Albert Einstein is frequently—falsely—attributed with having said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s quite the line, but it does beg the question: How do you tell how smart a fish is?
That’s the problem facing animal cognition scientist Karin Resaint in Venomous Lumpsucker, the fifth novel from award-winning British novelist Ned Beauman. In the novel’s dystopian near-future, Earth’s climate is in free fall, and species are disappearing faster than beers at a frat party. When Chiu Chiu, the final giant panda, chomps on his last tiny bamboo shoot, the outrage is so great that 197 nations, “acting basically at economic gunpoint, [sign] up to the newly formed World Commission on Species Extinction.”
“The giant panda will be the last species ever driven to extinction by human activity,” proclaims a Chinese official at the WCSE’s founding. Of course, that’s not what happens; instead comes the extinction industry.
Everybody in the free market world knows that if you want to make an economic omelet, you’ll have to break a few environmental eggs. In this future culture, extinct animals’ DNA is digitally stored in biobanks, and the disappearance of a species is treated like carbon emissions, with taxes offsetting the habitat destruction that goes hand-in-wallet with surging profits.
As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, though, some animals are more equal than others. It costs a lot more under this scheme to snuff out a sentient species, so Karin has been charged with evaluating the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, and she’s feeling pressure from Brahmasamudram Mining, who’s funding the analysis. When a mid-level executive shows up aboard Karin’s research vessel with a special plea, the stakes suddenly leapfrog into the stratosphere and set the two on a frantic hunt for the last living lumpsucker.
If all this sounds heavy for a summer read, not to worry. Beauman’s acerbic outlook breezes through what could otherwise be a portentous plot; think Smilla’s Sense of Snow as percolated through an Andy Borowitz filter, a mid-apocalyptic comic thriller ideally suited for a post-pandemic audience.