Mud City Press


Thomas Wharton's


(Random House of Canada, March 2023, 412 pages, Hardcover $35.95, ebook $16.99)

Reviewed by Frank Kaminski

Thomas Wharton's The Book of Rain, a mind-bending eco-science fiction novel that uses cosmic horror to explore humanity's impact on nature, is unfortunately a mixed bag. While it's finely written and has its moments, it ultimately fails to find the right balance between its fantastical elements and its grounded environmental narrative, with the latter often feeling overshadowed by otherworldly phenomena that seem to lack rhyme or reason.

The story takes place in a near-future version of western Canada and centers on a fictional town called River Meadows, which once served as an epicenter for the extraction and production of a fossil fuel-like substance called ghost ore. This ore is vastly more energy-dense than any previously known energy source, and its environmental impacts are equally unprecedented. When emitted into the environment, it unleashes disruptive temporal anomalies known as "decoherences," which severely warp people's perception of reality.

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Many years ago, an accident at an extraction site caused a catastrophic ghost ore release, leading to widespread environmental devastation. As with Chernobyl, the threat was invisible, silent and odorless, making it difficult for people to perceive the extent of the danger, and the authorities were slow to acknowledge the severity of the situation and provide information to the public. Just like Pripyat, the city was abandoned, its residents reluctantly leaving with the mistaken belief that they would one day be coming back. Also like Pripyat, it became a haunting, uninhabitable wasteland surrounded by warning signs and barricades and encased in an eerie silence.

Inside the exclusion zone, the effects of ghost ore contamination take many forms. Some people get caught in stasis fields in which time ceases to pass; they appear frozen in time to those around them. Others experience less severe symptoms, and it's unclear whether they're experiencing time distortions or central nervous system effects. In areas with the highest contamination levels, people have reported visitations by roaming entities or apparitions called Visitors, who can be warded off through strategic placement of mirrors.

The story opens with artist and board game designer Alex Hewitt preparing to venture into the exclusion zone on a mission to find his missing sister, Amery. The two grew up in River Meadows during its ghost ore mining heyday and left when it was evacuated. Amery remained inextricably tied to the area out of concern for all the non-human species that didn't have the option of leaving. She has returned to the exclusion zone countless times as an adult in an effort to help preserve its wildlife. Though her family has grown used to not hearing from her for long periods, she's never gone silent for this long.

Alex begins his search for Amery by talking with her friend Michio Amano, a university mathematician who has gone into the exclusion zone many times with her to help save trapped and injured animals. He tells Alex the police will be of no use. They'll take down a missing person's report but won't go inside the forbidden zone to look for her, and will arrest anyone they catch doing so. Michio initially refuses to go with Alex into the exclusion zone but later agrees to accompany him.

Alex and Michio's search for Amery is interwoven with the story of a woman named Claire Foley. Claire is the antithesis of Amery. Like Amery, she grew up in River Meadows, lived through more than her fair share of decoherences and was forever changed by them; but unlike Amery, she responded by going into the business not of saving animals, but of harming them and contributing to their extinction. She's involved in trafficking illicit animal products, and, as a cover for her smuggling activities, she works as a travel guide author, her research trips around the world doubling as smuggling operations. She and Amery are thus both engaged in illegal activities involving endangered animals, but with disparate motives and ecological impacts.

The novel's third and final story thread takes the form of an epic poem set many years in the future and translated into English from "the Uttering," a language apparently spoken by all non-human animals. It tells of an alliance forged between two humans and a community of birds in order to undertake a dangerous mission for the greater good. It's an intriguing mix of science fiction, magic realism and heroic verse that gives satisfying closure to some important loose ends from the other two threads.

In a series of flashbacks, Wharton describes what River Meadows was like during its time as a ghost ore boomtown. These descriptions evoke powerful imagery of the real-life horrors of tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada (River Meadows clearly being modeled largely on Fort McMurray), as well as fracking in the United States.

The parallels with real-life tar sands extraction processes are especially striking. There are the dump trucks with wheels twice as tall as a man and payload capacities of up to 400 tons. There are the vast tailings ponds that trap and kill thousands of hapless ducks, geese and other animals that mistake them for natural wetlands. There are the interminable scars on a once-pristine boreal landscape–a "vast hallowing of dark, churned clay dotted with oily-looking pools," to quote Wharton.

For me, the novel's most poignant theme is that in harming our fellow animals, we harm ourselves. On that note, those who are sensitive to depictions of harm to animals should be aware that this book contains a number of them. Still, they're never presented gratuitously; they always serve to make meaningful points about the fallout from such actions on both the natural world and the consciences of those doing the harm. A case in point is Wharton's account of the killing of the last confirmed pair of great auks–and the smashing of their lone egg–by three men on Eldey Island in 1844. It's a brutal scene, but a powerful one.

The novel is most effective for me during scenes like this, and I think much of the inexplicable weirdness of the decoherences could have been jettisoned in favor of more of this type of realism. It's the most revealing stuff in the book, but it often feels needlessly obscured by weirdness for its own sake.


If you enjoyed this review, you might find Blake College an engaging read.

A Novel