Author Brenda Cooper describes herself as a futurist and as being passionate about the environment, and you’d better believe she’s dead serious about it. Which is to say that, unlike most of the books I’ve gotten to review for Skiffy and Fanty this month, Wilders is many things, but fun isn’t one of them. Like so much ecological science fiction (or ecopunk, if that’s a thing? I’m pretty sure it’s a thing), Wilders is written in deadly earnest. Look elsewhere for lighthearted escapism.
Refreshingly, though, unlike a lot of books I’ve stumbled across in this genre, Wilders manages not to get too preachy. Herein, Cooper works under the assumption that her readers are proficient singers in the choir, and proceeds to focus on telling us a story rather than trying to persuade us that wilderness matters, that the environment matters, that extinction hurts us, etc., etc.
The story concerns a young woman who has grown up in a slightly tarnished utopia, a smart megacity that encompasses Seattle and Vancouver, BC, and all of the settlements in between, all under a weather-controlling dome. The sprawl is beautifully bike-able and walk-able, but still has plenty of (non-polluting!) car traffic. Bike and walking paths stretch above the streets, linking skyscrapers festooned with vertical gardens that help make the City nearly self-sufficient and parks and pleasant neighborhoods. Everybody is guaranteed a universal basic income but they are assigned slight menial chores even at the lowest levels (our heroine, Coryn, has grown up weeding public gardens, for instance, but finds it rather enjoyable and only has to do a little).
But the city is home to over seven million people, most of whom are isolated from each other by Augmented Reality games and overlays that enhance even the dullest jog along a trail with realistic monster attacks or crowds of adoring fans or fairy cheerleaders. It’s hard to connect.
When Coryn’s parents enact a suicide pact on the day she’s due to graduate from junior high, she and older sister Lou are forced to confront the grim reality belying all of the superficial shiny happiness. And Lou can’t take it, and as soon as she can, she signs on with a Foundation that is hard at work re-wilding the Outside.
See, this world had a little hiccough somewhere between William Gibson’s Jackpot Years and our own current socio-political chaos, but the good guys (sort of) won and one of their spoils was the “re-taking” of wilderness and rural land. Humans should live in big cities like where Coryn and Lou grew up; the land between them is for Nature. Nature and the Ecobots*.
Ideally, that’s all that would be outside, but not all of the humans went quietly into the cities. Some of them fought tooth and nail, and stayed outside, and rove the countryside as a sort of vicious parody of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
Thus, the Foundations, which supply human and other resources to help the Ecobots re-wild the world. Resources like Coryn’s big sister, Lou.
Left in an orphanage with only her companion robot for company, Coryn grows up restless, too, though she likes the city. She’s a champion runner and cyclist and has the potential to become exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be happy in an even higher-tech and greener Cascadian city. But her parents’ suicide haunts her, and cheery, excited letters from Lou in the great outside tease her, and as soon as she’s 18, she’s leaving “Seacouver” behind to go visit her sister and maybe be a re-wilder, too!
That’s all just by way of setting establishment and prologue. It is, of course, when our heroine leaves behind her childish things that the story gets going, a story of discovery, yes, but also of dismay and detection. Lou’s letters painted maybe too-rosy a picture of the life of a re-wilder. And the reverse-Monkey Wrenchers are far from being the only thing holding the grand project back.
Written in so tightly focused a point of view that it might as well be first-person, Wilders sometimes feels almost claustrophobic as we stick so very closely to Coryn. We never learn the truth about anything until she does, and since nobody trusts her, we spend a LOT of time frustratingly ignorant about what’s actually going on. These effects weigh down the narrative a bit, but fortunately, Cooper has a trick up her sleeve to distract us a bit from this: she’s really, really good at scenery porn, whether it’s the vistas from the skybridges in the cities or the view from the crest of a mountain range.
The result is not a gripping page-turner of a read; I could and did put it down with ease when other options beckoned. But it’s a satisfying read, and I look forward to the second part of this duology with pleasure.