We seem to be living in a golden age of dystopian science fiction. Whatever the reality around us (and surely some of motivation for this grim prognosticating is our increasingly interconnected society, in which every misery is dramatized for quick consumption), there’s a real sense the wheels have come off the cart; it only makes sense writer’s are looking to the future with something less than enthusiasm.
In another sense, it’s the worst possible time for stories of the collapse of civilization: is the dark future science fiction and horror writers have warned us about for centuries already upon us? Antonia Honeywell offers an answer, of sorts, in her debut novel, The Ship. That a flicker of hope remains in the actions of determined individuals (in this case a teenage girl), even though things can (will?) certainly get worse before they get better.
Climate change is the prime motivator for the collapse of Honeywell’s future civilization, though by the story’s beginning, the damage has largely already been done—but only just. Humans lived quite well for decades burning fossil fuels and consuming the planet’s resources, but Lalla Page is from the first generation to truly face footing the bill for her parents’ and grandparents’ poor stewardship. There’s no nutrition to be found in the seas or the forests, so people subsist largely on algae. Human life has gotten incredibly cheap. Lalla is lucky, though: her parents are wealthy, her father Michael having created Dove, a national ID system in the UK by which resources are managed down to the tiniest detail. A Dove card is citizenship, and life. To be without it is to be less than human.
Knowing that even people with substantial resources won’t be safe for much longer, Michael’s been working on a plan he’s kept secret even from his daughter: he’s commandeered a luxury cruise ship loaded with supplies for 500 of his hand-selected passengers. Following a genuinely harrowing race to the boat after they’re found out by the local authorities, the ship sets off to…somewhere? Michael is consistently vague about the goals of his mission, but as he becomes increasingly authoritarian, his actions take on a messianic bent. His chosen people become something like a cult. The mystery behind Michael’s increasingly troubling actions propel a good deal of the book’s narrative.
Cutting through all this upheaval is Lalla herself; at 16, she sees more clearly than the adults surrounding her. In a way, it’s her very teenage nature that provides her with a shield against the tendency of the other passengers to fall in line, even (or especially) since it’s her own father she’s rebelling against. You might call her a brat; tired, sexist euphemisms like “feisty” and “spunky” also come to mind. In fact, she can be challenging, or kind of a jerk—what 16-year-old isn’t? Honeywell makes a bold choice here: a protagonist who feels slightly too real at times. But the strength of the prose, which finds lyrical beauty in the collapsing world around Lalla, tempers her abrasiveness. Lalla and her father represent two sides of a coin: he’s willing to turn his back on the world in favor of a pointless- but-comfortable existence. She rages against the injustice of their situation, balks at hoarding resources while the land burns behind them, but her anger is often shapeless. That’s by design.
Lalla is a mirror of our tendency to express righteous fury while doing nothing about it—say, to post endlessly online about injustice, though we have no meaningful ideas about what to do to combat it. That’s but one of Honeywell’s clever critiques of our digital world: before they left in the ship, Michael’s Dove Card system valued people at no less, and certainly no more, than you would a few data points on a screen. If the card says you’re worth food, you get food. If not, or if you don’t have a card, you can be shot.
We’re not there yet, I hope, but it’s not so different from a world in which followers and likes are a way to gauge a person’s worth.
And thankfully, Lalla doesn’t just sulk around forever. Her idealism, even born of anger, begins to take on a shape that influences those around her. There are no easy answers here, nor an implication one girl can save the world. This isn’t that kind of story. But Lalla manages to be a hero nonetheless. In a world in which the only reasonable thing is surrender, there’s a way through, even in a losing fight. Hope isn’t gone until we stop caring.