Used so many times, it’s even got an abbreviation: post-ap. Such is the dearth of near-future, civilization-destroyed, human-survival-in-extreme-circumstances, stories. The market is saturated, pure and simple. What to do then, to help yourself stick out from the crowd? For his 2015 novel Clade, James Bradley went with a two-pronged attack. Right prong: put real people at the center of your story (as opposed, for example, to the oft-tried but ne’er achieved relevancy of zombies) and left prong: use a non-standard story structure.
The result is an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel more in the vein of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven than anything calling itself Night of the Living Dead. Technically a saga (thankfully lacking the melodrama), Clade starts with an Australian scientist and his artist wife as Earth is just tipping over the edge of major environmental change, and wades in (no pun intended) as their children and grandchildren eventually deal with ever worsening conditions—flooding, drought, famine, disease, heat waves, and resource deprivation among them.
Though the opportunity is there, Bradley never takes Clade in the direction of cheap entertainment. The focus the people living through the change, their conversations, details of home life, relationships, and interaction form the lion’s share of the narrative, a handful of dramatic scenes buoying matters along. Each subsequent chapter told from a different character’s point of view, no two are repeated, giving the reader a parade of differing perspectives to environmental collapse as it evolves. In terms of structure complementing theme, this approach is the most successful aspect of the novel.
The human elements of Clade are not, however, always convincing. While a step above most core science fiction novels, they still lack the verisimilitude necessary to the live and breathe on the page as, for example, done by Anthony Doerr. Conversation at times a touch formulaic while others representative, the book has moments poignant and awareness-creating, and others a bit drab and recycled. The settings, while less important to the stories, likewise exhibit the same tendencies. At only 190 pages, Bradley had room to expand, to flesh out the individual scenes with another, deeper level of relevant, realistic detail. But he chose not to, and as a result many scenes lack the gravity they seem to need to have impact desired. In one scene, for example, a mother and son are reunited after many years apart, yet the conversation that occurs is flat, almost lifeless. It needn’t be a daytime tv affair, but more seems required to get the subtleties right.
The closing couple of chapters are likewise something to take issue with—proverbial wrenches in the works. One introduces an element that throws off the mood of the novel. While I understand Bradley was using SETI research in an attempt to say something to the effect “Who knows that the future holds?”, it nevertheless draws attention away from the main themes and the plight of the associated characters. The second wrench is one more meta to the novel, namely how the mythopoeic tone is capstoned in the final chapter. The novel opening on something of a "And this is how things were..." type of mood, the reader is led to believe they are being given a bird’s eye view into a future history. And Bradley is at least consistent throughout the novel with this tone. The conclusion, however, puts an end to the linear movement and makes it cyclical, and as a result, the novel becomes a lot more cliché.
Clade is, if the note on which it concludes is taken as one of its main messages, a conciliatory rather than unconsenting novel. That its overwhelming bulk is about describing the human impact due to environmental and meteorological change is not enough to change this. What seemed a cautionary tale becomes a bow of acceptance in the final paragraph. This is not to say every novel need be a fist in the air in the face of corporate greed or environmental degradation, rather that Bradley takes a turn in the final chapter in such a way as to uninspire rather than inspire—more Mircea Eliade than Che Guevara, more Oswald Spengler than Rachel Carson.
In the end, the reader can and should fully appreciate that with Clade, Bradley is attempting to tell a post-apocalyptic story in humane rather than cheap fashion. Where so much of said market is dominated by fluffy, commercial entertainment, Bradley looks to the people living the potential experience of global environmental catastrophe, and attempts to put them, their children, and the other loved ones around them in the spotlight as they cope and adapt. The complementary structure the most successful aspect of the novel, the reader gets an extended taste of what the effects might be and feel like through a couple generations of a family. But there are gaps, namely the lack of replete verisimilitude to character representation, not to mention the relatively trite ending. Certainly Bradley could have made it more maudlin (there are innumerable other examples) but as things stand, it still feels a little too sweet, a little too rounded, not to mention the implications of what will come. And the SETI moment, well… Looking at the larger field, I daresay John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora remain stronger novels in terms of drawing attention to the relationship humanity has with an Earth environment in flux.