Nancy Kress has been on my to-read list for a while. She has a weight to her name, especially when it comes to her treatment of genetics and bio-engineering. I have not made my way to her earlier works yet, but I was presented with an opportunity to read Sea Change, and I decided that something new could be a good entry point. Sea Change is a short read with overt themes, forcing readers to ponder the use of genetically modified foods in preparation for climate change. While I think it handles that discussion with care, I was not entirely enamored with the characters or the story itself.
Sea Change is told through the perspective of Renata Black, an agent of the Org, an underground group of environmental activists, scientists, and farmers who are secretly working on GMO variants of food. After a biopharmaceutical company caused The Catastrophe, GMOs were banned in the United States, and continuing research on them was forced underground. Renata herself is an agent who runs communications between a small splinter cell within the Org. She is in charge of making sure that the secret laboratories stay functional and hidden. Communications are handled through a very specific shade of paint, Tiffany Teal, and in small personal groups to avoid widespread uncovering of the group’s activities. However, Renata is sure there is a mole within her cell, and it’s up to her to make sure the offender is found before real damage is done.
I will be honest, it’s very hard to write about a book like this. If you have read some of my reviews over time, you’ll know I often try to parse through the work and talk about the author’s handling of their more overt themes, focusing on the characters and the development of the theme throughout the book. Sea Change is weird to me because I think Kress handles the themes very well in terms of overall portrayal; she does not beat around the bush when it comes to instilling a specific message. Kress presents facts in such a bare and blatant manner it’s hard to look away. However, I had trouble reconciling this with the rest of the story as portions of it fell flat from a narrative perspective. Chiefly, I had issues with the main character Renata Black.
Renata Black never felt like a full character to me. Part of that might be an issue with the book’s length, but I felt as though a lot of it stemmed from her development. A lot of her dialogue is delivered in a straightforward and factual manner. Every event within her life has a cause and effect stated very plainly through the narration, and very often her interactions with people felt transactional. There is a distinct lack of internal life that felt disruptive and weird. This could have been interesting if Renata herself had something to hide, or she was ashamed of something she was defensive about. It inhabited this weird space where she was talking to the reader and monologuing to herself, but never really accomplishing either. In some ways, there was a lurking sense of depression, but it never really solidified. When she became suspicious of those around her, it just fell flat. I was not in her head, feeling her concerns. While Renata’s life and choices were interesting and daring on paper, I never felt like she was in danger. There was no thrill or anxiety, but neither was there the confidence that comes with experience. The only times I really felt her come through were when she dealt with the people of the Quinault Indian Nation, but even these sections though had a perfunctory vibe to them.
That being said, I think Kress handles science in this book with a level reverence I rarely see. She spends time teaching the reader about the facts and engages with the arguments for and against the topic at hand. Kress does not get overly detailed to a point that turns the reader off, and she employs a laser-like focus when it’s necessary to press a point home. When she describes incredibly weird things within genetic traits that could cause massive problems or be enormous boons, it never feels like a lecture. Kress disengages from the usual “technology good/bad,” and instead contemplates who stands to benefit and who should be making decisions regarding the use of GMOs. It never feels like a clever “both sides” argument either as Kress shows that ordinary everyday people are most often hurt. Power discrepancies are rarely shown in this subtle, but unforgiving way and Kress handles it incredibly well. I particularly enjoyed this “fight with what you have” mentality that was imbued within the different members of the Org and the Quinault Nation. Even though we did not get to see much of the side characters, we at least got to see their strengths and callings be emphasized within their roles.In the rebel groups, everyone was necessary regardless of skill or ability, which felt incredibly important to highlight in the times we are currently living in.
If you’re looking for a book with a targeted message as well as an engaging and educational discussion of a real-world topic, Sea Change is definitely for you. However, if you’re looking for a thriller that tries to balance all of the plates while doing the above, I think this book falls a little short. It’s a decent narrative representation of the dangers and benefits of GMOs, but it can be tough if you don’t buy into Renata Black. Overall, I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to more of Kress’s work because of this.
Rating: Sea Change: 7.0/10