Sea Change by Nancy Kress (book review).

In the not-too-distant future, the world is looking rather fragile following an economic crash, rising sea levels and massive food shortages that have followed on from a backlash against genetically modified organisms.

Idealistic young campaigner-for-anything Renata Black lives through the momentous upheavals in society, seen via flashbacks, and becomes a member of the Org, a subversive organisation dedicated to developing genetically modified foods to solve the world’s food shortages. She also works as a paralegal when not engaged in sneaking around delivering messages, thus creating an interesting diversity of situations that mesh together into an intriguing whole.

This is a relatively short book, a novella rather than novel, the kind of length of book that can be tricky to develop more than a single storyline with sufficient depth to make it engaging. Nancy Kress carries it off, though, giving us a sympathetic character and a fascinating background that is eerily familiar. The Org is a complex and widespread organisation, one assumes, but the scope of the book is limited by the in-built compartmentalisation and deniability of the set-up.

Renata knows very little of what else is transpiring outside her own cell and the limited contacts she makes as a courier. For a while, the book had the fascinating feel of Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Fractured Europe’ series, but it soon veers away from complex layers of subterfuge to highlight instead the mundane nature of the Org’s day-to-day concerns.

I had a certain amount of sympathy for the Org’s fight against ignorance and the backlash of the public against GMOs. They are working on new strains that would help feed the starving masses but they are viewed as terrorists endangering the natural order of things. I don’t know much about GMOs and therefore how valid or invalid any of the characters’ opinions on the subject are but, I know from my own, entirely unrelated area of work that the public would rather believe hysterical propaganda than listen to facts.

In Renata’s real-life job as a paralegal, she works with the Quinault Nation, representing Native American tribal members who are victims or perpetrators of crime. Although this aspect of the story involves relatively little interaction, it offers another varied viewpoint on the natural world and mankind’s place in it. There’s some explanation of the way the Quinault Independent Nation works and the tensions between tribal law enforcement and the US state and federal agencies. This setting would have formed an intriguing story in itself but, like Renata’s interaction with the Org, it is kept to a tantalising minimum.

There’s a lot to like in this book and the character of Renata has an interesting life, mixing her legal job with the constantly tense background of her work for the Org. The flashbacks to her earlier life and the on-going relationship with her ex-husband provide an added layer of emotion too. In the end, though, I found that I wanted more. The ongoing battle of the Org and the public perception of GMOs was a huge subject and I didn’t feel as though there was enough depth.

Towards the end, the resolution seemed to come too quickly and suddenly the book was over. I guess it’s a fine line between leaving us wanting more and leaving us feeling as though there wasn’t enough. This story is definitely worth a read and maybe Nancy Kress will expand it into a full-length novel or even a trilogy as she has with previous novellas.

Gareth D Jones

December 2019

(pub: Tachyon Publications, 2020. 192 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $15.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61696-331-6)

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