An appropriate response to biosphere collapse is screaming, and Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker is screamingly, bleakly funny. Beauman has a superlative knack for quotable, witty, and wince-inducing lines, stuffing every page with the kind of exhilarating humor borne of both despair and empathy. A thriller motivated by deep-sea mining destruction and mass extinction, a gut-punching satire of the failure of the carbon offset project: unfortunately, it’s the beach read we deserve. Fortunately, it’s a savagely entertaining one.
Set just a decade or two in the future, Venomous Lumpsucker follows animal researcher Karin Resaint and executive Mark Halyard. Both work in the “extinction industry,” an international system designed to eliminate human-caused animal extinction. In practice, it’s become another financial market. Bureaucrats and financiers like Halyard buy and sell “extinction credits,” while scientists like Resaint evaluate animal intelligence to determine how much their destroyers will have to pay. When the eponymous lumpsucker, an unprepossessing bottom-dwelling fish, has its habitat destroyed due to a computer glitch, it’s revealed as central to financial crimes and complex ethical schemes, and Resaint and Halyard race around the globe looking for survivors.
Tightly if chaotically plotted—Resaint and Halyard’s journey is less a classic heroic quest and more a blaring pinball machine—the novel’s characters are quietly, expertly drawn to allow its asides and deeper points to land. Resaint’s icy resolve and clarity are a window into the profound ethical depths the novel is wrestling to voice. Her concept of mass extinction as “the Black Hole” echoes Timothy Morton’s concept of the hyperobject—something real and massive, yet evasive, pervasive, warping and infiltrating everything that encounters it—and the absurdity of her response is underscored by how sane she appears compared to everyone else we meet.
Mark Halyard is her perfect foil: a “regular guy” who meets the insanity and existential precarity of the world with a mix of self-deluding optimism and knee-jerk pundit wisdom. Everything he says sounds reasonable, initially, and we’re given just enough space to realize that these are only facile rhetorical gotchas and thintelligent profundities, copy-and-pasted from the shallow depths of media discourse. What’s brilliant is that Halyard is not a villain, or at any rate no more than we consumers and internet commenters are. Beauman forces us to confront that parallel, that Halyard’s instinctive dismissals of the situation are the same ones we’ve been trained with, even as the book forces Halyard to sit with realities that are too vast for life to continue as normal.
The stumbling advent of self-driving cars has driven a cottage industry of trolley problem explainers, while serious analyses tend to conclude that the correct answer is just hitting the brakes; so, here, Beauman walks us through attempts to calculate, legislate, and financialize the holocene extinction event, with the obvious conclusion that something more radical is needed. Halyard is armed with all manner of ethical pseudo-sophistication—Would you really kill a person to save a beetle species? Can you really say an extinction is comparable to the Holocaust?—and the novel doesn’t so much refute these gambits as exhaust them. A side-plot about genetically-engineered “yayflies” doubles as a brutal takedown of utilitarianism, and the attempt to value biodiversity in capitalist terms, the novel rightly concludes, “just wasn’t a strong pitch;” there’s a masterful comedic syncopation in how Beauman juxtaposes devastating realities with the dry and Byzantine fictions of bureaucracy and finance.
Venomous Lumpsucker is stunning, in the sense that it’s like being repeatedly hit upside the head with these kinds of devastating asides. Halyard is motivated to white-collar crime by his addiction to good-tasting food, because the finer ingredients are becoming too rare—a list of agricultural collapses to make a foodie shudder. A partial solution is Inzedril, a drug that takes away the evaluative response: users lose all sense of whether what they’re consuming is good or bad, in a metaphor that’s painfully apt for the current state of media criticism. Europeans avoid any direct reference to America “out of sheer embarrassment,” and the digital preservation of our dying ecosphere is being lucratively mismanaged by an all-too-familiar (and pathologically deluded) Dorsey-Muskerberg figure. As much as Beauman’s inventiveness dazzles—many scenes and ideas recall the twisted exuberance of cyberpunk authors like Gibson or Sterling—there’s too much here that’s barely fictional.
“What gripped her at this point was not grief or rage but puzzlement and incredulity. A single extinction was an unspeakable tragedy; and many thousands of them were happening a year, and nobody was doing anything about it, including her.”
What can one do but laugh? The novel is not wholly nihilist—there are still activists fighting, some rather pointed suggestions about the efficacy of eco-terrorism, and ultimately a reminder that Earth will be fine without us, as it was before us. But it’s strangely refreshing, and darkly hilarious, to confront the scale and absurdity of our situation. At once ridiculous and incalculably precious, the lumpsucker might be just the mascot we need.
By Ned Beauman
Published July 12, 2022
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.