About a third of the way through Cynan Jones' new novel, a character ruminates on a new word he has encountered: "Stillicide," he muses. "Water falling in drops." The Welsh author's book of the same title plays out in a near-future Britain that has been ravaged by a series of climate catastrophes. Water does fall in drops but there simply isn't enough to go around. An escalating crisis, a desperate countermeasure to keep it in check, and the impact of both on a range of interconnected individuals form the basis of a taut and timely cautionary tale.
Jones' setting is an unnamed city in a state of emergency. A drastic water shortage has resulted in terrorists bombing vital overground pipelines. Now they have started attacking the Water Train, which transports 10 million gallons to the metropolis. An alternative relief plan has been devised, one that is safer but more ambitious: An iceberg will be towed all the way from the Arctic to the "Ice Dock" in the center of town, thus providing a plentiful source of water. Agricultural land can be irrigated, a collective thirst can be slaked.
But not everyone is enamored of the project, for the construction of the dock will involve razing houses and destroying communities. Many displaced families will be shunted into makeshift homes built from decommissioned shipping containers. Unsurprisingly, protesters are out in force. Authorities are in the line of fire. And the Water Train is still a moving target for vigilantes and eco-warriors. Can the beleaguered city survive against the twin threats of natural disaster and civil unrest?
"Stillicide" is composed of a medley of diverse viewpoints. Each chapter is devoted to a different character. Some people reappear, others pop up once then slope off after saying their thing and making an impression. We meet a government official, a worker on the Ice Dock, a journalist asking difficult questions, a nurse on the verge of an affair, and a mother and daughter whose house is about to be knocked down. The character allotted the most page-time is Branner, one of the marksmen tasked with safeguarding the Water Train. In episodes that manage to be tense and moving, Jones shows him trying to do his job and shoot suspects while processing the news that his wife is dying.
As with his previous books, Jones' prose is stark and brittle when conveying violence, cruelty, and hard truths, but also lush and lyrical when the natural world intrudes ("The breakers of the outgoing tide smushed and drew"). New concepts authenticate the dystopia — soilmen, alittlements, immunotabs, accommopods — and short, spaced-out paragraphs heighten the drama. But for all the imaginative leaps and formal risks, Jones never loses sight of the human element.
This novel presents a bleak new world and depicts a frantic attempt at damage limitation. It's a terrifying vision but a captivating read.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Cynan Jones.
Publisher: Catapult, 176 pages, $15.95.