Ned Beauman was listed on Granta’s once-a-decade list of best young British novelists last time out, in 2013, and his latest novel makes clear that, not yet 40, he’s absolutely worth a nomination next year too. Full of fun and big ideas, his conceptually tricksy novels crackle with comic zip, alive to the past (his debut, Boxer, Beetle, and second novel, The Teleportation Accident, dealt in different ways with the legacies of Nazism) as well as the present (his third novel, Glow, was an ultra-contemporary conspiracy thriller centred in south London). His fifth book, Venomous Lumpsucker, imagines a super-heated, algorithm-driven near future in which guilty hand-wringing about endangered species has led to a global trade in “extinction credits”, awarded by a regulatory body essentially enabling the richest firms and states to kill off all the flora and fauna they can afford – safe in the knowledge that tissue samples and genome data are securely stored in “biobanks” around the planet.
The novel follows two strangers brought together by their vested interest in this niche market. Middle-aged Brit Mark Halyard is “an environmental impact coordinator” for an Indian mining conglomerate, who has been short-selling credits in an attempt to game the system to fund his taste for fine foods (in painfully short supply, thanks to global warming). Karin Resaint is a Swiss German biologist hired by Halyard’s firm to assess the intelligence of the fish off the coast of Sweden, which Halyard’s firm is busy blowing up. She’s decided that the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, native to those waters, makes it worth a high number of credits, just as market volatility leaves Halyard’s get-rich-quick scheme painfully belly-up. His only resort is to put pressure on Resaint to downgrade the species, in a bid to ward off bankruptcy or worse…
So begins a jet-setting romp through Baltoscandia, as we hop from an Estonian nature reserve to a Finnish labour camp and an offshore seasteading community, cutting between Halyard and Resaint’s perspectives in a compellingly talky quest narrative with a will-they-won’t-they frisson. The philosophical and ethical conundrums, involving nothing less than the meaning and merit of life itself, float lightly along on their simmering back and forth, and Beauman’s deft characterisation makes the pair instantly engaging: “‘Can’t you just be happy for [him/her/them]?’, people had said to Halyard in the past after he’d admitted to some deep jealousy or bitterness, but most of the time he regarded the very idea – happy for – as a con invented by sticking a preposition where it had absolutely no logical business.”
Halyard knows from the off that sex with Resaint isn’t on the cards, which doesn’t stop him thinking about it, and there’s an uneasy undertow to his desire, courtesy of his lingering grief for his sister, Frances, who overdosed on Xanax in her teens.
A satirical subplot sees an isolationist UK trapped by failing infrastructure and treated as a tech boss’s fiefdom
A prefatory note tells us that, for the sake of readerly convenience, Beauman has ignored inflation and pegged the euro to its 2022 value. “This is the sole respect in which the story deviates from how things will actually unfold,” he writes, in typically twinkling deadpan. His mischievous intelligence can be felt everywhere. After a cyber-attack pivotal to the plot, we’re told: “Several of the companies involved in scanning human brains after death had released statements insisting that their own data centres were still absolutely secure, but a meme of Saudi origin was now circulating in which the architects of the Egyptian pyramids used the exact same language with the pharaohs.”
That throwaway line gives a sense of just how richly Beauman has thought through every element of his scenario. The novel buzzes with gizmos of various kinds, and crucially we see how they affect daily life: witness the nicely excruciating sex scene involving a variety of wearables, including one enabling simultaneous translation, that allow Resaint to hook up with a Turkish naturalist. The book’s internationalism is part of its allure, too, heady with the sense that Beauman knows his stuff, whether he’s telling us about a biotech firm in Japan, Resaint’s field work in eastern Ukraine, or “the vanishing Pacific kingdom of Tonga”. (A wickedly satirical post-Brexit subplot features an isolationist UK trapped by failing infrastructure and treated as a tech boss’s personal fiefdom.)
Halyard’s formation in the novel’s pre-dystopian past – our present – makes him a figure of elegiac pathos as well as fun, but we’re never in any doubt about his weak-willed venality, and a comically callous payoff confirms the sense that he’s perhaps the kind of hero we as a species deserve.
July 17, 2022 at 01:54PM Anthony Cummins