Climate change is an issue that has plagued me ever since I walked out of the theater after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. I was always a bit of an environmentalist, having been exposed to Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest as a small child, but this felt bigger than my seventeen-year-old brain could comprehend. The documentary was the catalyst for the veritable avalanche of books and films that would eventually lead me to working in renewable energy. It has only been in the past couple of years, however, that I really began to feel the need for art to speak about climate change. Science can only predict and describe the effects, but stories can help us figure out how we feel about it. In an effort to find stories that echo my own anxieties I happened upon this novella. Greg Egan, in his new book Perihelion Summer, captures a snapshot of anxiety and need for cooperation in a rapidly changing environment, but falls short on the emotional impact I was hoping to find.
Perihelion Summer follows Matt and some of his friends as they wait out a cosmic event aboard the Mandjet, a self-sustaining aquaculture rig. A black hole called Taraxippus is on its way through our solar system and is predicted to affect the earth in numerous ways. However, as it approaches, scientists notice it is, in fact, two small black holes, completely negating any predictions they had made. As Taraxippus passes, it changes Earth’s orbit around the sun, causing summers to be hotter and winters to be colder. In effect, climate change has been immediate and exacerbated, forcing the world to adapt on a schedule not its own.
The plot is interesting enough and centers more around the people and their reactions than it does the state of the world. Egan rightly focuses on the trials of a small group of characters, some of whom planned to be together during the event, and others who just happened to be there. It adds a personal and human touch to the events knowing that when an apocalypse does come, you will not be with who you want, but who you are around. I think this happens fairly often in stories of this nature, but Egan avoids the easy pitfalls. There are not characters that stand out as “the problem character” or “the one who will get everyone killed.” Instead, the story’s tension develops naturally through the stress of catastrophic environmental change, instead of some racist shouting that he or she will not share boat space with “the others.” And while I groaned at a specific choice that led into the third act, it became more bearable as the book came to a close. It felt like Egan was specifically using it to point something out about developed nations more so than an irrational character choice.
I did not feel any particular attachment to the characters, no matter whether they were the primary voices or just folks in the background. I do not know if the distance was my fault or Egan’s, but I did not relate to Matt as much as I would have assumed. He is a smart guy with a plan who did his damnedest to convince his family to be as well-prepared as he is. While Matt acted logically, he was driven by an innate sense of keeping those closest to him out of harm’s way, even risking himself to do so. They are all qualities that I admire, but for the life of me, I could not get involved with Matt as much as I was involved with the story. The characters surrounding Matt felt more interesting and had a human spark that was easy to care about. I cannot remember most of their names, but I remember their roles on the boat, their backstories, their anxieties and who they wished to protect. I do not know what it was about Matt, but he just did not make much of an impression on me as a reader. I found that kind of sad because it made some of the weightier emotional punches that centered on him fall flat for me.
Where Egan really nailed everything was society’s response to the crisis, particularly the adaptations offered as solutions by different cultures from around the globe, such as the domes China proposes to install over their cities. The pure anxiety and immediacy of the problem filled every page. Watching the chaotic climate take shape was like pouring milk into a fresh mug of coffee, knowing that as it swirled it was impossible to separate the two again. Egan delivered it sparingly and from a distance, with reports and rumors from the news and other seafarers their oceanic fleet encountered. It all seemed plausible, with national borders simultaneously losing their shape and being touted as more important than ever before. Every aspect of life had to change, and plans shifted constantly to meet new problems. I liked most that Egan avoided falling on empty platitudes of sustainability through technology or sitting it out. Everyone was affected, and everyone had to work to survive.
I like aspects of Perihelion Summer but it did not hit me as hard as I expected. Part of it may be that I felt it was too short, and some of Egan’s ideas about adaptation only scratched the surface of my mind. Maybe I follow some of the climate stuff too closely, and this was just another warning shot. It might be more effective to those who are not so tuned into it. I hope that is the case, because there is a hell of lot of work to do, regardless of what the business world or the talking heads say. I believe Egan did not write this to be a blueprint, but to add his voice to the conversation that needs to be had now, instead of in ten years. We need more stories like this, from different voices, different backgrounds, and with different fears. And maybe that is why I did not connect with Matt- because his anxieties were mine, I already knew them inside and out. However, the concerns of my neighbors, my family, my coworkers, and of people across the world are not something I sit with every day. Maybe that is the next step- to reach out and talk about this before it gets worse because we are all in this together. We all bring different perspectives, skills, and strengths. It’s time that we used them.
Rating: Perihelion Summer – 7.0/10