Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Brief Review: Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman

The two central characters in Ned Beauman's dark comedy are, broadly, personifications of the commonest reactions to the great thinning of the world's ecosystems: grief and anger. Emotions which in this case are generated by the accidental destruction of what may have been the last breeding grounds of a 'bumpy and greyish fish' that's obscure and distinctly uncharismatic, but also the second most-intelligent species on the planet.

Karin Resaint, the animal cognitive specialist who was studying the venomous lumpsucker, experiences a kind of existential collapse; Mark Halyard, who works for the extinction industry which commodifies endangered species, is furious not because of the loss, but because it threatens to ruin him over an unwise bet he made with company money. The two of them form an uneasy odd-couple relationship as for very different reasons they try to track down rumours of surviving populations of the lumpsucker. Their search spans the collapsing ecosystems of the Baltic and the North Sea, a pirate nation plagued by a rapture of gnats, and the self-willed isolation of the Hermit Kingdom (whose refusal of the outside world and enthrallment to an imaginary past is all too recognisable), and uncovers the machineries of a grandiose scheme in which the lumpsucker was an accidental casualty.

Although nominally an author at the literary end of the spectrum (he was selected as one of Granta's best young British novelists in 2013; his second novel was long-listed for the Man Booker prize), Beauman hasn't been shy in listing in genre influences; the deep-grained noirish cynicism of Venomous Lumpsucker reminds me of Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's satires of American mid-twentieth century hyperconsumerism, The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law, and there's a truly science-fictional twist to this densely realised ecothriller. Combining high-end farce with an acerbic portrayal of a world in which technology fails in various terrible ways to counter the effects of uncontrolled plundering of finite natural resources, it's unsparing in its deconstruction of global capitalism and the fallibility of well-intentioned attempts to preserve the myriad species that knit together the world's ecosystems, and pivots on an urgently topical question. We're a clever species, noble in reason, infinite in faculties and so forth, but are we clever enough to save the world from the worst of our nature?


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