Review by Joey Madia
What a fifteen-month journey it’s been. I have detailed the sociopolitical dog and pony show and all its many components in recent reviews of books about a dystopian future, so I won’t take the space to reiterate them here. Unless you are living in a cave at the top of some mountain—which would make it impossible to read this review—you know what they are.
As I wrote in those reviews, what seemed before March 2020 to be distant, to be able to be pushed away with a bit of Hope and dash of Belief that Humankind can get its act together, is closer than ever. This, in turn, means that dystopian writers—at least the talented ones—are giving us a handbook, a not-so-distant early warning, about what is almost assuredly to come.
Court of the Grandchildren certainly meets these criteria. Well written, with a variety of modes of information delivery that made it an excellent candidate for a stage play (which the authors took advantage of with a virtual staged reading of an adaptation they penned last year), this novel about the dual rise of flood waters due to climate change and AI as a dominant, directive force in people’s lives (even more so than now) is one you should not only read, but heed.
Both Muntisov and Finlayson have backgrounds in water issues (including drinkability and desalination) and climate change. Although I did not read their bios until after I finished the book, it was apparent from the detail in the court transcripts and other backstory devices that they are well acquainted with the material they explore.
Court of the Grandchildren takes as its central question, “How will future generations judge current ones for the damage that they cause?” This is a question asked by Indigenous and Native peoples, who look seven generations forward. This speaks to Custodianship over Control and Ownership. The Corporate Oligarchy has little regard for anything but profits, as we have seen with extraction industries—most recently fracking. Having lived in West Virginia for many years, while being custodian of several acres, I know well the bones of this debate.
The year is 2059. Rising sea levels due to climate change have swallowed parts of the U.S. East Coast. The key event is the Great Ice Sheet Collapse. Anger is high. Those who lost their coastal homes, derogatively termed “Coasties,” are second-class citizens in the newly formed state of Concord. They live in tent cities. The locals abuse and deride them. Testimony given by several Coasties is akin to the traumas experienced by New Orleans residents during and after Katrina.
Court of the Grandchildren uses an ongoing Climate Court trial of a terminally ill man named David, who worked at one of the largest corporations in the energy business in marketing and public relations, working his way up to president before moving to public service. His key position as lead negotiator in international climate change policy formation sparks the questions this book explores—issues of culpability and revenge (there is a group of terrorists called the Blue Caps that want to punish the elder generation, the “burners” who caused global warming) and of the unpunished power-abuse of the Corporate Oligarchy.
David wants to end his life. To do so, he needs permission from his closest living relative, a great-niece, Lily, who is working to improve the conditions of the Coasties in a FEMA-type organization.
Compounding this post-disaster world is ubiquitous AI, developed to the point of sometimes replacing humans in decision making and social–sexual companionship. One of the secondary characters, a lawyer representing David, is a recovering AI sex addict. Law happens to be—for perhaps obvious reasons—a profession that androids practice as efficiently as do humans, and some people prefer them. Surveillance-state AI is all around. Police drones are ubiquitous, allowing for almost immediate response in case of (perhaps only perceived) danger. Not all citizens agree with an AI world. The Blue Caps, in addition to blaming the elder generation for climate change, have a manifesto of Humans First.
As a social justice activist–artist/demi-Luddite who notices when Terminator-like tech goes public, I sided in large part with the Blue Caps, although, like many SJAs, I draw the line well short of the violence of their violence. It’s the difference between the Weather Underground and the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s.
The most extreme Blue Caps are considering a bioterrorist attack, perhaps with small pox. The authors introduce the severe repercussions of such an act.
Fittingly, as I was writing this review, several US government agencies published reports concerning the socioeconomic and political impacts that COVID-19 have triggered, which may take decades to undo.
AI has developed into personal assistants, called Sherpas, well beyond Google Assistant, Alexa, or “Jarvis” (what I call the butler voice on my wife’s iPhone). There are three levels when it comes to the care of people like David by AI: Machine, Judgment, and Truth. Judgment’s similar to a parent making decisions to protect or expose their child to certain facts and experiences and about how to deliver information. In Truth mode (which has a 24-hour wait period should the user change their mind), the facts are delivered with cold, robotic logic.
The narrative of Court of the Grandchildren moves back and forth between David and Lily, delivering their backstories while growing their present relationship. There are plenty of complications, misunderstandings, and dramatic moments, as with all developing relationships. The authors also deliver some strategic reveals that drive the third act to its denouement.
Court of the Grandchildren poses important, provocative questions. Is AI all bad? On the witness stand, a climate change modeler testifies that the quantum computers they’re using in 2059 would have enabled calculations with higher accuracy that would have delayed but not prevented the Great Ice Sheet Collapse by ninety years. Even if it could help in these ways, is it worth the price of where AI is taking our society?
There’s no absolute morality, any more than there’s absolute reality. Each reader must decide: about AI, climate change, social justice, and the myriad eco-political problems we face.
Court of the Grandchildren, although fiction, offers us with many uncomfortable facts.
TITLE: Court of the Grandchildren
AUTHORS: Michael Muntisov and Greg Finlayson
PUBLISHER: Odyssey Books