I first discovered the eco-thriller genre – action-packed books focusing on environmental threats – through The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. It’s a somewhat intimidating book because of its length, but extremely well done in action, characterization, and scientific explanation. Ocean creatures begin unexpectedly attacking humans, and it’s up to a diverse set of scientists and environmentalists to figure out what’s causing it and how to stop it. The answer to the puzzle is both bone-chillingly deadly and incredibly beautiful. If you’ve ever felt worried about just how deep the oceans are and how little we know about them, this book will fascinate (and maybe terrify) you.
Inspired by how much I enjoyed The Swarm, I started a quest to read more eco thrillers and see how they compare. Here are my first two contenders and how they measure up.
First: Zoo by James Patterson. This book was made into a TV series a few years ago, though the series only loosely follows the plot of the book. In the book, we follow almost-scientist full-time conspiracy theorist Jackson Oz as he struggles to understand and raise awareness of the rash of animal attacks spreading across the world. He’s aided by beautiful French scientist Chloe along with a host of military and government figures. The picture of humanity’s future that this book paints is chillingly real, to say the least, though honestly the characters are such standard action-movie stock as to be disappointing. In my opinion, it doesn’t measure up to the complex mosiac of The Swarm.
Second: Eden by Tim Lebbon. In this book, Dylan, his daughter Jenn, and their team are escaping the polluted, climate-change-wracked world by an adventurous race across one of ‘The Virgin Zones’: protected swaths of land where no humans are allowed to live or visit. They’re attempting to be the first to cross Eden, the oldest Virgin Zone which has swallowed up many would-be adventurers. Once inside, their adventure turns frightening as the jungle turns against them, a malicious force which might be responsible for the disappearance of Jenn’s mother… This book is very good at building suspense and a sense of horror, getting more gory toward the end as the climax is reached. I wasn’t as convinced by the Nature Personified element or the resolution, but the characters and action are well-drawn. It almost measures up to the Swarm, but not quite.
The one thing all three had in common is a sobering message of warning for humanity: if we abuse our planet and its resources past a certain point, there will be consequences that we’re most likely not prepared for. The realism of that message makes these books heavy material to consider, but moving, important, and thought-provoking. This is a fascinating genre to explore, so stay tuned for a possible part 2!
guest post by Wesley B
Without a doubt, the best part of working at the library is the people. If it weren’t for one of our regular patrons recommending it to me, I probably would never have watched Downsizing. I’m not a huge fan of Matt Damon, and the art on the DVD label made it seem like a slapstick fish out of water comedy, which isn’t really my thing. As it turns out, books aren’t the only things that shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Not only was Downsizing not what I expected, it turned out to be almost tailor-made to suit my tastes: a science-fiction satire with a healthy mix of both comedy and drama.
The film opens with Rolf Lassgård’s scientist character, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen, making a scientific breakthrough: he has finally mastered the titular procedure, through which he can shrink humans to a size of five inches. His motivation is ecological in nature – someone downsized to one-thirteenth of their original size will only require one-thirteenth the amount of resources they would have otherwise needed. However, many people undergo the procedure for economic reasons – since you only need one-thirteenth the amount of resources, your money goes thirteen times further – in addition to the unspoken reason that has always led humans to make major changes: the belief that it will solve their problems (it’s not a spoiler to say this belief is more often than not mistaken).
Enter Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig’s married couple, Paul and Audrey Safranek. At Paul’s high school reunion, they run into his old friend Dave Johnson (played by a sadly underutilized Jason Sudeikis) who has undergone downsizing with his family. Dave makes a compelling case for downsizing, and it’s not long before we see the Safraneks buying a home in Leisureland, one of the most popular settlements for small people, as society has come to call those who have downsized. On the surface, Leisureland appears to be an idyllic realization of the American Dream, finally made attainable for more than the 1%. Of course, as is so often the case with these Stepfordian communities, all is not what it seems. As it turns out, class divisions still exist in small settlements, and in fact are thrown into even sharper relief via contrast with the utopic appearances.
And of course, conflict still exists on the interpersonal level as well. Paul has problems with Audrey (that I would be remiss to spoil), as well as with his gregarious neighbor Dušan (played by Christoph Waltz with his usual scene-stealing gusto). He also gets into a complicated relationship with the political activist Ngoc Lan Tran (played by Hong Chau in a starmaking performance). Downsizing raises questions about class conflict, climate change, and human nature; and while it doesn’t always have satisfactory answers, the brilliant acting and lively cinematography make this breezy film well worth a watch.