Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sila's Revenge

Jamie Bastedo
Red Deer Press, 2010, 320 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 978-0-8899-5422-9

I begin this review with a disclaimer: I am an avowed environmentalist, and global warming is an issue that concerns me--quite deeply, in fact. I share this information because I want to acknowledge, up front, that I am predisposed to be moved by a novel that takes as its subject the issue of climate change. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sila's Revenge, which to the best of my knowledge represents one of the few young adult novels to have tackled the subject of global warming. Jamie Bastedo blends science and fiction to weave a compelling story that is hard to put down.

The novel opens with an act of vandalism: eighteen-year-old Ashley Anowiak, frustrated by the toll climate change has taken on her small Inuit community, sets fire to a trailer owned by Empire Oil. Although she initially finds satisfaction in watching the structure burn, the act does little to quell her anger. Days later Ashley is struck by lightening, a phenomenon seldom observed in the Arctic prior to climate change, and one that results in her having a vision of her great-grandmother, an individual who is said to have formed an intimate bond with the natural world. When Ashley regains consciousness she discovers that the accident has left her with the ability to hear plants and animals, which tell her of the planet's suffering.

Having been invited to play at Carnegie Hall, Ashley and the other members of her drumming group travel to New York City after she recovers, where they are introduced to Jack Masters, a wealthy executive for Empire Oil, and a figure responsible for assembling a conference on global warming at the United Nations. Interested in Ashley for reasons she does not entirely comprehend, but which are made clear by the novel's conclusion, Masters asks her to speak at the conference, and later invites her and her friends to perform at a massive concert he plans to hold in Australia, his native home, in order to direct attention to the earth's plight. All is not what it seems, however, and Ashley gradually learns that Masters is a fanatical environmentalist whose decision to work for Empire Oil was motivated by his desire to combat reliance on fossil fuels from the inside while at the same time using his position of power and privilege to promote alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. Unable to bring about the kind of change he envisioned, Masters has long since abandoned his idealism. Indeed, he has decided that the only way to rescue the ailing planet is to trigger a catastrophe designed to reduce the human population.

Sila's Revenge is a well-crafted work of science fiction that raises a number of difficult questions, both about global warming and our response (or lack thereof) to it. If the novel has a flaw, it's that supporting characters remain largely underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Ashley and Masters are complex, compelling figures. Though he is ostensibly the novel's villain, Masters is ultimately a sympathetic figure, not least because readers recognize that his cynicism is motivated in part by his inability to save something he cares deeply about. Consumed by a live feed that delivers non-stop updates regarding natural catastrophes around the globe, Masters has long since abandoned hope, and his only remaining response is to lash out at the world in anger. In that regard he is not unlike Ashley, whose decision to burn a trailer owned by Empire Oil was motivated by a similar desire for revenge, and who sees in Masters her potential future self.

In contrast, a small group of Aboriginals who befriend Ashley during her time in Australia, including Master's wife, her brother, and her nephew, serve as symbols of hope in the novel. Like Masters, they also are concerned about the earth's suffering, yet wher
eas he resigned himself to despair, they cling to the belief that salvation is possible if people confront the problem facing them. Her relationship with them in turn leads Ashley to face a self-defining question: is she content to be a destroyer, or will she instead choose to become a creator? At the novel's conclusion, she decides that she would rather solve problems than give in to despair. The resulting message is not lost on readers--like Ashley, we, too, have the potential to act as agents for change. The question is whether or not we are willing to do so.

One of the reasons Bastedo's novel resonated so strongly with me is because I understand the anger that Ashley and-- to a lesser extent--Masters feel. Like the feed Masters follows throughout the novel, the media bombards us with information about catastrophes, natural and man-made alike, and we repeatedly hear dire warnings from scientists who caution about the perils of allowing global warming to go unchecked. Despite this, governments refuse to act, and public opinion polls show that a growing percentage of Americans are less concerned about the problem of global warming than they were two years ago. Faced with this reality, it is easy to grow angry, throw one's hands in the air, and give in to despair. It's much more difficult to find the strength needed to fight for change, which is precisely why the message that Bastedo delivers in his novel is both timely and important.

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