Corvus, by Harold Johnson. Pub 2015
This book was a recommendation from a good and old friend. Harold Johnson was an Indigenous writer and former lawyer from Northern Saskatchewan, and his novels reflect that experience and location. This novel incorporates some sci-fi technology that is likely not that far-fetched, and presents yet another dystopian world, albeit more as a prediction than as a warning or parable.
Corvus here refers to the raven, a character and theme that appears throughout the novel. Set in the beginning in the year 2084, there have been a series of cataclysms (climate change, wars, social upheaval) that have led to the development of a megacity on the northern shore of a northern lake. Food, water, and most consumer goods are no longer made from natural products but produced/manufactured/synthesized. Most inhabitants are dependent upon a hyper-connected digital platform that runs almost everything in their life, with most people having a microchip implanted in them to run the platforms and serve as their official identification (hello, social credit system). Alongside that digital network, the characters come to recognize the natural network – the connections that run through nature and the environment linking the trees, water, animals, and humans.
There are several main characters – George, a crown prosecutor; Lenore, another crown prosecutor; and Richard, a defendant that Lenore stays charges against, and then proceeds to have a kind-of-but-not-really affair with. All three are veterans of the Second Intranational War (involving the Southern US and Central America in a fight over water). George and Lenore live in the main city, connected to the Net as part of their lives and jobs. Richard is not connected, living on an ashram outside the city, but visiting occasionally for supplies and to attend protests against all of the above. There are a bunch of coincidental interactions between all the characters that move the story along, and over the course of a dozen or so years they experience both the digital and natural world.
The central character seems to be George. Early in the novel, he purchases something called an organic recreational vehicle (ORV) – a suit genetically engineered from an animal but powered by digital technology – that he can wear that allows him to fly like a bird. In his case, the bird is a raven – hence the prevalence of that bird throughout. On one of his first flights, he is swept up by a storm and transported hundreds of kilometres into the mountains, where he’s rescued by an Indigenous community that lives off the land. At the same time, there is a catastrophic disruption of the Net that traps Lenore on the ashram with Richard. From these pivotal encounters, the rest of the story emerges.
The actual narratives are choppy and hard to follow in places, sometimes staying tediously in the day-to-day, getting caught up in a side story about a neighbourhood or relationship, and then suddenly leaping ahead a few years. There are several long passages that come from other novels and stories, including Nineteen Eighty-Four and a fictional philosophy book (Virgil’s Little Book on Virginity, which includes “Only a mind in constant virginity can learn”, a theme that repeats as requiring people to be open to new and old ideas) and these further distract from the story. Social commentary – including racism, classism, justice, the environment, GMOs, manufactured viruses, technology, climate change – appears left and right in the novel, which while prescient and interesting is distracting from the story. There are lots of scary and crummy things in today’s world, and to try and cram them all into a novel that is not very long makes for a bit of a mess. And in the end, several of the stories feel unresolved, as the mythical raven appears to give up on mankind and flies away. I know how he feels.
The world that is created in the story is interesting, and could have withstood more detail and engagement, with less philosophical and editorial digressions. What I found most intriguing was the somewhat uncanny link to other books I’ve read recently and some that are currently in progress. It seems I have my own themes emerging this year.
Fate: charity shop.