Ned Beauman’s novels are like strange attractors for words with the letter “Z”. They zip, zing, fizz, dazzle and sizzle. They are a weird bazaar of spiciness. Some readers might find his form of literary hyperactivity exhausting. Personally, I find it exhilarating. That’s partly because the novels not only have a propulsive plot, but the ideas are also high octane. poisonous lumpsucker does not stop to breathe, but simultaneously causes a weary and melancholy exhalation.
The venomous lumpsucker in question brings together two very different characters and functions as an effective McGuffin for the novel. Mark Halyard is the Environmental Impact Coordinator (Northern Europe) for the Brahmasamudram Mining Company. At an industry conference, he is nearly flattened by a giant teratoma, a biological blob cloned from the cells of the last uncloned panda. But his real problems concern Karin Resaint, a scientist whose job it is to assess the intelligence of said poisonous lumpsucker.
Unfortunately for Halyard, it seems Resaint thinks the lumpsucker is the smartest fish there is, and therefore protected. Worse still, a software glitch means the “autonomous mining vehicle” has just pulverized lumpsucker breeding grounds. So the mismatched pair ricochet across Europe in an attempt to find the venomous lumpsuckers that escaped the cataclysm. “She seems to think the fish is some kind of Einstein,” Mark grumbles. ‘Have you even seen it? He doesn’t even look smart by fish standards. Sounds stupid for a fish.
There are of course other twists that are so elegantly done that it would be guilty of robbing the reader of the fun. The various journeys give Karin and Mark ample room to bicker about environmental damage, climate change, animal intelligence, moral responsibility and more. Beauman is very good at maintaining a kind of ecosystem of thought. There is no clearly “right” position to take on these issues.
This is an example of why novels, being inherently polyphonic, are so much better than propaganda. The fact that it’s done with a lot of dark humor and outright sarcasm makes it even more invigorating for serious tirades. On the one hand, the opinion is given that “the truth was that, most of the time, talking to a chimpanzee was more like talking to a child than talking to an alien; that is, it was like talking to a very stupid adult”. On the other hand, “the apparent irrationality of this behavior was what proved that lumpsuckers were more cognitively advanced than any other fish: only a highly advanced species would be capable of something so useless” .
The ethical dimension is even more complex. We might recognize that humanity has caused irreparable harm to many species, but what might restorative justice look like? Does the rest of the biosphere deserve compensation or even revenge? Even the idea of extinction becomes problematic. If a species’ genome is stored away, is it “gone forever” or does it simply exist as information rather than cartilage, nerves and muscle?
All of this may seem heavy; but it’s also a novel, set in the near future, where gluttony is on the rise because food is scarcer, where Britain is known as the Hermit’s Kingdom and where a character turns out to be a surreal image of a Liz Truss or Theresa May figure but with ninja skills. Yes really. With cryptocurrencies, “extinction credits”, floating non-state tax havens and of course a megalomaniac tech entrepreneur and virus, it couldn’t be more timely. Yet each page has a turn of phrase, witticism, ironic observation, or clever simile that inspires the reader to take the serious material seriously.