Climate fiction – or Cli Fi – is a relatively new, if depressingly necessary, literary genre. Journalist and climate activist Dan Bloom coined the term around 2007 or 2008. Most Cli Fi tends to have a dystopian science-fiction hue.
Tim Jones’ Emergency Weather, is Cli Fi, but a thriller. It’s still apocalyptic, but more like a scaled-down version of the disaster movies of the 1970s. It probably deserves a prize for being one of the least boring novels set in Wellington in the last 20 years. At times, though, the novel seems unsure whether it wants to be a thriller or some kind of polemical allegory.
Jones is a climate change activist, a poet, and author of a previous Cli Fi novel, also from Cuba Press, Where We Land (2019). This is, therefore, familiar territory. The poet is in evidence in the wonderful efficiency and articulation of language in pinning down very relatable experiences. For example:
They’d both had enough of the endless calls, the hold music, the chirpy voices informing them every minute that the call would be recorded for training purposes. They’d both got used to the scramble to pay attention when a voice with recognisably human contours finally said something a little less pre-programmed; the hope that something might change this time and the frustration and disappointment when it didn’t.
Jones’ prose clips along with the pleasing rhythm of someone with an ear, and Emergency Weather may be read and thoroughly enjoyed on the quality of the prose alone.
However, suspension of disbelief is an issue with the novel’s three main characters. There’s Allie the farmer’s wife on her drought- and debt-riddled Otago dairy farm. Her husband, after his arrest for punching the bank manager (neither as funny or cathartic as it sounds), kills himself (between chapters and off-stage), and she’s off to Wellington to sort things out.
Zeke is an alienated Māori boy on the cusp of manhood, nearly killed when his solo mother’s house is destroyed in an East Coast landslide, and sent to live with whanau in Lower Hutt who won’t let him indulge his passion for computer games. He falls in with a young, bougie Pākehā woman with a penchant for performative activism.
Rounding out the trio is Stephane, gay, facing down a midlife crisis, a troubled bureaucrat who is the ignored environmental advisor to the Minister of Resilience. Said Minister is also Allie’s brother-in-law. Jones’ characters are engaging individuals, and their dialogue and interior thoughts are well-written, but they are clearly meant to stand in for other communities in Aotearoa and can feel generic.
The fourth main character is Wellington itself. Wellington’s a funny place, a small town with big city aggro and the tendency for some Wellingtonians to confuse address, favourite cafe and job with a personality. This is a Wellington novel without being one of those Wellington novels. Jones unpretentiously charms me into liking the capital again:
They were obeying the Minister’s exhortation, eating dinner on their deck in the last of the evening light. They had Miranda’s excellent stir-fry, a bottle of wine on the little table between them, kākā squawking overhead as they flew homeward for the night, pīwakawaka swooping for insects above the compost bins: Wellington at its very best, a balm to soothe the ills of the day.
This is, of course, before the storm…
Stephane’s character may feel like a tired trope – the Cassandra, the ignored expert – but at least Jones, an environmental activist familiar with Wellington’s Beltway, clearly understands how her life is supposed to work. She seems to be the character standing in for him, as this marvellous and accurate description of the interior of the Beehive as a sort of Lovecraftian nightmare suggests:
A place where all angles were unnerving, a labyrinth where monsters lurked down each strangely shaped corridor, where only initiates could find their way from A to B, while the rest were transported from A to Q or X, or never heard from again. A place that preserved in its décor that especial shade of brown that characterised the seventies just as surely as pink and grey said shoulder pads, big hair and privatisation. A place where ghosts lingered under harsh fluorescent light, their faint crackle drifting down corridors that still smelled of bad whisky and snap elections.
One can almost hear the slow, staccato cackle of a certain late, unlamented Prime Minister from the shadows. Again, brilliant prose.
The didactic point of framing the plot around these specific characters is that through this troika we are meant to understand that while South Island farmers, disenfranchised Māori youth, and jaded bureau-technocrats are all mutually suspicious and blame each other for their problems, they are all still human and ultimately must face the bigger threat of climate change together. It’s not subtle, but it’s fine.
The setup must get everyone together in Wellington for the denouement, the arrival of a once-in-several-centuries superstorm that threatens to devastate the capital before an earthquake even gets a look in. Ironically, Wellington probably knows how to respond to an earthquake. A superstorm, not so much.
Emergency Weather is paced well, if a little predictable and predetermined. You just have to sit back and let it play out to the logical conclusion. While the plot takes a certain amount of finessing to work, it carries the reader along enjoyably enough, briefly lulling here and there when Jones has to insert some exposition to shock it back into life. The stylish descriptive observation is the standout – always on point and clever in the best way.
For all the pacey dialogue and surgical observation, however, there is little sense that any of these characters had any real existence prior to their necessity in events. Their biographies are, for the most part, ciphers loosely sketched out in stereotypes, subaltern to the message that climate change is bad. At times this feels, to paraphrase Bilbo Baggins, like not enough characterisation and narrative butter scraped over too much doom-scrolling bread.
The plot does everything one would expect of a thriller, with all the prerequisite dangers, cliff-hangers, violence and destruction needed for the genre. It would make a good beach read, if a little uncomfortably close to home, or a very workable screenplay. High literary art, it’s not. Fortunately it doesn’t need to be.