Jones has invented a new vocabulary of things for his dry dystopia: people clean themselves with “alcowash”, consume “immunotabs” and live in “accommopods”. Everything is rationed – even Jones’s prose, which rarely allows for more than a couple of sentences per paragraph. It can be a jarring experience to read, but it seems to suit this world where resources have been depleted and the seas are empty of fish. Less a linear narrative than a layering of images, Stillicide is an exercise in matching literary form to a visual idea: as Cynan Jones’s sparse, clear words accumulate down the page, we are left feeling the chill of a slowly melting iceberg.
As in his 2016 novella Cove, Jones’s writing style is wonderfully pared back and impressionistic, and he has a knack for deploying staccato sentences and one-line paragraphs at moments of maximum drama to give the sense of time slowing down.
Stillicide might not be quite as detached as the Dark Mountain Manifesto would seem to require – at its core it is really a love story – but a more powerful parable about the dangers of super-intelligent apes constructing “sophisticated myths of their own importance” is hard to imagine.
With recent novels from Megan Hunter, Jenni Fagan, Richard Powers, Ben Smith, John Lanchester and Ghosh himself working hard to imagine the effects of climate crisis at both the global and the personal level, Stillicide can be added to the growing roster of powerful and urgent meditations on the future. As a tract of written language, it is close to perfect. As a repository for ideas, it is imaginative and far reaching. As a story of and for our times, it is very human, and deadly serious.
This simplicity of language means that when emotion is portrayed directly, such as Branner’s dying wife dictating a letter to him, the effect is devastating. How big this small book is, giving the barest details of its future world — water tokens, alittlements, soilmen — so the reader has space for their own interpretations. A lesser writer would have made an epic, with hundreds of pages of world-building, and it would have been immensely boring. Stillicide, like Jones’s earlier books, is never boring, but exciting, upsetting and essential.