Skyseed
By Bill McGuire
Published by Book Guild Publishing, 2021, RRP £8.99

Review by Tim Barton

Back in 2002, I reviewed Bill’s OUP book A Guide to the End of the World, in which he, as then professor of geohazards at UCL, itemised the many and varied ‘end of the world’ scenarios that are one way or another geologically inevitable. In it, I said “McGuire also notes that human action in the environment may be affecting these natural forces. It is, apparently, expected by some that volcanic and other geological disasters could be exacerbated by, for example, sea level rise, and increased rainfall. Read the book to learn how!” My comment nineteen years ago is pertinent to his new novel Skyseed as well.

In addition to work for UCL, he is also now a co-director of the New Weather Institute; a patron of Scientists for Global Responsibility; and a scientific advisory board member of Scientists Warning Foundation. He is also the author of Global Catastrophes in Oxford’s ‘Very Short Introduction To’ series, and the book Waking the Giant: How a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. So, he knows whereof he speaks!

His novel’s subject is geoengineering (‘planet-hacking’ as Bill has it), and the dangers of such large-scale intervention in the planet’s systems. As greenhouse gas emissions rise higher and higher, due to a lack of long-term and judicious amelioration, last-gasp panicked hi-tech and global ‘solutions’ seem more and more tempting. My analogy has long been to the Victorian years of brain science: you can plunge a fork into an asylum inmate’s brain and see which nerves it hits, how it affects ability to see, speak, hear… and if it goes wrong, grab another inmate. Ethically dubious but, in those times, standard practice. We do not have a Bedlam full of biospheres, just the one. If we screw up we’re, well, screwed. 

Bill’s novel takes a slick style, and a political thriller plot reminiscent of Dan Brown, but is much more politically right-on – Brown’s Deception Point is a sort of ill-informed black negative of Skyseed, channelling a worldview America’s ‘Grand Old Party’ would love, to address very topical environmental concerns.

The thriller plot is a vehicle to warn us how (as the book’s strapline has it) ‘hacking the earth might be the last thing we ever do’. As a toxic convergence of secretive government (led by a President who is equal parts Ayn Rand and some evangelical fruit-cake from the bayou) and hubristic scientists who indulge in a behind-closed-doors global conspiracy to geoengineer CO2 out of the atmosphere. They have vast resources and access to US and UK military sites around the world. But an unpredicted volcanic eruption in South America sends the project spinning out of control, unstoppably rocketing CO2 reduction far below projected limits – no spoilers on how that happens, guys, read the book!

Meanwhile, a few scientists around the world accidently stumble upon clues to what is happening. Not a few are ‘disappeared’, but our ‘heroes’, who come from the academic world Bill himself is so familiar with – geologists; meteorologists; vulcanologists – try their best to discover the facts, garner evidence and get it into the public domain.

It makes exciting, if grim, reading. But this is just the first act. Act two is a downhill bob-sleigh run of consequences. It is here that the geological effects of sea-level changes, of an ironically now dangerously low level
of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the rapid onset global cooling serve to destroy civilisation as we know it. In Roland Emmerich’s scientifically implausible The Day After Tomorrow a quick-onset planetary freeze sees huge rises in the level of the oceans, famously inundating New York – Bill shows how what would really happen is the opposite. And he brings the ice-sheet back to its last southern limits, near Oxford, and let’s it continue to roll onwards…

This thriller acts as a bellwether for coming catastrophes. If global-scale massive techno-interventions in our planet’s life-support systems take place, with the goal of stopping a runaway warming that makes a Venus of the Earth, what could go wrong? In Bill’s conceit, what goes wrong is that the system is instead tripped into a runaway cooling, one that will make a Mars of Earth. You pays your money, you takes your choice. As a warning, it is straight down the line, no false promises. The cup has a scientifically objective content of 50%, and it is clear that a real and feasible ‘fix’ may not be available. At least, not without a TARDIS.


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