Notes from the Burning Age is the latest novel from Claire North, one of the most thoughtful and creative writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading. (I really hope that she starts getting more attention from critics and readers.) In the past, her books have tackled death (The End of the Day), choices (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August), crime and class (84K), race and curses (The Pursuit of William Abbey). All of these—including Notes from the Burning Age—use their various premises to explore the long-lasting consequences of choices we made. This is more than just turning left instead of right trousers of time stuff. The choices North explores in her novels are more like the choices we make when we’re convinced we’re right. In Notes for the Burning Age, the choices are the ones made by humans who are determined to conquer the natural world at the cost of destroying earth.
Notes from the Burning Age is set centuries in the future. Civilization as we know it is gone, destroyed when creatures (known as kakuy) rose out of the devastation of pollution and smashed everything. Humans preserved as much knowledge as they could, but most technology is beyond their descendants. To avoid a new “Burning Age,” humanity now mostly lives under a form of eco-socialism. They live in harmony nature because they’re scared witless of doing otherwise. This means that people live in small communities and small cities. They’re careful not to mine too deep for minerals or chop down too many trees. Humans being humans, however, there are some people who want to bring back internal combustion engines and submarines and nuclear weapons. Our protagonist, Ven, works as a secretary and translator of ancient knowledge to one such man, Georg. We learn some ways into the novel that Ven is a spy sent to bring Georg down before the kakuy come back and send humanity back to the stone age, rather than, say, semi-medieval but with cool, eco-friendly technology and a ton of recycling.
There are some absolutely gripping action sequences in Notes from the Burning Age to leaven the long discussions between Ven, Georg, and others about the role humanity should play on the earth. Some of these dialogues verge on the preachy, I have to say (even though I am very much in sympathy with any efforts to ameliorate climate change and avert the worst of the potential destruction). Georg reveals that he has always felt stifled by the way that religion and government have squelched people he believes are talented enough to deserve more than an ordinary life. Ven answers Georg’s arguments with philosophy learned at the Temple (a non-theist, sort of religious path followed by most people in Ven’s time) that just because humans might be special, it doesn’t mean that they have license to pollute, overharvest, or take resources from others so that their lives can be more luxurious and comfortable. North is a lot more eloquent than I am, of course, but it’s very clear who we’re supposed to sympathize with fairly early on in Notes from the Burning Age. I would’ve liked a little more nuance to the two positions, since I suspect that readers who aren’t already in favor of trying to ward off climate change and its effects might get annoyed by this book.
What interested me most about Notes from the Burning Age were the details of what life might look like if humans were forced or chose to change how we use the earth and its resources. Is that even possible for our species? Can we find a way to preserve what’s good about technology (medicine, communication, etc.) and shed the bad (pollution, overharvesting, habitat destruction, etc.)? I like to think that it’s possible. I just really hope that we don’t have to survive a burning age to get there.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.