STORMLAND by John Shirley (BOOK REVIEW)
“You haven’t been here that long. Just wait. I don’t go for it either, but who’s in charge of Stormland, really? The perpetual storm system is! We crawl around under it hoping it doesn’t stomp us. These people feel like they’ve got to appease it. Easy to get superstitious in all that. Desperate people can go for magical thinking pretty easily, Webb… A lot of folks around here believe that one day the storms will pass. From what I’ve heard, it might take a century for the cycle to finally stop. The storm system is – it’s like the red spot on Jupiter, with what we’ve done to the planet. The big storm has to settle somewhere.”
John Shirley’s new novel Stormland (2021) is an action-packed cyberpunk thriller. Like his classic Eclipse trilogy, Stormland is both an exciting, enjoyable adventure story and an insightful, thoughtful exploration of the overlap between technology, class and power. The novel is an excellent demonstration of Shirley’s strengths as a writer, displaying his gritty, street-level punk aesthetic and his canny understanding of technology and how it shapes political and social reality. Stormland is also a powerful climate change novel, one in which humanity’s careless destruction of the environment manifests as an integral, visceral part of the setting. It is a timely and potent reminder of cyberpunk’s relevance to modern speculative fiction.
Stormland is set in the desolate ruins of Charleston, South Carolina. Climate change has brought about extreme weather conditions leading to a perpetual hurricane-strength storms across the south-eastern coast of the USA. The area is largely abandoned, save for the hundreds of people who have decided to stay, a rag-tag assembly of refugees, small-time crooks, and others who have their own reasons for choosing not to leave. Darryl Webb, former US Marshal, is sent into Stormland on behalf of Search In Person to track down the D.C. Strangler, a missing serial killer. Once he arrives there, he discovers that Gerald is now reformed, thanks to experimental brain treatment. However a new killer is murdering people in Stormland using the D.C. Strangler’s modus operandi, and the ex-Marshal and ex-serial killer have to team up to solve the mystery. Their journey leads to something far darker than an individual psychopath on the loose – Stormland is being used as a theatre for the wealthy elite to vicariously experience death and destruction.
The most immediately striking thing about Stormland is its setting. Stormland is almost a character in and of itself. Shirley’s visceral description of a Charleston destroyed by extreme weather, with underwater streets, crumbling and derelict high rises, and rotting buildings where corpses of humans, rats and crows are left to disintegrate, is powerful and unforgettable. The storms themselves form a constant presence, the relentless rain and winds heard and felt throughout the book with vivid intensity.
Into this setting Shirley throws a varied cast of characters across a wide social spectrum. Shirley expertly draws the lines of privilege, class and power that delineate their relationships. The wealthy Noel Leuman, ex-CEO of MetaPharmia, is using the desperate people of Stormland to metabolically grow drugs, whilst the even more wealthy Puritan and Garbo are implanting controllers in the people’s brains so that they can use them like puppets. Stormland is home to various low-lives exploiting the lack of government or police force, like the thuggish Crewsky who runs a drug ring and worse. However it is also home to Cuban refugees like Isa, who are just trying to make a new life for themselves, and Larry, the leader of a benevolent cult that worships the storms as a way of redressing humanity’s relationship with nature. And people like Gerald, who is atoning for his past crimes by acting as a doctor and social worker, helping out people in any way he can. Thus, whilst there are people taking advantage of the anarchy of Stormland, there are also people working hard to build a genuine community. Shirley is not content just to display the results of the collapse of society; Stormland is as much about how people can form a functioning anarchic community after they have been abandoned by the government. Daryl finds himself elected as the community’s law enforcer, and his reflections form one of the key themes of the book: “Can anyone be the law for a state of anarchy?”
The cyberpunk elements of Stormland, rather than feeling like Shirley rehashing his greatest hits, instead show how relevant the concerns of cyberpunk are to our current relationship with technology. With its microdrone surveillance devices and high tech keeps with which the wealthy hide themselves from the consequences of their actions, Stormland explores how the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots is partially shaped by the wealthy elite’s access to cutting edge technology. Puritan and Garbo’s sick fantasies of experiencing other people’s pain and arranging climactic confrontations demonstrate the dangers of an upper class who are insulated from reality. Shirley has lost none of his political fire, and much of Stormland is full of righteous fury at those who are wealthy enough to buy off the law. The novel imagines a USA not too far in the future where increased privatisation has led to endemic high-level corruption. Daryl quits the US Marshals because he sees how the wealthy are able to buy their way out of any legal repercussions.
Stormland’s tense thriller plot makes it a kinetic read. Shirley handles his large cast and complex plot with aplomb. However none of this diminishes Stormland’s intellectual heft as a vivid imagining of the consequences of climate change and a disconcerting exploration of the increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us. As such it is both a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read, with images that will haunt the reader long after the end of the book.