Posted by: Jeff | July 12, 2010

Far North, by Marcel Theroux

Far NorthFar North by Marcel Theroux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A cautionary tale about global warming’s effect on the near future, this is an interesting book with some surprising reveals along the way. Not highly suspenseful, but it does keep you reading.  I picked it up on an impulse while at Barnes and Noble last week – it promised to be one of the first thoughtful examinations of the effect of global warming on our future humanity.  Climate change turns out to be more of a tangential issue in the book – there certainly isn’t much space devoted to its actual occurrence, but it is easy to imagine that the world the protagonist inhabits is as bleak and bare as it is due to some horrific climatic shift.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn only that the dystopian world that Makepeace Hatfield wakes up to find is the result not of a nuclear holocaust or disease pandemic, but changing growing seasons and food scarcity, which prompt violent human reactions. Mass migration quickly leads to a refugee crisis of epic proportions. Natives of the Far North come into conflict with hordes of ungrateful newcomers, and soon war, disease, and starvation become ways of life.  Individual towns and settlements collapse under the burden of mistrust and suspicion.  Out of the chaos, entrepreneurial slave traders establish a lucrative business wrangling unfortunate souls across the tundra to remnants of industrial centers further south.

Makepeace leaves home to search for a civilization believed to still exist, but this is where Makepeace eventually ends up – an industrial center carved out of the ruins of an old military base, where a hard but fair commandant rewards individual slaves for years of good labor by granting small rewards. For Makepeace, this means a chance to avoid the fields and tend a small garden instead; eventually, this also means the chance to become a warden. For others, it means getting the recognition to be sent to “The Zone” – a mysterious area thousands of kilometer from base where slaves believe they will be reintegrated into society in a large industrial town.

The truth about The Zone is, of course, far more terrible than this, and forces Makepeace to make difficult decisions about the future. Ultimately, Makepeace chooses a path that leads back to the base, where an even more horrible discovery awaits – a discovery that holds the key to unlocking a tragic secret from Makepeace’s past.

Overall, this is a well-developed book that features a compelling protagonist in a post-human world.  To some extent, the book draws upon obvious parallels with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  But to be fair to Theroux, there is more depth of character here, and the revelations about Makepeace’s life and world come with some surprise.  More context about the world around our hero would be nice, as it is nearly all given either on the dust jacket or in the form of a campfire story three quarters of the way through the book.  While Makepeace is interesting and compelling, the rest of the world isn’t always so.  The book itself seems riddled with minor typographical errors, though the prose overall is simple and descriptive.  For the self-billed first great novel about global warming, it seems a gamble by Theroux to focus on an individual character, but the strength of Makepeace makes this novel a compelling read even without the greater social or scientific context.

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