(2023) Sarah K. Jackson, Picador, £14.99, hrdbk, 415pp, ISBN 978-1-529-08958-5
Review by Jonathan Cowie. With CoVID we have gone through an awful lot of plastic personal protection equipment with a lot of Asia’s ending up in the ocean. Indeed, over three-quarters of the World’s plastic ever manufactured is now waste of which 79% has accumulated in either landfill or the natural environment. There are now over 170 trillion plastic particles afloat in the world’s oceans weighing a total of somewhere around 2.5 million tonnes. And it is not just the oceans, it is getting almost everywhere even remote lakes in national parks. But what would happen if things were really ramped up and there was a much, much greater plastic microparticle burden in the environment? This is something that current trends, if they continue, will deliver in the decades to come! This is the foundational premise of Sarah Jackson’s debut novel, Not Alone.
The oceans have accumulated a veritable mountain of micro-plastic. So when a hurricane whips up the seas, literally megatonnes become airborne to smother North America and Europe (and presumably similar events affect the rest of the globe). The world is caught unprepared. Those outside and not in a reasonably airtight environment choke to death either immediately, or get such lung damage that they soon die.
In Hitchin, some years after the storm, Katie lives in her flat with her four-year old son Harry. The windows are gaffer-taped, and the air-vent’s covered with a filter. She only goes out foraging when the wind is low, and always with a face-mask handy and a particle meter.
Katie’s partner, Jack, either died shortly after the storm hit when away at work, or he made it to a remote Scottish village he and Katie know so well. Either way, Katie is now alone with Harry.
And it is not just the micro-particles with which she has to contend, there are also a very few survivors too, many of whom are desperate.
Eventually, life around Hitchin does not seem sustainable and so Katie and Harry begin their journey to attempt to reach Scotland and, hopefully, Jack…
Now, it has to be said that I am a tad partial to the end of the world. I know a lot of SF fans are but for myself, as an environmental scientist, it is sort of personal and they provide a sort of cathartic release – the risk of a major, planetary-level detrimental event this century is all too real. Back in the late 1970s I studied a version of Jay Forrester’s computer program the World Model aspects of which have subsequently shown to be highly predictive for a quarter of a century before exhibiting meaningful deviation from reality. But that’s not the point; the point is that the 21st century could well see a critical transition (in the mathematical sense) which will be catastrophic (again in the mathematical sense) unless we can make it a non-critical transition into an environmentally sustainable future. There have been more recent warnings of 21st century problems including by the former Governmental Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington who in his ‘Perfect Storm’ lecture concluded that a number of factors would come together in the 21st century to bring hardship to much of the population.
We all know that it is the use of fossil fuel that is a key driver of human-induced climate change: we are polluting the atmospheric global commons with greenhouse gasses. Yet we often forget that a significant proportion of oil production is in the form of chemical feedstocks and, in addition to fertiliser, in turn a significant proportion of feedstocks goes to the manufacture of plastics and, as noted earlier, much of this ends up in the oceans, eventually in the form of small particles. In short, oil products are also polluting the oceanic global commons. As the SF author Kurt Vonnegut put it: “Dear Future Generations, Please forgive us, we were drunk on petroleum at the time.”
So, why is this book review having a brief sojourn into aspects of environmental science? Well, Not Alone’s author, Sarah Jackson, originally studied for a degree in Psychology and Criminology but then changed direction taking a Masters in Conservation Ecology, specialising in botany (which is handy for post-apocalyptic foraging) and developed an interest in human-wildlife co-existence. This background provides Not Alone’s with a certain sure-footedness: notwithstanding a necessary (for dramatic purposes) over-egging of the plastic micro-particle doomsday (yes, it really is truly bad but other things are more likely to kill billions this century) her apocalypse still has an all-too-real feel.
Not Alone’s belongs to a well-trodden path of apocalyptic fiction. Comparisons with The Road would be easy to make: both books are bleak. However, in The Road the cause of the environmental catastrophe is never made clear: that novel is one of despair but is shorn of much environmental context. Conversely, Not Alone provides ample context and there is plenty of signaling concern as to the sort of future we are leaving generations to come.
Neither is Not Alone’s alone in portraying a youth be led through an apocalyptic landscape. There’s The Road Again and, more recently, the hit series The Last of Us. Then there is Mike Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts which, as it happens, also sees some of its action around (just a little to the north of) Hitchin (an area some of us know well with Arlesey being the home of one of our founding co-editors Graham). Why, Hitchin is something of a recent magnet for apocalyptic settings is likely to remain something of a mystery.)
But for all of Not Alone being in a well-worn vein of apocalyptic fiction, it does successfully carve out its own identity: one with a neat plot reveal along the way.
And so to sum up. This is Jackson’s debut novel. Now, I have been reading SF for well over half-a-century and while I have longstanding author favourites, I have also seen far too many promising and, indeed, talented writers come and go with the briefest of writing careers. So I do hope that Sarah Jackson sticks around for a while yet and uses the genre to investigate her interest in humanity’s relationship with the environment. That is an area that fiction really needs to explore much more.
++ Jonathan Cowie