Sometimes real-world problems are best explained through fiction. BBC Radio Four must have had this in mind when they gave Cynan Jones the green light to write the tense, stark, and beautifully paced connecting stories in “Stillicide,” which describe a future Earth on which water has become an increasingly precious commodity. Perhaps because they were originally written for radio, the brief stories wash over you, not being particularly plot-heavy, but they also leave an intense sting in their wake, brought by a sense of aloneness and uncertainty about the future.
The landscape of “Stillicide” encourages a powerful sense of isolation. Its broad expanses are crossed constantly by a Water Train, which carries 10 million gallons of water from place to place at 200 miles an hour — a secure way for the government to supply liquid in the face of potential sabotage or theft. The preciousness of water, and the pressure its deprivation places on the book’s characters, is both the book’s only subject and not addressed directly at all. Nevertheless, it colors everything we see. Little words like “soilets” (a new kind of toilet that uses soil instead of water, we assume) or “alcowash” creep in, letting us know that daily habits have changed; elsewhere, we learn that air travel has stopped. Everything that takes place here occurs in the shadow of advanced climate change, amassing cosmic weight.
Jones presents his narratives in short bursts of prose, accumulating like drops of water. If you weren’t reading too carefully, and saw the short paragraphs falling down the page, you might think he was applying the by-now-common fragmentation technique to create a grander image or scenario in the reader’s mind, but in fact the brief paragraphs serve mainly to move the events described ahead faster.
Calling these stories narratives is a stretch — they more closely resemble portrayals of psychological positions, places the characters have ended up. The overarching story of the book, which Jones tells at both the beginning and the end in slightly different contexts, is that of Branner, a military worker whose wife is dying; he must make a choice between staying with her in her final struggles and going to work. In this case, work means protecting the Water Train from being blown up.
Having chosen work, Branner has a Hamlet-esque moment. Armed soldiers on the train have spotted a human figure on their radar and want to know whether to shoot at it as a potential saboteur; Branner ponders turning off the warning light he wears and offering himself to the gunmen. The mood for the book has been set. And when we come back to the same story at the book’s end, the mortality at its heart comes to represent the mortality of the human species.
In between, the glimpses we get into people’s lives are both quiet and stressful. An early story takes us through the weaving thoughts of a biologist who has discovered an endangered species near a construction site; another details a mother’s concerns about what to tell her growing son about the way the world has changed. The stories also step away from the personal and address the political conflict over water ownership. Corporations want to privatize water by means of an Ice Dock in the center of a major city; activists are trying to destroy the project because it will force people living near the Dock to move. The water will come from a gigantic iceberg, a type of water formation treated with near-mystical reverence throughout the book. When we first encounter an iceberg up close, Jones describes its capture as if he were describing hunters at work, capturing a whale: “When the second harpoon hit, thumping its flank a second later, it seemed to groan somewhere deep within itself. A contained sound of suffering such that it was impossible not to believe the thing understood. That it was young and had a sense of the freedom and scale before it, and that this was now done.”
Despite the starkness defining the book’s general mood, it also contains lush and engaging poetry in its sentences. The Water Train is described thus: “There is only early morning light. Then the Water Train passes. Different. A weight of sound. The sound of a great waterfall crashing into a pool.” Even at its most lyrical, the book maintains its link to sincerity. And yet: the beauty of these stories is that they could never be called preachy. They draw us in, not because they are grabbing for our emotions but because, along with many other qualities, they carry the blast of truth.
Max Winter is a writer, editor, and occasional illustrator, the author of “The Pictures” and “Walking Among Them.”
by Cynan Jones
Catapult, 176 pages, $15.95