Sunday 17 December 2023

Perihelion Summer - Greg Egan (2019)


Rating: Admirable

Greg Egan is Australia's preeminent science-fiction writer and is a mysterious character, never having attended science-fiction conventions, nor ever having a picture of him on the internet or anywhere else. Perihelion Summer is not listed with his novels on his own website, or on Wikipedia, instead it's listed under 'other short fiction', which makes it a novella. Perihelion Summer certainly reads like a novella, with  minimal, yet just enough character development to keep the reader engaged and a plot and exposition that is straight to the point. Set in Western Australia (Egan actually lives in Perth) in what appearers to be the present or near future, humanity is preparing for the arrival in the solar-system of a micro black hole called Taraxippus, that may cause calamitous floods as it passes through. Matt and some friends have created a floating habitat that creates its own power and food, including a large metal net with thousands of fish. They intend to wait out the effects of Taraxippus (a Greek word pertaining to mythology around dangerous presences) out to sea and try to convince their various loved ones to go with them, or to at least head inland, well away from any potential tsunamis. Of course, most choose to stay where they are, in Perth, which is right on the coast, thinking that living some kilometres away from the sea will keep them safe, mimicking the kind of wishful or naive thinking that most have regarding climate change (which is what this book is really about), that it will not really effect them personally.

Perihelion Summer is quite different to other works I've read by Egan, it is not mind-bendingly weird and contains a minor amount of speculative science, although it is quite well written. Essentially the novella is a very clever approach to exploring climate change without actually addressing human caused climate change, instead Taraxippus actually doesn't behave as predicted and causes irreversible climate extremes. Egan uses this parallel to examine human responses and behaviour toward climate change, both positive and negative. Matt and his friends aboard their ship, the Mandjet, respond as best they can, helping as many people as they can, despite the odds against them. It made for very fascinating, compelling and sober reading, in particular because the novella is set partly in my home city of Perth. Reading about familiar landmarks and environs depicted as being freezing, with ice and snow in winter (it never snows in Perth) and then during summer as being so hot that it is basically uninhabitable was alarming. Perihelion Summer has been criticised online for being underdeveloped and anticlimactic, but what critics have missed are the insightful ways in which Egan reveals the generational divide and woolly thinking around climate change. The pivotal scene in this sense is when Matt's sister informs him that their mother blames him for the calamity Taraxippus brings, because he would never "shut up about it." Climate change deniers just keep shooting the messengers, wishing they'd just go away and take any evidence of human induced climate change with them, but it is increasingly possible Earth will be something like it is depicted in Perihelion Summer and no doubt any deniers still around will be laying the blame elsewhere, just like they always have done.

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