Land of Extinction
The many delights of Ned Beauman’s ‘Venomous Lumpsucker’
Though “Venomous Lumpsucker” is named for a species of fish around which the plot is ingeniously arranged, it could equally well apply to the attitude of its darkly hilarious author. Ned Beauman’s new wry cli-fi novel swims through the Baltic and the North Sea uncovering new and emerging details of how governments and capitalism systemically entwine. Though describing a future where thousands of animals go extinct every year, it’s a satire on the current state of our formalized systems of carelessly destructive greed.
While the novel speculates about the meaning of climate change as it relates to human action — “[t]he murder of animals was an enormous collaborative project, perhaps the fundamental human project” — it is mostly an excoriating account of human corruption and venality recounted with bitter, laugh-out-loud wit, as we might expect from the author of “The Teleportation Incident” and “Boxer, Beetle.”
In Beauman’s late 21st century, people trade “extinction credits” rather like carbon credits — and with similarly disastrous environmental consequences. Though the stated intention of the international agreement that set up the credits was to create a financial framework that encouraged business to preserve endangered species, mostly what it achieved was the creation of a thriving futures market and a set of incentives for countries and organizations to maximize their initial allocation of those credits while minimizing the ongoing costs of destroying species and genera.
We follow the adventures of Mark Halyard, who is a particularly soulless “extinction industry c***,” as he tries to stay one step ahead of the consequences of an illegal financial scheme he has set in motion. Despite being a well compensated salaryman, he needs the extra money because he is a gourmand in an era where food with flavor is remarkably rare and expensive.
Halyard joins forces with Karin Resaint, an intelligence certification consultant who has been studying the endangered venomous lumpsucker on a small, isolated boat in the middle of the Baltic Sea for months. Resaint’s conclusion that the lumpsucker is, in fact, intelligent, will be a blow to the bottom line of Halyard’s department. Though Resaint’s own intelligence is not in doubt, she has such a detached attitude toward human beings that when Halyard rhetorically asks whether she is autistic she actually answers to say that many people have asked and that, in fact, she is not.
The mordant wit of the narrative provides the human extinction version of gallows humor. There is a distinction between Resaint’s attitude to humanity and the narrator’s but not much. It’s not difficult to imagine Beauman reworking this description of Resaint from an event in his own life: “A boyfriend of Resaint’s had once joked, not entirely fondly, that she would be happiest in some kind of high-security lock-up, one hour of human contact a day and otherwise left to her own devices.”
Halyard and Resaint come together uneasily but, by virtue of lowering their expectations of each other, they reach some sort of comfort with each other. Halyard, after considering and rejecting making a pass at Resaint, likens their relationship to a sort of sibling ease — though it does transpire, in a Beaumanian twist, that his own sister died of suicide.
The two occupy antagonistic positions with respect to the extinction project. In response to Resaint’s question about whether Halyard cares about the 10,000 species that go extinct every year, he says, “Christ, you people never stop talking about your ten thousand a year, it’s like being in f***ing Jane Austen.”
In a supreme display of satire, the arrayed governments, industrial corporations, eccentric billionaires, rogue politicians or employees of conscience all act in their own short-sighted interests. There is no effective regulatory superego able to organize these competing egos away from their own inevitable destruction. Ever more cunning systems of self-harm are surely dooming 10,000 years of human civilization.
Beauman is British and that affects both the tone and the perspective in a book where the characters explicitly treat the very name of the United States as if it were Voldemort, leaving it unspoken and unmentioned. There is a special place of loving contempt for Britain in its role as The Hermit Kingdom – a poverty-stricken, incompetent, isolated post-Brexit country. The context of “Venomous Lumpsucker” is likewise, Eurocentric, including significant Indian influences on geopolitics, as well as those from other Asian countries.
But, in contradistinction to earnest writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Sarah Blake or even the more rollicking Neal Stephenson, there is an arch, pox-on-both-your-houses, tone to Beauman that is unusual in American fiction. The narrative perspective resembles that of Resaint, attempting to review a species for signs of intelligence, but it also resembles that of an AI which is also reviewing and studying the global system for signs of intelligence and danger. Unlike the reactive Resaint, the AI rips up a set of vital computer archives before acting as a Noah’s ark for what it estimates will be a period of 12 million years until the Earth recovers from the human stain. The AI’s early dialogue is naive and earnest, but perhaps over millions of years, the AI’s humor, like Beauman’s, might become more trenchant.