Clade by James Bradley (2015) 153 p.
“Clade” is a term in biology used to refer to all organisms, dead or alive, which descended from a common ancestor. In that sense all of humanity is a single clade; in another sense, I think – although I’m no scientist – all life on Earth is.
James Bradley’s novel Clade follows a single family, along with their friends and connections, through several generations of catastrophic climate change in England and Australia. It begins in the present or near future, with a young couple, Adam and Ellie, trying to conceive their first child. By the time their daughter is a teenager, Sydney is facing rolling blackouts, constant bushfires at the fringes, an influx of refugees; by the time their now-estranged daughter has her own child, with Adam travelling to England to look for them, a gargantuan tropical hurricane is about to swamp the once green and pleasant land. Clade uses the common trick of following a single family to tell a story spanning many decades, with the scope rarely expanding beyond Adam and Ellie’s family, but this only serves to highlight the importance of the title. We may be focused on ourselves and our kids, we may have ape-brains that can’t concentrate on gradual threats or the hypothetical humans beyond our immediate circle, but we’re ultimately all one clade – men and women, birds and bees, species and planet – and we’re all in this terrible mess together. Even if, as with many of the characters in Clade, we often feel terribly alone.
Bradley is a good character writer; he’s not a sci-fi novelist by trade, and Clade slots easily alongside the skilfully polished contemporary sci-fi of Kim Stanley Robinson or Margaret Atwood. In some ways the accelerating catastrophes being visited upon the Earth are a mere backdrop to Adam and Ellie’s lives. This worked, for me anyway, because in some ways climate change will always be a mere backdrop. The main characters are Australian, and we know that living in a first-world country means they’ll be spared the worst of an increasingly bleak century. One of the strongest chapters in the book occurs when Ellie, approaching old age, encounters a Bangladeshi “illegal” near her property in the country; through his story, we catch glimpses of what his life has been like, fleeing rising sea levels and collapsing economies, reaching a bitterwseet sanctuary in Australia where he must eke out a living while avoiding the attention of a xenophobic, authoritarian government. Clade is a slow-burn illustration of what only a few degrees of climate change will result in: crop failures, economic meltdown, the extinction of species, the mass movement of refugees. Australia, in this fictional world, adapts and survives. Other countries perhaps do not. “When you see the news out of England,” an ageing Adam tells a younger character, “it’s easy to forget it used to be a rich country.”
Clade is largely characterised as a climate change novel, and it is, but it’s more than that as well. Bradley paints a plausible sci-fi future, not just with small details like the genetically engineered trees planted across England earning the nickname “triffids,” but in matters that are entirely unrelated to a world adapting to climate change – which is good, because any novel set generations in the future needs to recognise that small shifts in technology can create sweeping changes. (Somebody from even ten or twelve years ago, for example, would be perplexed by how everybody these days is always staring at their phones.) I particularly liked a chapter set after a devastating plague, following a character who works for a Chinese company which makes virtual sims based on social media footprints of people’s deceased loved ones – an uneasy line of work which verges on exploitative, especially when one of his clients asks him why he hasn’t made one of his own dead mother. And in the penultimate chapter Bradley touches on an entirely different genre of science fiction – one which I won’t spoil – but which rounds out the novel very nicely, bringing things back once again to the concept of the clade.
There are plenty of other sci-fi climate change novels out there, but what I particularly liked about Clade is that it’s emphatically not an end-of-the-world book. Humanity survives, humanity gets by; especially those parts of humanity fortunate enough to live in wealthy countries. But at what cost? One of the saddest moments in the novel, for me, was when a young girl many decades in the future is walking through an eerily silent forest, and then downloads a soundtrack from the internet of what the forest used to sound like – before most of the birds went extinct. Human life goes on, but human life is not the only thing that matters. We’ve deeply ravaged our own ecosystems and made the world immeasurably less healthy, less diverse, less beautiful. Bradley touches on all of these things without ever feeling preachy or moralising. Clade is a compelling, thoughtful vision of our planet and our species fifty years into the future.