Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Eric Barnes put his name in the hat reserved for those concerned about climate change in 2019 when he published The City Where We Once Lived. The novel follows a narrator in an unnamed city split in two by the desolation of climate change: the dying North End, and the still surviving South End. Part of the few thousand living their lives out in the North, a disruption arrives threatening what little they have in a sea of nothing.
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Eric Barnes Imagines Our World of Tomorrow
The unregulated growth of our species and its industrial potential has led to a problem which can no longer be ignored, if we intend to survive as the civilization we theoretically ought to be. This problem is well known to us all as climate change, and in his novel The City Where We Once Lived, Eric Barnes takes the time to imagine a world suffering the consequences of the present threats to our planet.
The novel takes place in an unnamed city which has split into two parts: the North End and the South End. The former essentially lies in ruin, with only a few thousand people remaining after the rest left for greener pastures in the south. The narrator is among those few thousand people, and like most around him he’s trying to escape a sordid past.
Much of his time is spent observing, analyzing and recording the progress of decay he observes around himself, both human and material alike, for a small newspaper which still somehow survives in the city. However, one day he finds his life upended as news starts to trickle in of deterioration taking place not only in the South End, but in the world beyond as well.
Even worse, desperate and violent strangers begin to appear and take over the North End, threatening to conquer what is essentially a giant ruin and drive it back into a state of total anarchy and violent chaos. Though he doesn’t have much to his name, suddenly the prospect of losing his little corner of the world seems unbearable to him.
Step by step, the citizens of the North End find themselves balancing on the edge of a dilemma: to welcome the new visitors and treat them as neighbours, or to stand guard over what little they have left and treat them as enemies. There are no perfect solutions for them… only some better than others.
Dreams of Self-Annihilation in The City Where We Once Lived
The rise in books using the concept of climate change as a central element is not surprising in the least. We’ve done such a good job of ravaging our one and only planet even the best possible prognosis for the next hundred years has us dealing with significant changes. Naturally, there are some authors who take it upon themselves to lecture their readers on the subject.
While I personally believe we could all use some of those lectures (some more than others), there is a time and a place for everything, and dystopian novels aren’t exactly it. To my great relief, Eric Barnes adeptly avoided what I consider to be a dangerous pitfall when spinning a novel around very real problems faced by humanity.
I never had the impression he was criticizing humanity for its decisions, nor are there any overt calls to action. He treats its existence like a simple fact of life and uses it as a canvas to paint the rest of the story on, rather than the other way around.
The novel isn’t particularly long, but nevertheless Barnes manages to bring the world to life with the use of a rather concise and carefully-chosen language. He describes his world in a very vivid and almost dream-like prose, taking the time to explain how it works and why things ended up this way. The descriptions very rarely have any proverbial fat on them, so to speak.
The image he gives of the world of tomorrow is, ultimately, somewhat depressing, especially since the narrator’s observations centre on the decay of the world around him. Nevertheless, there is hope to be found in the plot and the protagonist’s progress in the story, which does end up reflecting some of the more positive aspects of human nature.
The Brightened Obscurity
The City Where We Once Lived is in a bit of a weird spot when it comes to discussing the plot, because overtly, it doesn’t seem like there is a drive from any concrete source to make it go forward. We start by simply following our protagonist as he takes pictures of the world around him and observes what has very nearly turned into a ghost town.
He doesn’t speak too much, doesn’t have a name (none of them do), and maintains contact with very few people, namely two people working with him at the crumbling news agency. Mainly, he notes the increasingly chaotic conditions around him, the slow decline which seems bound to doom them all in the end.
While I would venture to say the first part of the book is relatively slow (not to say the second half is particularly fast either), it isn’t the kind of slow pace which drags on and on. The quality of Barnes‘ prose and the insight of his observations kept my interest at a high level at nearly all times, and I never found myself itching for some action.
Slowly but surely, a source of conflict does creep into the characters’ lives, and idea of “home” becomes central to the novel. As they try to keep what is theirs from the invaders, even if it amounts to virtually nothing, they also learn some lessons about kindness, cooperation, and how enduring the potential for change remains.
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Looking past a couple of plot points which get wrapped up rather quickly, the story brings some much needed light into a setting obscured by the carelessly destructive hands of Man. We’ve clearly steered down the wrong road a while ago, but it’s no reason not to try and get back on track; we’re depending on us.
The Final Verdict
The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes is a thoughtful and insightful dystopian novel, one which describes a world broken by climate change and the various challenges faced by the survivors in it, without ever lecturing or getting preachy about anything. The prose and descriptions are simply breathtaking at times, and the calm pace of the story doesn’t stop it from being a page-turner.
If you’re looking for a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel which takes things a little more slowly and intelligently, then I strongly suggest you have a look at this novel, especially if you have a profound interest in the topic of climate change… which, as a human being (I dangerously assume), you should.
Eric Barnes is an American publisher and author who, so far, has two books under his belt: The City Where We Once Lived in 2018 and Above the Ether published in 2019. Additionally, Barnes is the CEO of The Daily Memphian, an online news publication he started in 2018.