Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North

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Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: Claire North has created a prescient thriller about how climate change could devastate our world in Notes from the Burning Age. Humanity has a choice whether to further destroy the Earth or attempt to salvage the harmony. North writes beautifully about that war.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: July 2021
Publisher: Orbit
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0356514758

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At its core Notes From the Burning Age by Claire North is a spy thriller, with as many double crosses, interrogations and night time escapes as Le Carre or Fleming. However, as with the best novels, it wears many masks and its most affecting one is that of a new and timely genre, cli-fi, or climate change fiction. North's novel tells of a world devastated by climate change where humans have been forced to start anew and live alongside nature without any of the modern and corrupting "luxuries" (read: fossil fuels, weapons of mass destruction, intensive farming). There is a growing unhappiness with this limiting world, and one group, the Brotherhood, aims to master these processes no matter the cost to the Earth.

Notes from the Burning Age brings in two philosophies that, in my opinion, are in a fight for the very soul of humanity: transcendentalism and, a sub-section of humanism, anthropocentrism. Transcendentalism was popularised by American writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. It believes that humanity is linked with each other and with nature. We should therefore treat nature with respect. Anthropocentrism is the complete opposite, and its core principle is that human beings are the most important entity in the universe and interprets the world in terms of human values and experiences. Currently, we are in a war between respecting nature and trying to master it. North uses this existential war to great effect in her novel as she pits the Brotherhood against the Council. As with the present, the former wants to mine the earth and cut down all the trees, whereas the latter wants to live in harmony and only take the bare minimum. North is a firm believer in the latter camp. She writes about death as a cyclical process and one that eventually feed[s] the creatures that are then fed upon by another. Plants take root in soil grown rich with the bacteria that feasted on your blood. Anthropocentrism is a fundamentally short-sighted philosophy. It completely misunderstands the fragile balance of an ecosystem, believing that we can take any part of it without disrupting the rest.

The two most prominent characters are the protagonist, Ven and, the Brotherhood's de facto leader, Georg. Ven spends most of his time both attending and then fighting Georg. These two characters on the micro level represent the two key philosophies of transcendentalism and anthropocentrism. Ven, as a former Temple monk, believes in the cyclical nature of life and its harmony with nature whereas Georg only wants to control it. In a key conversation, Georg illustrates the greatness that this harnessing of nature has brought humanity, coal mines and power station… the burning lifted people out of poverty in numbers never seen before. Georg is right, the Industrial Age was good for humanity. The key word being humanity. We have progressed faster in the last 100 years than in the past 1000 years. However, at what cost? Ven retorts, All I see are a few people getting rich in paradise, while everyone else chokes and burns. This once again illustrates the short-sightedness of this view of anthropocentrism. The Earth is warming up; severe weather events have become more frequent, and we are tipping into a positive feedback loop which we will be unable to leave. North utilises their antithetical beliefs to illustrate the key argument of the novel that however much humans try to harness nature, it is uncontrollable.

Humans personify nature both as a caring mother and a ferocious warrior, striking us down and battering our homes. North utilises this by personifying the destructive force of nature as vengeful beasts called Kakuy who cause destruction on humanity. Like the destructive force of nature they embody, they will destroy [humanity], or ignore us, not because we are mighty and worthy of note, but because we are small, and it is a simple matter for the Kakuy to step on us without noticing that there was something underfoot. North knows that humans must anthropomorphise the Earth to even attempt to empathise with it. Even with these beings who pose an existential threat to humanity, Georg and the Brotherhood believe they can conquer them and harness the Earth for themselves. Like Exxon, Chevron and BP, they do not seem to care about the consequences. They embody humanity's arrogance and pride with the idea that the Earth is something to conquer not live in harmony with.

These elements of Notes from the Burning Age are what makes it sing. The all-encompassing righteous anger of someone who understands how close to the precipice we are. The humans in North's novel are well-rounded and Ven and Georg especially are compelling characters even if one of them believes in an abhorrent philosophy. Unfortunately, North wrote a spy novel that exists in this world and it is this "spyness" that lets it down. The main narrative of finding out who the double agent was did not connect with me. When it was finally revealed, I was left wondering why I should care. However, I believe that is more because I was so enamoured with the world North had created, I did not really care much for the insular world of a spy, I wanted to find out more about this post-climate crisis world.

North has written a great entry into cli-fi. Her novel imbues the anger that is needed right now. We are living in a world where the Kakuy would be preparing to lay waste to us. We need to step up and force governmental change. Notes from the Burning Age is not just a brilliant and rich story, it is also a warning. We would do well to heed its lesson.

If you want to read more climate fiction, I would recommend The High House by Jessie Greengrass.

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