Book review: “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

This book delivers both on literary depth and the climate change scenario. Diane Cook paints an excruciatingly detailed and dystopian picture of one of many possible futures (you know, one of the kind to be more likely if we don’t act now). I really appreciate that she doesn’t feed into the hopes that technical solutions will make it somehow more bearable (because: so unlikely). Instead, she tells a slow-paced story of humanity’s ongoing crime on nature, of intense group dynamics in a survivalist setting, and a story of mothers and daughters.

What if there was an end written for them already? But she couldn’t ask her mother about all this. It felt overly human. Rationalizing and worrying and preparing.

The New Wilderness

The plot

In a dystopian future, our planet is plagued by climate change and afflicted with the depletion of natural resources up to a point where it can’t sustain and nourish the number of its human inhabitants any longer. Young girl Agnes and her mother Bea join a group of 20 people that are part of an experiment: surviving in the last swath of land that is not mined, exploited, or barren – The Wilderness State. They live as simple hunter-gatherers without contact to the rest of civilization, which is confined to life in overpopulated, smog-ridden metropolises where the young perish first. The story centers on Agnes’ and Bea’s relationship, covering themes like guilt, regret, abandonment, but also independence and coming-of-age in a dystopian, dangerous, unpredictable, and adventurous environment. The inevitable formation of allegiances and power dynamics within the group is another recurring theme that moves the plot forward.

While the exact geographic location is unknown, it is safe to assume that the story takes place in a North American setting, although the landscape has changed dramatically. A faceless and obscure government called The Administration, merely a bureaucratic custodian of the remainder of livelihoods and natural resources that the Earth has left to offer, is running things now. While the survivalists are mostly left to themselves with no tools or amenities of modern society, a catalogue of rules and fines governs their life in The Wilderness. It is enforced by wilfull executors called the rangers, whose allegiance to each new Administration shifts as casually as their uniforms become more and more bizarre.

The experiment is designed to study the effects of humans living in The Wilderness on the ecosystem, supposedly in order to find out if humans are capable of living in nature without destroying it. The freedom they experience is not restricted by the tangible dangers of untamed nature as much as by the rigorous, sometimes arbitrary scrutiny the Rangers exhibit in the name of protecting nature from humans. By forming an instinct-driven map of their own of the lands they move through in their nomadic existence, much like a herd of animals, the group soon discovers that there is something off about the allegedly renaturated land.

The group dynamics, the irritably mysterious and random (dis-)appearances of the Rangers, and the emotionally charged relationship between Bea and Agnes provide for interesting plot twists and developments. It is a bit of a slow burn, but never boring or too long, if you’re into reflective, intense, emotional storytelling.

The role of climate change

Although it takes place in the wilderness, I couldn’t ignore the bleak image of a city of the future that is painted by the book. As someone whose job today is to advocate for healthy, sustainable, resilient cities, this was almost the toughest part to read.

The climate change premise of the book is that the place called ‘the City’ is overpopulated and the rest of the land that is not underwater is used for resources, storing servers, landfills, mining, or poisoned and barren. People in the City live in high-rise buildings that they don’t leave much due to air pollution that causes severe sickness and death, especially in children. Agnes used to be very sick and just a few weeks short of probably succumbing to lung disease before they left the City for the experiment. There is only a handful of trees left in the entire metropolis, and class differences are worsened and manifested in that the better-off part of the population never sees any live animals at all, while the poor put up with rodents that are perceived as competitors for meager resources. Apparently, smog causes breathtaking sunsets, for the unobstructed enjoyment of which some people even risk getting caught breaking the permanent evening curfew.

Life in the Wilderness is pretty much what one would expect it to be: it is dangerous, people die (a lot), and food is only available when the hunters were successful and when everyone is participating in the chores that need to be done in order to keep the community alive. The children who are either too young to remember the city, or who were born in the Wilderness develop an almost animal-like relationship with and understanding of nature, of the inner functioning of the community, and of what it means to be human in a world that offers them no hope for the future.

The novel left me weeping, especially in the end. There was also a sense of not really knowing what to make of it, what to learn from having read it, which is in part due to how it ends. It is also due to what it left me with after alternating between doom and escape by constantly juxtaposing one extreme with the other – life and death, The City and The Wilderness, freedom v. surveillance, love and abandonment. In terms of finding hope and a positive vision for our future in a warming climate, I couldn’t find it. It ended on a small, tentative flicker of hope and warmth, but in that sense was a genuine dystopian climate fiction novel. And that’s what lends authenticity to its vision of a possible future, while being a very fine representative of that genre.

Criticism

There is a lack of diversity, or rather a lack of mentioning of any race other than white within the group of survivalists. Another issue I had while reading was that indigenous people’s legacy on the land comes only as an afterthought. It just doesn’t feel right, although I don’t think it was intentional, as the tools that the survivalists use are reminiscent of indigenous techniques and knowledge. The author mentions having spent some time researching those in an afterword. Still, the group of survivalists could have been more ethnically diverse.

Read this if you like dystopian climate fiction, slow-paced novels, “Parable of The Sower” by Octavia Butler, mother-daughter-dynamics and coming-of-age stories, and if you have a strong stomach.

Trigger warnings: stillbirth, miscarriage, and (infant) death are a recurring theme. I was prepared and was able to read it, but you should be aware that especially stillbirth is not just a casual mention.

I do not receive any compensation for this review. This is a book from my local library.

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