Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North
Orbit, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Joely Black
It isn’t often I read a book that is not only a gripping read but changes something about how I operate in the world. Claire North has a reputation for high concept novels with challenging ideas, but this goes above and beyond that. She also has a reputation for doing new things and doing them very well. Notes from the Burning Age describes a post-apocalyptic utopia, which given the glut of dystopian offerings in the last few years, is a welcome relief. Yet while it’s easy to find conflict and drama in a dystopia, if the world is perfect, how does an author create a compelling story?
Following the collapse of our current civilisation—the burning age—this new world resembles a smaller, tighter United Nations, based around technologies that allow humans to live alongside their environment, rather than exploiting it. Even utopias face their difficulties. While they have electricity, ‘inkstones’ that seem to be a cross between a Kindle and an iPhone, running water and decent homes, humans live small. Few people have cars, tending to use bicycles to get around. Those cars that do exist run on electricity produced sustainably.
This new world is managed by two organisations, one secular and one religious. The Assembly appears to be a new version of the United Nations, or perhaps the European Union, given the setting. Meanwhile, the Temple handles what it calls ‘heresy’, materials from the old (our) world detailing the manufacture and use of certain technologies. This includes anything intended unsustainable, especially polluting, or geared to war. We apparently decided as such technologies destroyed our world that we’d preserve the knowledge for future generations. Their translation and access are now managed in a quasi-religious fashion, lest it gets into the wrong hands.
All generally appears well. As somebody who grew up in the early 80s with parents well ahead of the environmentalist curve (we had solar panels in 1983) and who completed a degree with a heavy emphasis on environmental science and climate change, it appeals. The idea of living sustainably in a forest, biking most places and walking the rest, of living smaller but still being able to appreciate the good from human technology, is deeply appealing. I found myself mildly bothered by the transformation of environmental concern into something religious, but it reflects the sometimes dogmatic approach taken by those seeking to protect the planet from our more destructive tendencies.
For all its utopian image, there is a rot in this society. The Brotherhood has gained in popularity in one Province, expounding a message of humanity first, economic growth, and a return to the ways of the Burning Age. They resemble a cross between certain sections of the American Republican party with early thirties National Socialists. They wish to release humanity from Temple’s shackles, embracing the fossil-fuel driven ideals of the civilisation that came before. On top of this, there are curious elements of traditionalism: women are meant for the home; men for business and work. Liberation is not for everyone, and they freely admit this; it is for those who have worked and can afford it.
Into this spreading maelstrom steps Ven, a shy and unlikely hero if ever there was one. He is a spy in the mould of a John le Carré protagonist, rather than a John McClane. Taking on the role of secretary to a senior member of the Brotherhood, his life is one of constant pretence and tension and, at the same time, brutal tedium. A shroud of sadness hangs over him, and like many of North’s characters, there is a sense that he is set apart from the rest of the world even as he moves through it.
Yet while the plot deals in the exchange of doctored material, the hunt for a counter-spy, chases through ice and snow that make Bond escapades look frankly ridiculous, this is not the novel’s overall effect. This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that changed how I thought and made me consider how I existed in the world and the impact I had on it. In many ways, it is more parable than story. The intention is for North to shake us by the shoulders and consider how we live in the finite world we have.
There are flaws. The Brotherhood are a little too on point. Perhaps it’s just that living in a forest reading books and living small appeals intuitively, but I couldn’t quite understand why the Brotherhood would want to regress to technology that was obviously inferior compared to what the civilisation around them had developed. Their petrol-driven cars are slower and lesser efficient than electric equivalents. I could not see the widespread appeal of a way of life that led to such immediate depredation for the vast majority for the sake of the leisure of a few. I’m sure that the point is that in our society today, it is common for people to support ideas that to others seem ludicrous or plainly harmful to themselves. Yet they do, frequently, and we must live with the struggle of knowing we cannot see into the minds of others and understand the logic of what seem to us to be dissonant political positions.
This may well be the kind of novel that appeals to those of us who are already concerned for the environment and annoys those on the other side of the fence. One feature of the book is long, drawn-out debates between Ven and his former employer, Georg, where the two pit philosophies against each other. It is much more subtle than it first appears, acting as an opportunity for North to unpick the detail in her critique of our current political and economic structures. After reading the book, I found myself going out into our local woods to walk more and more, to pay attention to my relationship with the environment. It is a book to encourage critical thought, even if at times the Brotherhood comes across as a little too obviously bad.
I was left with one final conundrum. Given the importance of ensuring humanity never threatened the world to such an extent again, I couldn’t understand why Temple kept the “heretical documents” it found. Why not destroy them? It put a great deal of work into translating and securing them, preventing access to them because of the danger they posed, but I could see no practical reason for this preservation effort. Of course, had they simply burned them all, they would slide inexorably into the terrible category of people who destroy things with which they disagree, and that is not a good look on anybody.
Overall, this was one of the most profound, challenging, and confronting books I’ve read in recent years. North is careful to avoid heading into the preaching territory, although at times travels rather close to the border of that land. I loved reading it. I loved the idea of the world she had created and felt it was worth fighting for. Of all North’s work, this is the one that packs the biggest political punch, but it does so with class. The prose remains as strong as ever, the characters as deep and affecting as ever. As I’ve seen other reviewers say, this is indeed an important work and gives us a solid vision of what we might work toward if we wanted a better world.