Book Review: Stillicide, by Cynan Jones

For my review this week, I’m discussing Stillicide by Cynan Jones, which explores a future which might not be as far off as we like to think. This review probably took me longer to write than the book did to read. And no, that’s not because I write really slowly, there was just a lot to think about in this little book. Let’s get into it.

In a dystopian near future, water has become commodified. Humanity, ever ingenious, have set up not only the water train and the automated guns which guard it against all too frequent attacks, but have also taken to dragging icebergs across the seas to sustain themselves on their meltwater. Now an iceberg bigger than any harvested previously is about to arrive in the city, the tensions caused by the construction of the dock to hold it in place spilling out onto the streets. 

Stillicide is another example of that rapidly expanding subgenre of speculative fiction then, joining the likes of Doggerland and Kings of a Dead World in the cli-fi camp. It’s shorter than even the fairly trim former title though, and less grand in scope than the latter, but there’s much to be said for Cynan Jones’ remarkable economy of form. Chapters are laid out more like prose poems than anything else, each paragraph a carefully considered verse within a narrative which appears simple but is actually anything but. Characters are connected to each other in all sorts of ways, very few degrees of separation between many of them, but this mainly feels like something to be remarked upon interestedly rather than something to get particularly excited over. It’s neatly done, but we’re not here for revelations and twists.

That’s not to say that Stillicide is without excitement of course. From the opening chapter, where we meet Branner as he patrols the tracks of the water train, it’s clear that Jones does tension well. The unstoppable train approaching, the threat implicit in the red dot showing up on Branner’s motion tracker, the drumming rain – all of it combines into an edge of your seat moment. Truth be told, we don’t really get back to these heights until later on, but as Stillicide can comfortably be read in a couple of hours it’s hardly a long wait. Bookended by these intense moments are scenes of humanity surviving as best they can in the world which has been left to them. We share in the lives of the builders of the dock, who mould their hair – thick with concrete dust – into identifying styles as they start their shifts. We meet those attempting to live off the land outside the city even as the sea claims the homes of their neighbours. We sail with the men towing the iceberg back to the city, unaware of the scientific discovery which threatens the building of the dock intended to hold their prize. 

We never see much more than a glimpse of these lives, but they all add up, Jones sketching in a little more of Stillicide’s world through a conversation or perhaps a fleeting thought. It gives things a slightly dreamlike feel, as if the world being described is only just over the horizon, should we want to go there (hint: we definitely don’t). There’s little detail on exactly how the situation came about, which is neither a criticism nor a compliment, it’s just a statement of fact. A ton of info-dumping and a wealth of backstory would compromise what Jones has tried to do with Stillicide, which is to create a kind of climate crisis parable. Whether he’s succeeded with this is up for debate – for me personally, the aforementioned Kings of a Dead World with its believable eco-terrorism and John Lanchester’s more politically charged The Wall are much more satisfying and harder hitting reads – but there’s still much to admire on a stylistic level here.

At first glance its narrative approach might not be for everyone, but Stillicide is much more readable than initial impressions might imply. And while its timeline might at times be frustratingly difficult to follow – in what can only be an intentional way – it’s ultimately a rewarding read, with moments of quiet poetry and meditations on grief which are intimate and heartfelt.

Stillicide is published by Granta, and was released in 2019.

Currently reading: The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
Currently listening: Damnum, Allegaeon
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