Ben Walker · Kinda Wispy: 'Venomous Lumpsucker' · LRB 2 … – London Review of Books


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InLe Désordre AZERTY (2014), a collection of writings based on the layout of a French computer keyboard, the novelist Éric Chevillard wrote:
Literature, more than the zoo, makes it its mission to be a conservatory of animal life … could anybody go without this vocabulary: warthog, elephant, orangutan, gorilla, stork, anaconda, babirusa, dugong, manatee, beetle, tarantula, octopus, camel, hummingbird, chickadee, osprey, chameleon, alligator, rhinoceros, kangaroo. I shudder to imagine the dreariness of prose deprived of these terms!
Ned Beauman can’t go without. His fifth novel, Venomous Lumpsucker, is full of the language of animal life. Several characters play word games with the names of species – see the genetically engineered ‘yayflies’. The monosyllabic bluntness of the word ‘fish’ is deployed comedically on more than one occasion. Speculative climate fiction is often made dull by the inordinate amount of time it spends proving to us that the planet is worth saving, and by insisting that telling stories – like the one you’re reading – might just be the way to do it. Beauman avoids this, reminding us that prose is not always an adequate conservatory. His book is filled with lists of animals, some real and some imaginary, that are soon to be extinct:
The legless skink. Also the velvet scoter. The Hainan black crested gibbon. The angel shark. The rusty pipistrelle. The Stone Mountain fairy shrimp. The variable cuckoo bumblebee. The marbled gecko. The Alagoas tyrannulet. The thicklip pupfish. The hoary-throated spinetail. The white-chested white-eye. The Cozumel thrasher. The spine-fingered tree frog. The Zempoaltepec deer mouse. The cracking pearlymussel. The Papaloapan chub. The dromedary naiad. The warrior pigtoe … all gone.
The list could be rather longer, of course. Around 42,000 of the species recently assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are ‘threatened with extinction’: an eighth of the birds, a fifth of the reptiles, 27 per cent of the mammals and nearly half the amphibians. Not everyone agrees on how best to approach the problem. In 2021, the New York Stock Exchange, in partnership with a company called the Intrinsic Exchange Group, announced the creation of ‘a new asset class based on natural assets and the mechanism to convert them to financial capital’. According to the IEG, the natural world is made up of ‘assets’, worth an estimated $4 quadrillion, waiting to be recognised and valued – and thus protected – by ‘Natural Asset Companies’. These assets include ‘biological systems that provide clean air, water, foods, medicines, a stable climate, human health and societal potential’, and by extension this involves the protection of individual species that contribute to these systems: the IEG counts the World Wildlife Foundation and Conservation International among its partners. These combined premises – the final absorption of nature into the market and indifference in the face of mass extinction – underpin Beauman’s speculative world. Although there are several pages of exposition, he keeps things tight by reworking the definition of natural assets for narrative ease. In this future it’s not collective ‘biological systems’ that have financial value, but rather individual species with prices on their heads.
The novel opens twelve years after the death of Chiu Chiu, the world’s last giant panda. In response, global governments have established the World Commission on Species Extinction to protect endangered animals. ‘There will be no more Chiu Chius,’ says one official. He ‘will be the endling of endlings’. Of course, a few extinctions each year are unavoidable ‘for the sake of growth and prosperity’, but to keep the post-Chiu Chiu numbers in check the WCSE introduces the ‘extinction credit’. Any government, or private company, that hopes to build a flyover on the nesting place of the last bullfrog can do so only if they purchase the appropriate token first. But a few decades after Chiu Chiu’s demise, credits have decreased in value: the very concept of extinction has been made fuzzy by clever execs in the emergent ‘extinction industry’. In passages that recall Donna Haraway or Bruno Latour, Beauman explains that defining extinction has become difficult: ‘A species was not just a set of bodies. It was a set of habits, relationships, territories, entanglements.’ More consequentially, Mosvatia Bioinformatics are storing behavioural data, ‘microbiota profiles’ and DNA sequences of endangered animals in specially designed biobanks – a process that could allow for the future reincarnation of every species on earth. The WCSE is poised to sign off on a change to the criteria for extinction which will plummet the cost of credits to near zero. But the technology is years shy of perfection. An experiment with the reincarnation of the Hainan black crested gibbon ends with the primate tearing off its own limbs.
In 1999 Latour complained that his Actor Network Theory, utilised by some as a way to facilitate renewed respect for nature and non-humans, had now become ‘the pet notion of all those who want to modernise modernisation’. Beauman makes ample use of the kinds of green speak and postmodern rhetoric that made Latour so uneasy. What happens if the wrong kind of people start to care about animals, and what if they’re only pretending to care to make heaps of cash? Mark Halyard is the wrong kind of people. A self-professed ‘extinction industry cunt’, the only animals he appears to care about are dogs: ‘If [they] ever went extinct – that’s totally different.’ The mining company he works for is drilling into the last known habitat of the venomous lumpsucker, a species he thinks looks ‘stupid for a fish’ but is in fact so intelligent that its eradication will cost a bumper thirteen credits, about €870,000. Privy to the soon to be changed definition of extinction, Halyard intends to ‘discreetly borrow the credits from his own department’, sell them at the current price and buy them back once the market collapses. (In other words, he’s shorting credits and squirrelling away the profits.) When a shadowy group hacks into six major biobanks and deletes data on thousands of species, the extinction reclassification plans are shelved, and Halyard needs to find a living lumpsucker to avoid financial ruin or prison.
If Halyard has all the cynicism of an insider trader, then Karin Resaint, with whom he teams up to find the lumpsucker, has the rage of an absolutist. Resaint is an AI expert by training but works in the extinction industry as an animal intelligence evaluator. Her reasons for wanting to track down the fish are more complicated than Halyard’s. Beauman tells the story of a scientist at a primate research institute in Leipzig caught spiking the drink of an orangutan with a memory-suppressing drug. Resaint has seen him speak on a panel about animal cognition and understands his motivations. They’re kindred spirits. Hold up … she wants to fuck the fish? Shape of Water style? Halyard thinks so, comparing her to ‘the number of people who are probably fucking Chiu Chiu in VR even as we speak’. What she’s actually after is ecological justice: the monkey-roofying scientist didn’t want to sleep with his subject, he wanted it to kill him. The lumpsucker is not only the smartest fish in the world, capable of feats of memory and mathematical computation, it has also been witnessed meting out extrajudicial violence. Resaint intends to help the fish become ‘witness to their own extinction’ and then, presumably after some kind of underwater trial, ‘a sufficient number of venomous lumpsuckers’ will poison her. Suicide by fish – though she would prefer to call it an execution and give the lumpsucker its appropriate agency.
A character’s sudden, overwhelming desire to do something – anything – in the face of ecological disaster is common in climate fiction, and often brought about by an encounter with a rarely observed natural event. Jeff Vandermeer’s Hummingbird Salamander (2021) is driven by a similar extinct-species-Easter-egg-hunt plot device. One of his characters is moved to action after discovering that the ‘naiad hummingbird would only come to the ground to drink a finite number of times before they no longer existed. This thought was unconscionable to me. Unbearable. It ripped me in two. It destroyed me. And then remade me, and I became someone different than before.’ Beauman pokes fun at this trope: Resaint is radicalised not by the realisation that the world’s natural beauty is under threat, but by watching the grubs of parasitic wasps consume a live spider.
The characters in Beauman’s book are defined by the extent to which they care about animals. Halyard doesn’t unless they’re going to make him money or send him to jail. Resaint empathises too much. But does Beauman think we should care about animals? It’s telling that hardcore animal rights activists appear in this novel only infrequently, throwing bombs made of cloned Chiu Chiu tumours at the protagonists for instance. When they do show their faces, they’re slapstick, conspiracy-brain fools. ‘I knew you’d be coming,’ one says to a bemused Halyard and Resaint. ‘You’re here to start the next phase.’ The same activist delivers a speech while holding the pair at gunpoint: extinction industry cunts make money whether the price of a credit goes up or down – ‘the suits always win and the animals always lose.’ Halyard doesn’t know how to respond. He agrees with the gunman’s ‘overall analysis’ but can’t help but ‘dispute the guy’s factual premises, which were deluded’. It would be easy to read this as a send-up of contemporary climate activism, as a satire of those who wade in without foresight and run the risk of getting things very wrong. Or we could see it as a parody of people who care too much about animals and seem a bit cringe. But the point is that for the characters in this novel it’s already too late; whether they care or not, the only remaining viable response to the end of the world is to keep their own hands clean. ‘No, mate,’ Halyard tells the activist, ‘there’s obviously some kind of misunderstanding … we’re just here about a fish.’
Beauman’s extinction credits closely resemble the real-world practice of biodiversity offsetting. In 1972, in an effort to prevent the indiscriminate destruction of wetland habitats, the US Clean Water Act handed the protection of national wetlands over to the US Army Corps of Engineers. Although permits for building on them were usually given out with minimal fuss, the corps would occasionally require developers to perform some ‘compensatory mitigation’ of wetland function. In subsequent decades, a system emerged whereby developers could pave over an entire wetland in one location but still adhere to the stipulations of the corps if they bought ‘credits’ from another place that had increased its biological function and species diversity. These locations eventually became carefully managed Wetland Mitigation Banks, and by the end of the 1990s there were more than four hundred private and state-run sites selling ‘credits’ to developers in the US. Throughout the 2000s, the geographer Morgan Robertson spent time working in WMBs in the Midwest: the workers who feature in his research could be extras from Venomous Lumpsucker, all underqualified administrators or bored biologists. In one of Robertson’s papers an ecologist called Frank identifies a species of grass by describing it as ‘kinda wispy’ – in doing so he also increases his bank’s store of mitigation credits. As Robertson points out, ‘there are over 2700 different species of vascular plants in the Chicago region, and … kinda wispy legitimately describes more than a few of them.’ For Robertson, Frank’s vague and lazy methodology exposes the futility of attempts to bridge the gap between nature and market: ‘Beyond our little lamplit table lay not the laboratory, nor the marketplace, but an uncomfortable place in between; and Frank sensibly declined to stare too intently into that void.’
Venomous Lumpsucker is a satire of ‘void avoidance’. Beauman’s version of a mitigation bank is Sanctuary North, 45 square kilometres of a partially privatised Estonian nature reserve which houses a kaleidoscope of endangered species in ‘an ark and an Eden’. For every species the sanctuary keeps in the black, the WCSE gives them a credit which they then sell off. When Halyard and Resaint arrive, the Sanctuary is in crisis. The sudden rise in credit prices brought about by the biobank hack could be good business for a place that turns a profit by saving animals from the brink, but cost-cutting measures and faulty tracking equipment mean the Sanctuary’s species have essentially gone missing – they are about as alive as subprime mortgages were safe. A man with a tranquilliser gun in a urine-soaked otter costume comes charging past: ‘Do you know anything about Bavarian pine voles? We are finding them quite evasive.’ The same farcical performance takes place in Robertson’s real-world studies, the totting up of animals as a kind of game: ‘Find a cricket frog and we’ll give you a lot of credit … oops, there’s carp in the ditch … that cancels out your leopard frog credit … got a cormorant checking out your wetland … hey, we get credit for that! If it flies over, we get credit for it.’
Sanctuary’s operating manager, Stepanek, is an unforgiving caricature of Robertson’s study subjects: there is a ‘brittle quality to his cheerfulness’, as if staring into the ‘void’ all day has left him hollow. He offers to show Halyard and Resaint a potential lumpsucker nesting site in return for a ‘professional opinion’ on the lake in which they reside. ‘Retention has been an issue,’ Stepanek says when asked why there are no marine ecologists on site. It’s obvious by now that the fish is unlikely to be found: it’s a narrative device designed to take the characters to multiple locations and showcase Beauman’s collapsing world. ‘You told me the lake “has not been operating at full capacity”,’ Resaint says. ‘It’s toxic. It stinks of chemicals. Nothing could live in there. A child could see that.’ Stepanek responds glassily to both the loss of life and money: ‘I’m more of a systems guy,’ he says. Besides, he’ll probably find a job elsewhere, perhaps at the company called in to clean up his mess. What’s one dead lake when everyone is getting paid?
The richness of Beauman’s world-building provides access to the institutional machinery that fills the gap between the market and reality. This is a dystopian office novel played out in the field. Places like Sanctuary North are eco-lodge versions of Kafka’s Committee of Affairs, or the banal halls of the IRS in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King – populated by Systems GuysTM and characterised by morbid bureaucracy. One small gripe is that Beauman doesn’t allow us to spend enough time in any of these places to get a proper sense of them. The most intriguing stop on the lumpsucker hunt is Surface Wave, a floating city in the Gulf of Finland full of eco-Elon Musks, where residents pay no income tax and all business is conducted off-grid using cryptocurrencies. This is a version of the future – one in which biotech and libertarian governance are intertwined – that’s surprisingly underexplored in contemporary speculative fiction. Surface Wave isn’t the eco-haven it promises to be, of course (‘there are insects raining on us! It’s a fucking living nightmare!’).
The possible outcomes of adopting natural ‘credits’ are based on extensive research into contemporary eco-finance. In his author’s note, Beauman claims that the absence of currency inflation is ‘the sole respect in which the story deviates from how things will actually unfold’. But hotfooting it through all the potential repercussions has a dizzying effect on the reader, and it’s difficult to bear in mind what’s really at stake. Towards the end of the book, I began to wonder whether I care about animals at all. I think I do, but these animals, in this novel? I’m not sure. At times the characters risk becoming mere vehicles for the various ways to care, or not, mostly not, about mass extinction – absolute despair, cool detachment, cloying self-righteousness. One man has spent his entire life on the right side of the extinction industry, ‘living blissfully’ as a guardian for the last surviving colony of pallid nuthatches, a species of bird in Nemrut Dagi National Park, Turkey. He builds them little gates to keep out predators and steals their eggs to hatch in incubators. It’s an ‘honest, natural’ job. Then one evening a friend’s husband says that his work ‘sounds like performance art’ – and he loses all sense of purpose. ‘What was the point of all this? Wasn’t it, indeed, an empty ritual, a performance for nobody … Weren’t the pallid nuthatches an evolutionary dead end … a banal, shoddy creature, no more than filler in the Book of Nature? Weren’t they just witless, ungrateful, screeching little vermin?’ That Halyard goes the other way is inevitable, and a knowing indictment to those of us who found him such good company to begin with. He doesn’t wind up wanting to be fish food, but is at least made to confront the evils of the industry in which he works – though Beauman is smart enough to leave his final thoughts ambiguous, avoiding too neat a transformation from self-serving ‘extinction industry cunt’ to pious ecoterrorist.
Ultimately, we’re meant to sympathise with Resaint: to care about extinction not because it makes us sad or because we might be missing out on undiscovered medicines or portfolio opportunities, but because it’s the right thing to do. As well as a send-up of the embryonic offsetting industry, the satire of this novel is directed at those who, like Halyard, want to have a purely practical conversation about extinction, keeping the ethics and philosophy out of it. ‘You really don’t believe that anything can have a value of its own beyond what function it serves for human beings?’ Resaint asks Halyard in one of their many arguments. It’s in this spirit that we’re offered other imaginary post-apocalypse eventualities. One character is given the choice between death or assimilation: to be erased ‘immediately’ or turned into ‘a sort of cognitive amphibian’. Another proposal, put forward by a sentient AI, marks a shift towards a much harder brand of science fiction: ‘stay here and watch’ as ‘the Holocene extinction … continues to accelerate. By the year 2200, about 85 per cent of the species that were thriving as recently as the Late Pleistocene will be gone … eventually the human race will reach its terminus. And afterwards the scars it left will fade.’ These are some vague options for the characters in the novel, but also Beauman’s ruminations on the scale of the conversations we all ought to be having about climate change – ones that aren’t just about making the planet hospitable for our own sake. I’ll take the half-fish half-human option please.
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