Excerpt: "Too Fast to Fail"
Plus advice from John Scalzi.
Until April, I’m opening this newsletter with excerpts from my upcoming book Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures. The book illustrates a set of climate scenarios——the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs)——and the culture of the global climate negotiations (aka The COP) in each. The excerpt below is from the SSP5 story, which Publishers Weekly called “deeply affecting.” In this hypercapitalist scenario, fossil reserves are burned as cheap energy to drive high economic growth——and unmitigated warming. Luis, an up-and-comer in the Argentine green biz scene, gets a job with Ark, an adaptation startup run by Noah, who in this timeline is a fast-talking entrepreneur. After a sudden hurricane hits Buenos Aires, however, the pair must rethink their plans.
“My dude,” Noah said when Luis finally answered. “We’re fucked.”
“What happened?” Luis had a splitting headache. “Is it the Kapoor deal?”
“Not over the phone!” Noah hissed. “I’m coming to you.”
Ninety minutes later Noah was pacing the small living room. He’d brought an extra-large sausage pizza, on Domino’s proprietary, protein-rich, post-disaster Recovery Crust.
“Wild out there, my dude,” Noah said. “I mean the storm is whatever, but all the redev firms here for the COP are mobilizing, making a big show of getting their hands dirty. They’re out recruiting like mad for the cleanup, arguing over territory, the works. Real Firefighter Gangs of New York drama——classic!”
“Wow, I love his energy right now,” Marcela said in Lunfardo Spanish from the kitchen. She came in and perched on the corner of the still-unfolded sofa bed, picking up a pizza slice the size of her face. Luis hissed at her to go away, but she held up one finger: “I must observe him.”
Luis sighed, switched to English. “Boss, what happened with the deal?”
“So she came to my hotel room right after the storm this morning. Diya Kapoor, I mean. And at first I’m like, hell yeah, perfect way to work off that bad weather funk. But she’s all business. She wants to put together an accelerated launch plan, a whole PR campaign, all based around how Ark can stop the next Hurricane Mitsubishi Xpander XLRS neverstorm from happening again. So I gotta talk her down, manage expectations a bit. All part of the job, right? But she’s insistent. And it turns out she was just playing with me anyway, because then,” Noah actually loses his cool a bit, “she motherfucking brings in fucking goddamn Cheeto! That Belgian kid I hired to get our buzz numbers up. He looks like he’s been roughed up by Diya’s goons, and of course now he’s saying that I told him to make up that neverstorm shit, which I definitely didn’t. So anyway long story short the deal is off, and we’re fucked.”
Luis slumped. He looked around the mess of his family’s apartment. Marcela had pushed the glass and dirt into little piles in the corners, clearing a path. Now she sat taking copious notes, fingers typing hard on a disposable notetablet. Last time he’d seen her this wound up, she’d gone on a two-day Adderall4Artistes bender, ended up in the hospital.
“Thanks for telling me,” he said to Noah. “We’ve got a lot to clean up, as you can see. Maybe we can touch base on Monday? Talk about getting back to the booth?”
“Back to the booth?!” Noah exclaimed. “No booth boy of mine is going back to the booth! That doesn’t make sense. Point is, we’re fucked, but we aren’t fucked, you know what I mean? Diya is out, but her show gave us a ton of free publicity, really attached our brand to the whole neverstorm zeitgeist. This is the perfect time to pivot! Capitalize on this name recognition windfall! How would you like to be the Provisional Chief Operating Officer of Ark Recovery Catering and Festivals? Think of the acronym!”
“Arcf?” Luis tried.
“ARK-AF! Classic, right? The next level. We’ll backburner the planning platform and build up our rep by putting on a massive music festival at the end of the COP. It’ll keep media attention on Buenos Aires, rally redevelopment finance from all the UNFCCC firms in town, get people here and abroad excited about exactly the kind of climate-shock-as-economic-defibrillator mindset we’ve always talked about! I know some of the people who organize the CAN’T Party are interested in diversifying their aesthetic, and they just threw a huge event, which they had to raincheck halfway through. They’ve got all the city’s best vendors in their contacts, and all those vendors probably just had their calendars shaken up by post-storm cancellations. It’s perfect! Just like Fyre Festival III: Rise of the LavaLords.”
Getting to be COO, even provisionally, would be a huge step up for Luis, a big get for his CV. But he felt kind of pissed at Noah.
“You know, I almost died last night,” Luis said. “We’re trying to figure out if our grandparents and cousins are okay. I don’t know if I’ve got the bandwidth to pivot until things get back to normal.”
“Come on, dude, this is normal! That’s the point. And anyhow helping people have some fun will help them get back to normal even faster.” Noah must have sensed Luis’s continuing hesitation, because he turned to Marcela. “You——hip, neo-boheme young person. Who would the teens like to see play this kind of festival? Want to be in charge of the act list?”
Marcela’s eyes lit up. “How do you feel about tragic, entrancing thawpop?”
“Yes, I love that!” Noah and Marcela touched their pizza slices together like a fist bump.
Luis knew there was no getting out now.
“Okay, let’s do it,” he said.
“Hell yeah!” Noah beamed. “Okay, we need a new slogan. How do you like, ‘ARK-AF: Make It Rain Like the Rain Don’t Stop’? You know what, that sucks. We’ll workshop it. Just soak it in.”
Our Shared Storm comes out April 5. Here’s a handy button 👇
Press Clips, Reviews, Appearances, Etc.
Recently I was interviewed on the Carbotnic Podcast. We talked about solarpunk, speculative futurism, and how people and firms need to get more engaged in their material reality if we are going to take on the big decarbonizing retrofit project. A great conversation!
Publishers Weekly included Our Shared Storm in this post on new climate fiction books. Excited to check out some of these other upcoming titles exploring this space!
Works in Process
The last two weeks have been slower going on my WIP novel The Remainder, but full of important swerves and revelations. As I’ve talked about before, I’m in the third act (or perhaps the fourth, if one uses the five act structure I’ve seen suggsted for mystery novels——three acts is really not enough to tell you anything useful about the plot), and up until recently this section has been a blur of “things go wrong, until tragedy strikes” in my head. Now that I’m writing it, it becomes a series of knots that I have to untangle, sometimes with cascading effects back to earlier sections of the book. I think it was Rick Paulas, of Eastern Span reply guy fame, who tweeted something to the effect that a novel is a puzzle you both construct and solve in your head.
A while back, during a virtual con, I asked John Scalzi for advice on writing speculative mystery/procedural novels. I’ve only read a few of Scalzi’s books, but I am a fan of his general approach: high concept, humorous, fast paced, readable. He’s talked a bit about his love of crime fiction, and how early on in his career he had to make an arbitrary but fateful choice to write sci-fi instead of procedurals——and has slowly been working his way back ever since, with speculative mysteries like the Lock In books and The Dispatcher Audible novellas.
Anyway, Scalzi’s advice, which I think is good, is to try to make the crux of your mystery revolve around your speculative concept. It may sound obvious, but it’s actually much easier to concoct a cool underwater setting for your gritty detective novel than a compelling crime that is about being underwater in some way. So I’ve tried to take this advice to heart and make sure that every plot point and clue in The Remainder says something interesting about the world and the implications of the [weird thing that’s going on]. Now that I’m working on the climactic parts of the book, this has meant I’ve had to forego some of the more obvious tactical manuevers my characters might make. Not to throw shade, but I didn’t want this to be the kind of book that devolved into a generic gunfight in the woods. So far, slow going. But I’m excited about the ways writing this section has challenged me, and the book will be better for the work.
C drew me this for my birthday. Always shocked by how talented she is at… every single creative endeavor she picks up. We figured I might as well feature it here before it ends up behind glass and impossible to photograph. She tells me it’s based on an upside down cypress tree from Blue Hole Regional Park, but it reminds me a lot of those raven-esque stick-walkers they pass in Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s something wonderfully horrific about a pitch-sticky swamp. It’s a lovely piece, and I think I’ll add it to the ominous wall we reserve for black-and-white art.
My mom got COVID this week. She woke up with a sore throat on Sunday and then tested positive on a rapid test at the urgent care on Monday. No real clue how she got it. Maybe lunch with vaxxed friends, or briefly going masked into a department store——the kind of thing that most of us have felt reasonably safe doing once vaxxed. A reminder that we’re all still just playing the odds, and if you roll the dice enough times you’re eventually gonna lose. I often stare at the NYTimes COVID newsletter’s daily graph, feeling at once relieved that the massive Omicron spike is coming down so quickly, while also feeling like the steep drop in new cases doesn’t accurately show how many people are currently out there sick or contagious.
Like myself, my mom has a long history of viral-induced asthma. I can exercise fine, but if I get a cold it’s likely to have me coughing and wheezing for days after the initial virus has passed. For my mom, well into her 70s and using supplemental oxygen when she sleeps, it’s even worse, and so a lot of my fear about the pandemic has circled around what might happen if she got infected. (Though ironically, she says these last two pandemic years have been some of the healthiest she’s had in a long time, because masks and social distancing have had the knock-on effects of helping her avoid colds.)
Thankfully we’ve dodged the worst case scenarios, it seems. She’s triple vaxxed, and, the day after testing positive, she got a prescription for Paxlovid, Pfizer’s COVID anti-viral pill. From folks I’ve talked to, this was a minor miracle, since so far the new drug has been pretty hard to get ahold of. Only five pharmacies in Missouri carry it. Luckily, after decades of cyclical breathing problems, my mom now sees a pulmonologist on the regular, who was able to secure her a prescription. Without that relationship, it seems unlikely she’d have gotten the pill, or at least gotten it so promptly.
I’ve tracked the development and approval of the Pfizer pill for months, but until now I’ve had only the vaguest idea what it actually was. Paxlovid is apparently a two-drug cocktail. One pill is nirmatrelvir, which acts as a protease inhibitor, binding to and therefore blocking an enzyme with which the coronavirus breaks up proteins into the parts it needs for replication. The second pill is ritonavir, another protease inhibitor which in small doses extends the life and effectiveness of nirmatrelvir and similar drugs. Coincidentally, my parents have a long-time friend David who was involved in developing ritonavir as an HIV drug decades ago.
When you take the Paxlovid cocktail, you have to go off a bunch of other common medicines, like my mom’s cholesterol pill. It also apparently makes your mouth taste like metal. But these seem like a small price to pay for the 90%-ish reduction in hospitalization risk some studies have found the medicine offers if taken in the first few days after symptoms or a positive test. She was also prescribed a Z-Pak and a steroid, the latter of which of course gave her a boost of feel-good energy——classic “pep-pill” amphetamine pep! Now that that’s through, she says the COVID fatigue has set in a bit, through thankfully the coughing (our big worry) has mostly subsided.
Despite being in the same house, in which masking is only a bit helpful, my dad seems to have dodged a symptomatic case entirely. He doesn’t even have the red eyes that are apparently a common sign of an Omicron asymptomatic infection. I’ve anecdotally heard lots of couples have this experience, as weird as it is——through of course many others do suffer full-household COVID. Viruses are strange. One of my great hopes is that the pandemic will spur a massive leap forward in our understanding of viruses (a decade of peer-reviewing out, of course), and I wouldn’t be surprised if we discover that viral infections are the root cause of all kinds of diverse human ailments, such as allergies and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Being in touch with my parents through their COVID experience this week has reminded me why even anti-vaxxers often get highly technical in their Facebook posts as they go from “it’s just a cold” to dying horribly on a ventilator. When the virus enters your material reality, the zeitgeist generalities of the pandemic culture war become a much more specific of battle between molecules in your bloodstream and nasal passages. You have to/get to set aside all that risk-analysis and tribal moralizing for a few days and instead fixate on all the new details and jargon that come with it.