Book Review : The Past is Red

Given the two years of Covid, and the trailing toxic cloud of the Trump administration (which, like it or not, affects the whole world, despite America’s insular cluture), you’d think we’d want to avoid the climate catastrophe in fiction. Certainly, reading apocalyptic visions of the near future was not on my to-do list, since it feels like I could look out the window for that.

But I trust Catherynne Valente. I’ve read “The Girl who circumnavigated Fairyland in a boat of her own design” and liked it. She’s well-respected by authors whom I respect. And also, that cover was a real draw.

It’s a short book, narrated by the main character, Tetley, who lives on what was the great Garbage Patch in the middle of the ocean. The survivors of the rising waters landed on the garbage patch and sorted the garbage into different lands, then made homes there.

Tetley is an unreliable narrator, but always sets the record straight eventually. As the cover reveals, her voice is remarkably upbeat, given her situation as a hated outcast among her own people.

I’m not going to go into detail about the plot, because it’s twisty, and told non-chronologically, and I don’t want to inadvertantly give away important points. But it’s a gripping story – not in a run-for-your-life-there-are-wolves way (though there IS a tiger), but in a turn-the-page-I-have-to-know-what’s-next way.

I think what really got me was one character expressing my own fears about the future. He bewails the loss of ease. When I think about the problems we have all perpetuated, I worry that my children’s children won’t live a life where water comes from a tap, or electricity is easily accessible. I know that’s not the case for everyone right now, and that inequality is just as unforgivable as the inaction to prevent the catastrophe that we can see approaching. But, like that character says, it’s “soon, but not yet”, and so we have not acted, because to act would cost us some of the ease and convenience we have become accustomed to. We won’t risk that, despite the certainty that it will cost us the earth.

Read the book, folks, it’s really, really good.

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