the writing. The novel isn’t perfect but it is so enjoyable that any imperfection or shortfall doesn’t really matter. Still, I’ll mention that the world-building is thin, despite a lot of work Googins puts into it, but then it is hard to build a whole imagined world and keep the story from emptying vast forests for the paper such a book would require. The themes and ideas in the book are fascinating, and I would love to see more specifically how the transition in human culture and economics plays out from the world we know today, but maybe because I’d like a more comprehensive and detailed guide to satisfy my own transition wish fulfillment.

The Great Transition is a very entertaining read, is thought-proving, and addresses key issues facing us today.

Now if only we can all put aside our self-centeredness and work for the greater good. Reading The Great Transition is a good start on that.

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