TWENTY FIVE TO LIFE by R.W.W.Greene – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an (increasingly) occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing doing a PhD project at Queen’s University Belfast with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
R.W.W.Greene’s Twenty-Five to Life follows Julie, a young woman in America around the end of this century. (Date clues sprinkled through the narrative such as the 100th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or a near-recent outbreak of Covid-90, place us in the late 2090s.) The premise is simple, if a little bit grim. Humanity has irreversibly stuffed up the climate and the environment, all the tipping points have been tipped and now it is just a matter of waiting a couple of decades or so until the Earth has become entirely uninhabitable. Unless of course you got selected as one of the “lucky” ones embarking on a generation colony ship heading to restart civilisation in orbit around Proxima Centuri.
For those left behind, the best society can offer is life in a cube, living out your years in a virtual reality environment. The idea feels a bit like volunteering to enter The Matrix – choosing a life of comfortable simulation, over harsh reality – as indeed the character Cypher chose to do in the film. Another parallel is with the addictive game “Better than Life” in the Red Dwarf novelisation Infinity Welcomes Careful drivers. One can see the attraction of spending the world’s last years in sheer escapism, particularly as every significant role from therapist to news reporter is being replaced by an Artificial Intelligence alternative.
However, Julie seeks out a different kind of experience, a wandering existence travelling across the now pretty toxic wastelands of the continental USA discarding all (well most) of the technological comforts insulating her from reality. The only problem is that a relatively recent amendment to the constitution places young people under their parent’s care until the age of 25 (on the basis that human brains do not actually settle into adult rationality before that age and are instead a swamp of emotions and feelings). For Julie, aged 23, the only way to escape her virtual fate is to become an illegal runaway. Twenty-Five to Life charts her experiences as she struggles to carve out a path for herself in this dying world.
There were a couple of parallels that particularly struck me with Twenty-Five to Life. The first is the 2020 film Nomadland, set in modern day America following a woman taking up a nomadic life in response to economic hardship. In a similar way, over the few months span of the book, Julie finds herself drifting in and out of different groups within the volksgeist – a nebulous community of travellers referring to themselves as tramps. They travel along abandoned side roads in their customised vehicles, sometimes individually, sometimes coalescing into caravans. They have to be continuously on the move for staying anywhere more than a few days is illegal, and the law is a fickle and thinly spread beast. Police officers working from home to pilot enforcement drones offer limited protection from gangs. But there is network of support and companionship where Julie and Ranger – the travelling partner who takes her on – can trade goods, stories, support and most valuable of all information.
The second parallel is with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for, while Julie and Ranger mostly travel by vehicle rather than on foot, there is that same sense of a society breaking down, of food – in varied forms becoming a most precious commodity – and the uncertainty as to who will prove to be friend or foe. However, unlike The Road, Greene offers some details of how the world has fallen apart.
In a dying world there is no obvious quest or mission, and the story is very much a character study on a road trip. Julie and Ranger are not quite Thelma and Louise. Ranger is like the significantly older sibling and mentor to Julie and the story explores their sometimes fraught relationship. Juniper is the third wheel in this relationship (or perhaps more accurately the third through sixth wheel) being the named vehicle held together with rust, yet customised with hacked technology.
I pictured her (for the vehicle is unashamedly gendered) as a kind of VW camper van crossed with the Millennium Falcon. Greene conveys the tensions of two people, each with their own concerns and priorities, living in claustrophobic proximity. When either of them calls “neutral corners” it’s a cue to walk off in opposite directions and earn a break and some desperately needed personal space
The plot, in the nature of road trips, is about the people and places they meet along the way. Some benign, some threatening, and Greene does well to keep reader anxiety simmering nicely throughout the story, before letting it build to a long-anticipated crescendo. Nothing feels entirely safe, but everything feels terribly, horribly real. If I had a criticism, it would be that sometimes Ranger and Julie lose agency because salvation drops on them almost from heaven. But then, this isn’t a story about changing the world or saving the world, it’s about surviving the world. In a climate changed future no-one can do any of those things on their own.
The prose is unobtrusive but strong, sprinkled with nice lines and imagery, for example.
When Ranger recalls a lost love
Her voice sounded like someone had a fist around it.
When meeting a leering male traveller with cluster of vulnerable women in tow.
“I wouldn’t leave a sexbot with (him),” Ranger said. “Man like that deserves a long involuntary celibate life.”
When the pair are leaving a brief and unequal liaison with a fellow traveller,
Julie finished with the table and chairs and cleaned up around the parking spot while Clem shouted and cried herself empty.
When describing the way shadows are created and shift in the headlights of a moving vehicle.
Julie’s shadow leapt across the bench beside her and raced to mirror the path of the vehicles pulling into the park.
A nice defamiliarized cliché crops up with,
As crows once flew, the city was a lot closer than seventeen miles.
For in this future world, crows no longer fly – no longer exist! And there are many more “nice-line” notes I’ve made on my kindle.
Greene has built a world textured with credible futuristic detail, yet tethered to our own with contemporary references. Julie and Ranger’s road music includes Beyonce “before her country phase” and “Malala: the musical.” The tramps of the volksgeist have their own monikers like the CB radio enthusiasts of old. Julie, for example goes by the name of Runner. A couple they meet later call themselves Fire and Ice. Besides the Virtual Reality environment of Third Eye, another major development in society is the pharma emplant, embedded chips beneath each person’s collarbone. John Lanchester’s The Wall also saw a climate changed future of a chipped population, but Greene’s – as well as recording more mundane details and interactions – controls a person’s physiology to supress excess emotions – like an electronic Ritalin. The emplant also offers a means of delivering artificial highs through mods delivered with a contactless card – the drugs went electronic!
Although Greene’s world is in terminal decline, it remains embedded with technology, some of it scavenged, hacked and repurposed, but still accessible extrapolations from our own experience of mobile phones, bio-fuels, solar arrays and self-heating meals. Those vestiges of our civilisation separates this work from more dystopian visions of the future like Emmi Itaranta’s Memory of Water, or Will Self’s The Book of Dave.
As a work of climate fiction Twenty-Five to Life has some echoes of Claire Vaye Watkins Gold Fame Citrus, with its vision of a parched and transformed America, a road trip, and beatnik communities surviving beyond the diminished pale of civilised society. The turn of the 21st century setting puts it at the end of the era of environmental transition covered by James Bradley in Clade and Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway in The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future. The nature of the story is more a “consequential” than “transitional” piece of cli-fi; one perhaps more likely to stimulate a sense of loss rather than of activism. Greene doesn’t describe in much detail the process by which catastrophe arrived. References like “They practically fracked this part of the state to death in the ‘40s. Earthquakes. Nobody goes to Cincinnati” speak of poor decisions, but not who made them. In terms of the challenges Axel Goodbody identified for cli-fi, Twenty-Five to Life most closely addresses the last – avoiding neat and tidy narrative closure. While Greene’s narrative hints that the mission to Proxima Centuri might not be the only hope for the survival of humanity, it does leave us with a sense of uncertainty about the world’s future, if not its protagonists.
However, there are some political aspects in this American future that might sound environmental alarm bells for the readership. In particular, I am thinking of the selling off of swathes of mid-western states to the People’s Republic of China to settle both US debt and climate displaced Chinese citizens. This, together with the cessation of Texas from the union has left the east and west sides of the USA connected by a narrow corridor through the Oklahoma panhandle. This makes for an increasingly inhospitable bandit country bereft of police support with the walled republics to north and south indifferent to the fate of travellers. One aspect of The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future that caught reader’s attention – and may have shifted their attitudes – was a vision of the future where American hegemony had been surpassed by that of China (also, incidentally the global “winner” in Itaranta’s Memory of Water). Maybe, it will not be Greene’s vision of societal and economic collapse that is most likely to promote ground level climate change activism, so much as the vision of a fractured future United States forced to mortgage its own land to current competitor foreign powers.
Rebecca Willis in Too Hot to Handle: The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change wrote powerfully about the technological fallacy – the belief pushed by climate change deniers that some as yet un-invented technology will arrive in time to save as all, a dubious faith in the Deus ex Machina on a civilisation scale. There is a delicious irony that – in Twenty-Five to Life – the technological solution is to put everyone in VR cubes so they can live out their lives in a fantasy insulated from the grim reality of their failing planet. Maybe that seduction by false information is Greene’s most accurate commentary on how we live our lives now, and Julie – in embracing the harsh and uncompromising reality of a climate changed (or climate changing) world – is the model the reader should bring into their contemporary lives.