Devolution of a Species
There was a cultural moment in the late 1980s and throughout the 19902 were a rash of epidemic literature sprung up. Fear of contagious diseases such as Ebola and the ongoing anxiety surrounding AIDS made the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) a prominent setting if not major character in a slew of genre literature by popular fiction authors like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton.
It was during this decade where the zombie film re-emerged becoming a serious style to explore cultural anxieties. It gave us the original comic for The Walking Dead, which has become a juggernaut of a television series over the last decade. Interestingly enough, during the rise of epidemic literature, Hollywood was reviving the disaster film. What makes for the best disasters? Nature. What makes for the best drama? Human hubris. At first, we were given films like Twister but soon discovered it was claptrap like The Day After Tomorrow were what really got under our skin. It took some time, but soon the epidemic and natural disaster subgenres merged creating climate fiction or, as some have unfortunately termed it, cli-fi.
Climate fiction is a relatively new subgenre of science fiction, but we are seeing it increasingly show up in print and screen in both pulp and literary expressions. In literature, climate fiction is nearly always dystopian–a near future, one both familiar and strange, is either enduring dramatic climate change or is one where climate change as reformed geography and, thus, our politics and mundane daily practices. Within such a setting usually a set of protagonists (not so much a singular hero) endure a rising tide (forgive the pun) of chaos attempting to either escape or somehow push back against the world inadvertently created. Like nearly all dramatic fiction, we are not so much reading the standard ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘someone goes on a journey’ story but rather pure fight or flight.
All of this is a preamble to understanding how to situate M.E. Ellington’s Devolution of a Species. This science fiction novel is most certainly climate fiction. It is a mix of the subgenres mentioned above with just enough globe hopping and mystery to be considered a thriller. In Ellington’s world, the United Nation’s World Health Organization holds vast sway and is at the crux of a disease sweeping the planet but also being swept under the rug. Enter our protagonist, scientist Joceline Mercier, who pursues the mystery of the disease with an inspiring determination. Mercier is pitted not just against the outbreak but also against a bureaucracy wanting easy answers and a wider political machine trying to maintain the status quo. Ellington also does an astute enough job weaving the social media projection of his rogue journalist and her presence in the prose; she is a driving character who stands in for many readers as their contrarian avatar.
And what is the disease? It is humanity itself. In Devolution of a Species, we are reading the events of our planet striking out against our species. Air born and occurring simultaneously in deepest Africa and America, a pathogen is triggering Neanderthal DNA in us all but mutating it causing what were once ordinary people to transform in to hulking, rage filled hominids reminiscent of classic cave dwellers only vicious. Our hubris and willful ignorance to the damage we are doing to ecosystems across the globe is turned around in this novel leaving humanity to reap what it has sown.
Ellington’s novel is at once chilling and entertaining. It will engage readers who are looking for a fresh kind of thriller–one that is political, social, and speculative.