It’s difficult to write a good novel about environmental activism. Largely, that’s because the environment is what’s called a ‘hyperobject’ – a term coined by Timothy Morton, referring to a system where everything is so interconnected that it’s impossible to know how to start fixing it (the term comes from internet hyperlinks, where one click takes you to another page).
Climate change is a hyperobject: it’s made up of lots of interconnected things, from the planet’s rising temperatures to mass industrial and farming culture, to overpopulation and the destruction of the ozone layer. Try to fix one thing – swap plastic out for bamboo, say – and although you might solve a problem, you might then end up with an industrialist cutting down vast swathes of the rainforest to plant bamboo. Mass migration is a hyperobject, too.
Hyperobjects are difficult ground for novelists, because by definition they can’t be solved – they’re too complicated and vast, and so the only way to ‘fix’ them is to give one person far more power than they could ever realistically possess, like Gerard Butler in Geostorm being able to solve the world’s weather problems by getting to a computer tower. That makes Julia Stoops’ eco-thriller Parts Per Million all the more admirable, because it wades into the knotty issue of environmental activism and still provides a gripping, compelling story about the different ways people approach it.
Parts Per Million tells the story of the Omnia Mundi Group, a Portland-based community who catalogue the direct actions of other environmental activists. There’s Nelson, the most educated of the group, who’s a scholar and part-time cameraman and runs a respected monthly radio show; there’s Fetzer, who’s a Vietnam veteran with a growing waistline and is probably the least tortured of the lot; there’s Jen, the sparky, blunt firebrand who can hack into computer systems and harbours a not-so-secret desire to be more involved with the actions the group are observing. Into this group comes Deirdre, a damaged young woman whose entrance provides a catalyst for some seismic shifts within the group’s relationships, all set against the backdrop of the US invasion of Iraq.
The first thing to say is that it is a very good novel about environmental activism. It’s consistently exciting, with an engaging cast of characters, each of whom reflect a different approach to ecological action. It’s also lent a considerable boost by Julia Stoops’ confession that “every word the characters read in a newspaper or hear on the TV is verbatim from news reports during the fall of 2002 or the winter/spring of 2003”: the novel feels authentic, and sets out a pattern of what readers can do if they want to fix the world around them.
In some ways, the novel takes a smaller canvas than I was expecting when I read the tremendously exciting opening chapter, which is about some activists burning down a holding facility for wild horses. This sets the scene for a story about similar acts of eco-terrorism, something fast-paced and thriller-ish, but instead Stoops swerves away from this opening into a story about a fictional Portland university and its involvement with homeland security. It’s a calculated choice, and one that makes the novel stronger and more emotionally engaging – nevertheless, it may seem surprising that a novel which is so pointedly about the fate of the world functions on such a personal scale.
Julia Stoops writes beautifully, with clean prose and an eye for a striking image. Occasionally the use of dialect is a little much – Deirdre is Irish, and sometimes her accent can become slightly intrusive, and I can see why some people might find Mr Nguyen’s broken English to be a stereotype – but it’s undeniable that every character has a distinctive voice, and there’s a warmth and complexity to each of them. Stoops should also be applauded for making some pretty complex issues comprehensible, without resorting to enormous ‘info dumps’: it very rarely feels like the novel lapses into excessive exposition, and the pace rarely drops.
In the end, though, one of Parts Per Million’s greatest strengths is the way it resists easy solutions. The final chapter is undeniably inspiring, the closest thing that the novel comes to polemic, and it feels like very timely reading in light of some of the Trump administrations recent policies. Nevertheless, the story’s broadly optimistic conclusion doesn’t suggest any ‘catch all’ fix for some of the environmental issues presented, and that’s because this decision arguably rests in the hands of the reader. I got the sense that Julia Stoops wanted to leave me challenged and shaken, willing to go out and do some of the work for myself.
I was really sad to leave the world of Parts Per Million. It was consistently engrossing, and I feel like I’ve left behind a kind of family now that it’s over. I’m sure there’s a hundred other ways that Julia Stoops could have approached the issues laid out here, but when I finished I really couldn’t imagine her telling this story in any other way. It’s an impressive and exciting novel that dares to tackle some highly complex issues, and does it with such confidence as to make it look easy.
Parts Per Million was published by Portland’s Forest Avenue Press in January 2018. You can order a Kindle copy here from Amazon here for £6.95, or a paperback copy for £12.99 – but it’s better to buy direct from Forest Avenue’s store here.
Forest Avenue Press are a really exciting small press with a great catalogue, and you can follow them on Twitter here to find out more about their output. Julia Stoops is also a great resource for information about ecological activism or the world of the novel – follow her here.
Thanks to Forest Avenue Press for providing a free copy of this book for review
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