This richly imaginative, immersive, and “electrifyingly relevant” (William Kent Krueger, New York Times bestselling author) debut novel follows a shocking disappearance amid the climate crisis of our near future—perfect for fans of Station Eleven and The Last Thing He Told Me.
Emi Vargas, whose parents helped save the world, is tired of being told how lucky she is to have been born after the climate crisis. But following the public assassination of a dozen climate criminals, Emi’s mother, Kristina, disappears as a possible suspect, and Emi’s illusions of utopia are shattered. A determined Emi and her father, Larch, journey from their home in Nuuk, Greenland to New York City, now a lightly populated storm-surge outpost built from the ruins of the former metropolis. But they aren’t the only ones looking for Kristina.
Thirty years earlier, Larch first came to New York with a team of volunteers to save the city from rising waters and torrential storms. Kristina was on the frontlines of a different battle, fighting massive wildfires that ravaged the western United States. They became part of a movement that changed the world—The Great Transition—forging a new society and finding each other in process.
Alternating between Emi’s desperate search for her mother and a meticulously rendered, heart-stopping account of her parents’ experiences during The Great Transition, this novel beautifully shows how our actions today determine our fate tomorrow. A triumphant debut, The Great Transition is “a book for the present and the future—read this and you will be changed” (Michelle Min Sterling, New York Times bestselling author).
There was this big throwback craze at school that started on Cooperative Day with a band called U2. Cooperative Day is when all the major cooperatives make presentations in the auditorium to convince you to apply. PepsiCo was there, and Alibaba, and CareCorps (Juniors and Seniors), and Uniqlo and Public Safety and DisneyCo and MemeFeed and tons more. The day isn’t so awful except it’s on a Sunday and mandatory. It got me out of garden hours with my mom, but still, who wants to be at school on a weekend? But then Maddie Choi somehow got onto the network during the very first presentation—the Carbon Capture Cooperative was on stage—and she cast a song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” through the auditorium. It was hilarious. Maddie Choi was a hero—for the prank and for introducing us all to U2. I remember sitting in the auditorium, laughing, and then suddenly quiet with everyone as we were like, How come we’ve never heard anything this good before? Overnight everyone became U2 obsessed. Lunch was a battle zone: either you ate on this side of the cafeteria because The Joshua Tree was the greatest album ever, or you ate over there because Unforgettable Fire was best. My basketball team warmed up to “Beautiful Day” before games. The only oldies I knew before then were Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift and Valerie June, because my dad said my grandmother used to listen to them. But now I became obsessed along with everyone else. The difference, however, was that to everyone else the oldies were a fad that ended like all fads end. For me though, it just keeps going and going. I can pick almost any year before the Crisis and name the top hits around the world. I have them all memorized. I love oldies. Music recorded pre-Crisis sounds different. Better. More real. There were still huge problems back then. Obviously. Like the band U2 was from Ireland which had been colonized by England for basically 500 years. There was poverty and pandemics and like a thousand people owned everything on the planet. But nobody had any idea what was coming. Not really. It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like. I try. I pretend it’s 1980 or 2010 or 1960 and we think everything is great and will continue being great forever. Not even thinking it—just assuming it. Maybe that’s why their music was so good. And why I love it so much. I can slip on my headphones and turn up Madonna or Beyoncé or Prince and pretend that nothing bad is ever going to happen again.
The day before my mom leaves for extraction duty, she’s not herself. She doesn’t wake me early. She doesn’t force us to jog upcity together. Instead, she makes breakfast. I smell it before I see it: egg tacos, sweet potato hash, warm cinnamon milk with honey. She has her screen on the counter streaming something upbeat and bland, and she’s smiling—practically singing good morning—as she pulls out chairs for us to sit. My dad and I throw each other looks like, Do you know this woman? My dad’s always the one who makes breakfast. Also lunch and dinner. It’s always been this way. He’s a team nutritionist for the Tundra and he’s really good at his job, even if I don’t always eat what he cooks. When I don’t eat, my mom will say I’m spoiled, or picky or ungrateful, or accuse me of being difficult on purpose. But I’m not. Sometimes I just don’t want to eat. Sometimes I can’t. Even when she tells me I must eat so many bites, like I’m a little kid. She’ll ask if I have any idea how lucky I am, not to know real hunger? She’ll lose her temper. She’ll ignite. She’s most predictable in this way. Other ways to ignite my mom: Tell her you want a cat. Tell her you want your own screen. Tell her you hate getting up early. Tell her you wish you lived somewhere less crowded than Nuuk. Tell her school is stressful. Tell her that Sundays aren’t meant for sifting compost in the plaza garden. Tell her you’re scared of choking on your food. Tell her that you’re scared of anything at all. But the day before she leaves for extraction duty, the sparks bounce off her. She won’t ignite. When I take one sip of milk and push back my plate, she just smiles and says, Maybe later. I look at my dad while she scrapes my tacos into the compost. He shrugs like: I’m not complaining. My mom’s strange mood doesn’t end at breakfast: usually my dad and I walk the compost to the garden and then he drops me at school, but today she insists on taking me. Except instead of walking to school—after we dump the compost—she stops in the middle of Norsaq Plaza under the shadow of the maglev tracks and touches my arm so I stop too. Morning sun is glowing over the tallest landscrapers like an aura. People stream around us. A group of workers is unloading tools from crates. They have been building a Day Zero stage for our plaza. Next to the stage, the McDonald’s cooperative is putting up this huge food hall. Hanging on the landscraper behind their hall is a banner that curls in the breeze, the fabric rippling upwards from Rebuilding Together! at the bottom to 16 Years and Onward! at the top. I’m one-thousand-percent ready for my mom to make fun of the slogans as she loves to do, and remind me of all the reasons the holiday is a chance for grown adults to play dress up, eat junk, and get drunk, but this isn’t why she stopped us. She doesn’t mention Day Zero at all. She nods to the upcity rambla and suggests we go on a walk. A walk where? I ask. Oh I don’t know. Summit Park? I can’t skip school, Mom. Who’s skipping? You’ll only be late. It’s the last day before vacation. I leave tomorrow. Your teachers will understand. We’ll make it a picnic. We’ll grab lunch. I just had breakfast. You didn’t eat a thing. I’m not hungry. You can get a smoothie. I said I’m not hungry. Well fine, we don’t have to eat, Emiliana. We can just walk and talk. * It’s not until I’m in North American History, and Mrs. Helmandi is reminding us that our final Great Transition projects are due after break, that I realize why I didn’t go picnicking with my mom. One, what would we have talked about? Two, I know what’s going on: she hates the holiday, but feels bad leaving us. She and my dad have been arguing about it for days. Their arguing isn’t unusual, only their volume. I don’t care. She’s always leaving for extraction duty. Four or five times a year. And our family doesn’t even celebrate Day Zero. My mom doesn’t allow it. Yes we slowed the warming, she’ll say. Avoided annihilation. But everything we lost? We should be throwing a funeral, not a party. We should be mourning. Organizing. Working twice as hard to ensure it never happens again. So for the holiday week, that’s ordinarily what we do. Literally. We work. Most years my mom volunteers us at the geothermal farms, which sounds worse than it is. You have to fly to get there, and Greenland from a blimp is insanely pretty. The farms are by the sea with tons of hot springs and saunas. After work, you soak and watch the waves. Last year we saw orcas. But this year’s different. This year we’re splitting up. She’s leaving for extraction duty and my dad’s staying home and I’m going skiing with my basketball team. Or I’m supposed to go skiing. The problem is this: I keep seeing myself at the ski lodge getting hungry and there are no soups, no smoothies, nothing easy to swallow. And instead of helping me like teammates should, the other girls laugh as my throat closes up while I’m stranded hundreds of miles from home. So I’ve decided I won’t go skiing. I haven’t told my mom. She will one-hundred-percent ignite. I guess I’m saving the spark. Which brings up one last reason I couldn’t skip school to walk and talk with her, even though a part of me really did want to: sometimes it feels good to tell her no.
The day before Kristina leaves for New York it is like we have woken up as a family ten years in the past. You cannot go back. Not overnight. I know this. Still. The first thing that is different is she does not shake Emi out of bed to jog with her. Their morning argument is my usual alarm. Today Kristina jogs solo, returns, showers off. Then there’s no sound of the front door. She does not leave for the windfields or the energy docks. She pops her head in to tell me not to step one damn foot out of bed until I can smell the coffee. After breakfast she insists on walking Emi to school. She puts a hand on my chest. Kisses me goodbye. Gestures that may not sound terribly exciting. But. Her hand over my heart. Her lips. I am washing the dishes when she returns. Hey you, she says. Hey yourself. She swings the compost bucket under the sink. Leans against the counter. Smiles. You look happy, I say. I have news. Do you now? I hold my breath. Praying she has not decided to run again for Leadership Council. You’re going to skip work, she says. I am. Yes. You’re going to skip work to stay home with me. It’s the day before vacation, I say, turning off the water. Staying home won’t look great. I’m doing it. Easy for you. I don’t have half your hours. She slides behind me. Wraps her arms around my waist. Please? I examine the sponge in my hands. The soapy suds. Her hands. Convince me, I say. What’d you have in mind? We’ll catch up. Have fun. Celebrate us. I continue scrubbing the spatula. Kristina rests her head against my back. Her breath is hot through the threads of my shirt. I try to relax as if this is a common marital scene for us. It is not common. I could remind her of this. I could unclasp her hands and say it is not fair to turn a page backwards right before she leaves. Not fair to me. Not fair to Emi. But then again if you are dreaming a soft warm dream why risk waking up? Alright, I say, rinsing and racking the spatula. Let’s celebrate us.
After school comes basketball. After basketball comes CareCorps. CareCorps is where I fulfill my hours by feeding kids, playing with kids, soothing kids to sleep for naptime. Today I introduce them to a band called ABBA and a game called zombie tag. After we dance and eat each other’s brains and the last of their parents have picked them up, Maru walks me home. Maru’s my neighbor. She lives below us. She’s a CareCorps lead-attendant, and even though I’m taking a class at school—Early Education and Child Development—everything I’ve really learned about kids is all from her. How was basketball today? she asks as we turn off the lights. Okay. We scrimmaged. Scrimmage means you play against your friends? I wouldn’t technically call them my friends. Their loss. Yeah. We walk outside and onto the upcity rambla, then Maru asks: Before a game, if you could run onto the court to any song, what song would you choose? Nirvana? I say. Smells Like Teen Spirit. Do I know that one? she says. I synch my headphones. She slips them over her ears. Frowns. Smiles. Hands them back and says the fantastic thing about music is that there’s something for absolutely everyone. I laugh. Maru takes care of kids but has none of her own. Just her cat, Alice. You might think living alone with a cat would make someone shy. Not Maru. I interviewed her for my Great Transition project. She did seven tours with Deconstruction Corps, which my dad says was the worst because of all the bodies you came across. But Maru was easier to interview than my parents. She talks to me like I’m an adult. She asks interesting questions. About school. About music. About life. If Maru had asked me to skip school to walk upcity with her this morning, I think I would’ve definitely gone. We’ve almost reached Norsaq Plaza when she asks about my ski trip: All packed for the North Pole? Actually I’m not going. What happened? Don’t feel like it. She opens her mouth like she’s about to say something. Then she smiles: Smart girl. Freeze your butt off some other time. Z-Day only comes once a year. You’ll love it. We step into Norsaq Plaza. The holiday is still three days away, but the neighborhood is so busy it feels like it could start any minute. Workers are setting up speaker systems, bolting together dance floors. Maru and I step over extension cords, cables, strings of glass bulbs that clink as they snake along the tiles to be hoisted onto lampposts. Two artists are finishing a mural: Wind Corps workers swinging a turbine into place. A famous image but the muralists are painting it with these unexpected colors and lines. I heard there are so many people on Day Zero that you can’t even move, I say. This is Nuuk, girl—find me one place that isn’t crowded. And doesn’t everyone just get super drunk? Wrong. We get super drunk and we dance. It’s the best day of the year, girl. People thought last year was big, but this year’s supposed to be even bigger. I’m glad you’ll be around. About time you get to experience it. Why is this year supposed to be even bigger? Got me. Why not? People love a party. Then we’re inside our building and outside my door. For a moment I think we’ve accidently entered the wrong floor; the door has the correct number, but from the other side comes loud music and laughter. Sounds like you got a party of your own, says Maru, and kisses my cheek goodbye. My mom and dad don’t hear me enter. They’re dancing. My mom’s wearing a dark blue dress I’ve never seen. My dad has a black tie. The air’s warm and heavy like the Tundra training room. Like they’ve been here all day. Hi? I say, hanging my keys on the hook. Emi! they cheer like I’ve been gone for years. Thank god! shouts my mom over the music. Cut in. Please. Your father’s a terrible lead. It’s hard! laughs my dad. It’s rumba, she says. You just follow the steps. It’s no different than a recipe. It’s so different than a recipe! You’d think I’d be happy to see them laughing instead of fighting—and I am happy—but I also feel this pressure behind my eyes, even though nothing remotely sad is happening. I notice my mom’s lipstick, the color of beets. I notice the same beety color on my dad’s neck. I notice wine on the table, the bottle empty, and dishes piled in the sink. I notice that my mom isn’t wearing her hair up like usual, but down, hiding her bad ear and cheek. I can’t remember ever seeing her so pretty. Come, Emiliana. Dance with me. All yours, says my dad with a bow. Good luck. I stare at him, waiting for a wink—some clue like he sent me over breakfast to let me know we’re still playing along with her. But he sends no clues. Just his dopey smile which makes me feel like he and my mom are the ones in on the secret together, without me. I’m gross, I say, picking at my clothes. I smell like kids and basketball. I have to shower. Wait! says my mom. I made you a smoothie! It’s in the fridge. I’m not hungry. But it’s blueberry and peanut butter. Your favorite. You eat it. I have to get started on homework. Homework over break? says my dad. What’s wrong with these teachers? My Great Transition project, I say, heading to my room. I told you. It’s half my grade. They argue for me to stay and dance but—trust me—I’ve heard them argue a million times louder and harder.
Kristina and I are cooling off in bed. My finger traces the valleys and hills of her vertebrae in the dim cityglow that fills our window. The bed belongs to both of us in name but does not always enjoy us as a unit. Many nights one of us takes it solo. Alternating with the futon. I know we are not the only couple that fights and makes up and fights and makes up. But we have been stuck for so long on fight that making up now feels like an unexpected gift that must be returned. I do not want to return it. I want to keep tracing the topography of my wife’s body. Run my hands down her strong legs. Take in her warmth. Fall asleep together. Wake up. Repeat and repeat until we are old and soft and our memories a little crumbly so only the happy bits are left. What are you going to do by yourself all week, mister bachelor? she whispers. Miss you and Em. Liar. We are trying to keep quiet, for Emi’s sake, but when Kristina accidently knees my butt as she climbs on me we cannot help giggling. Seriously, she says, sweeping her hair from my face. Seriously. And while I’m missing you I might sleep in. Sleep in and cook big disgusting breakfasts. Breakfast nachos? You know it. Mmm. What else? Organize the clubhouse kitchen. Sharpen the knives. Season the cast iron. Do inventory for the rest of the season. Thrilling stuff. What about Day Zero? she asks, not missing a beat. Probably get a beer with Lucas. Probably? Most likely. Just one? Possibly more than one. But upcity, right? Upcity, I repeat. You won’t go to down to the Esplanade. Even if Lucas wants to. I take a calming breath. It is one thing for Kristina to volunteer for extraction duty over the holiday and another for her to tell me how I can celebrate with my friends in her absence. But she has been adamant: making me promise that I will not join the big parades by the seaport. Making me promise—in her words—that I will not be a sheep among sheep. Larch, she says, not whispering. You won’t go down there, right? Let me hear you say it. I’ll try my best to resist, I say. But you know Lucas. He can be convincing. She withdraws her arms and legs. All her warmth slips away with her. She pulls on a shirt. Gathers her hair. Begins pulling it back violently. Turning her head. Giving me her face. Her ear. She would never admit that she uses her scars like armor when she is upset but I know. Her way of telling me we are waking up from the dream of today. She is done acting like we have traveled back ten years as a family. And so am I. What’s wrong? I say. Nothing’s wrong. You’re the one who told me to call out. You said we’d catch up. We did, she says. We had lunch. We got drunk and danced. We fucked. Well what do you call that? she says, stepping into sweatpants. Just say whatever it is you want to say, I sigh, exhausted at the idea of another round. But the bell has rung. The fight is happening. I tell her that this feels very much like some political stunt—volunteering over the holiday while everyone else celebrates. I ask her bluntly: Is she running again for office? She laughs. No. That ship has sailed. Then don’t leave tomorrow. Go next week. I can’t. Says who? The world won’t fall apart without you loading batteries for a week. It would if everybody said that. Everybody is not saying that! Stay. Emi will be skiing up north. We’ll get the week together. Think about today. How great was today? We could have a week of todays. We won’t do any holiday stuff. We can just work. If that’s how you want to celebrate. At the garden. The docks. Wherever. But we should be together. I’m sorry, Larch. I can’t. What if I come with you? I say, sitting up, my back against the cool wall that separates our room from Emi’s. We could go to New York together. She shakes her head: I need to go alone. I told you. I could just show up at Gowanus and work with you. I don’t need your permission. She laughs. You’re going to volunteer for extraction duty? Over the holiday? Sure. Why not? She raises an eyebrow, then shakes her head. No, she says, pulling on a sweatshirt. The answer is no. Sixteen fucking years, I say. Keep your voice down. Emi’s sleeping. Sixteen fucking years, I whisper. Everything isn’t perfect. I know that. But there’s still a lot worth celebrating. Not for everyone, she says. For us, I say. So celebrate it. With me. I can’t. You could. I won’t. I blurt the obvious and not for the first time: Are you seeing someone else? She looks at me through the dim halflight for a long moment, then puts a knee on the bed. Another knee. Crawls over in that way that always gets me. Takes my face in her hands. Larch. Listen to me. Seeing someone else is the last thing on my mind. Then what is? What’s on your mind? Even in the dim I catch a shine to her eyes. Like she wants to cry. Like she wants me to tell her she is allowed to cry. Allowed to lower her armor. Instead it is me who opens up. As always. She catches my tears with the back of her hand. She wipes her hand on my chest. You’re right about today, she whispers. Today was so wonderful. My love. Let’s not ruin it.
With my headphones on, and Nirvana as loud as I can make them, I can’t hear my mom or dad through the wall. But I can still imagine I can hear them, which is somehow worse. Each time I take off my headphones to check, they’re trying to be quiet, and failing. The moaning is the worst. So I keep my music loud. Lie in the dark. Feel my heartbeat in my fingernails and ride the wave of my hunger. I can’t say if hunger is the same for everyone, but for me it starts small—a little wave in my belly, which swells without warning into something large and panicky that begs me to fill it up. With focus, I can ride the crest of the wave and glide down the other side. Then the wave will close out neatly into a flat, still surface that sparks with a kind of giddy light-headedness that melts everything away. Even when the world is spinning so fast—everything that’s wrong, or could go wrong—if I ride the wave just right, I can control the spinning. Like magic. The spinning stops, and I disappear into something clean and calm and completely mine. That’s one outcome of riding the wave. The other outcome is I fall. Falling off the wave is like the ocean opens up and wants me and everything else. Then the world comes rushing back—school, grades, kids at school, my parents’ fighting, my mom yelling at me about the Crisis and how it could happen again—spinning faster than before. Falling happens most easily after basketball practice. Or in the school cafeteria. Also late night such as now when there’s a blueberry peanut butter smoothie in the fridge. Times like these demand highest discipline. Your hands shake. Your heart hammers. But the reward’s worth it. Because it’s important to know hunger. My mom grew up in a border camp. Once she went four days without food. She was younger than me. She says it made her stronger. She isn’t right about everything, but she’s right about this: not only to know hunger, but to feel it in your core. How else can you control it? I switch from Nirvana and lower the volume to check on my parents. Finally it’s silent through the wall. Quiet at last. But no. Emiliana? My door is a pale rhombus of light. I close my eyes. Slow my breath. Twitch a little. Pretending to sleep. I want her to leave me alone. At the same time, I don’t want her to leave me alone. I don’t want to want both of these things at once, but with my mom, it’s often the case. She sits on the edge of my bed. If she’s brought my smoothie, I’ll tell her I don’t want it. She puts a hand on my forearm. She rocks my shoulder. Hi Mom, I say, sliding my headphones off one ear, leaving the other guarded. Hi Sweetie, she says. What are you listening to? Music. What music? You wouldn’t know. It’s old. So am I. Try me. Britney Spears. She laughs lightly: I know Britney. Okay. She sits there holding my arm. Her hair’s no longer down. She smells warm. Sweet. She doesn’t have my smoothie. She crosses and uncrosses her legs. Like she’s waiting for me to say something. But that’s her job. She’s the mom. Not me. Did you finish your Transition project? she asks. No, it’s huge, I remind her for the millionth time. I’ll be lucky to finish it over break. I’m one-hundred-percent ready for her to say how lucky I am to be worried about school instead of refugee camps or wildfires. But tonight’s like this morning. She won’t ignite. She squeezes my arm and says I’m a good student. Thanks, I say. You try so hard at school, Emiliana. I’m glad you asked me to help with your project. I wish I could’ve interviewed my mother like that. Yeah, I say. There’s a long pause that just keeps on pausing. I’m grateful for Britney even if she’s just singing in one ear. Then my mom asks, Are you excited to go skiing with your friends? This would be the time to tell her the girls aren’t my friends—just my teammates who invited me because our coach probably made them—and no, I’m not going. But my mom’s been so nice today. She hasn’t made me feel guilty for anything. She made me a smoothie. She’s trying. Yeah Mom. I’m super excited. You’ll have fun, she says, then whispers my name again: Emiliana? Yeah? She lowers her voice and switches to Spanish: Everything I do, I do for you. For your future. You know that. Thanks, I say in English. But do you? Do you know that? Yes, Mom. Never forget what happened. How close they came to destroying everything. And how lucky we are. You can’t understand. You’re fifteen. That’s why I tell you. We’re so fortunate. We fought so hard for this. But it’s not over. Don’t let the holiday celebrations make you forget. Okay. And remember that you are strong. Thanks. You’re so strong when you want to be. Okay, Mom. She kisses me on the forehead and leaves, closing the door to seal off the light. I stare at the ceiling in the darkness and promise myself—if I’m a mom one day—never to make my kid feel guilty for things she can’t control. Like being born after the Crisis. Like going to high school instead of saving the world. Like having a room of her own and food whenever I want it. I promise my future self to remember that if you tell your kid how lucky she is, it never makes her feel lucky. It makes her feel terrible. Like it’s her fault for being lucky, and her fault for needing to be told all the time how lucky she is, and how everyone has sacrificed everything so she can continue being so lucky without knowing how lucky she is. I fold my pillow and face the wall, my stomach clenching, the world spinning. This is how you fall off your wave. I rebalance. Refocus. I’m glad she didn’t bring my smoothie. At the same time I wish she had. Then my door opens again. She’s back. She remembered the smoothie after all. But no. Wrong again. Four quick steps across the room. Scooch, Em. Make room. She slides under my blankets. Puts an arm over me. Folds her legs behind my legs. All my body is tensed. This isn’t something we do. Not since I was young. But as the seconds go by, she begins breathing deeply, and I relax. Muscle by muscle. Even my stomach. Like melting. Like the best sort of melting. Something has changed. Between her and my dad. Between us. Maybe she’s made the same decision as me not to leave this week. In the morning she’ll be here, bags unpacked, shaking me awake to jog with her, and I’m saying, Okay Mom, and we’re running to the very top of Nuuk and she’s wearing her hair down and me too and our hair’s blowing behind us like one long scarf one banner one cape. But of course we’re not. As suddenly as I’ve fallen asleep, I’m awake. I’m awake and she’s gone. Not gone from my bed. Not gone jogging. Just gone. I pull on a sweatshirt and drag myself to the kitchen where it smells like coffee and toast and my dad’s streaming a sportscast and the table is set for two, not three. Morning, Em! What can I get you? The smoothie. The one Mom made. How about something warm? Oatmeal? Eggs? Tapioca? Just the smoothie thanks. You sure? I’ll make anything you want. Yes Dad. I’m sure.
Emi Vargas Brinkman North American History Mrs. Helmandi Great Transition Project (First Draft)
Imagine your home is on fire, but instead of getting the fire department, you just watch the flames and live life like everything is fine. That was the Climate Crisis. It’s hard for people growing up now to imagine, but during the Crisis, everyone knew what was happening and did basically nothing to stop the criminals causing it. When my parents were my age, to take one example, the destroying classes were still extracting oil and producing gas-powered cars and airplanes while getting richer and richer. Some people like Mama Greta tried to stop them but failed. Then the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed and the Great Transition started. The Great Transition led to everything good that people take for granted now, including the Southwest Solar Authority, the San Francisco BayGate, the Big U, the Great Green Wall, plus carbon and methane capture, and cities like Nuuk, as well as recycled old cities like Miami where life is impossible because of heatwaves and flooding and mosquito diseases like West Nile and dengue which we thankfully have vaccines for now.
All of these combined efforts helped get us to Day Zero. Day Zero was the day the world reached net-zero emissions. This year is the 16th anniversary. Most people treat Day Zero as a major holiday but not everyone. Some people (my mom, for example) say celebrating Day Zero would be like my basketball team celebrating a win after losing a thousand games in a row while destroying our own court and all getting injured. Other people (my dad, for example) say that’s exactly when a win is needed most. In conclusion, the Great Transition was essential for our survival, but should have started decades, or even a century earlier. Then kids now would be able to see animals like koalas, giraffes, and elephants. To add on, we would have white sandy beaches and coral reefs with neon fish. Lastly, billions of people wouldn’t have been forced to flee their homes or die. For example, my grandparents, who never got to hear about the Great Transition, or celebrate Day Zero, or meet me.
Fireworks before dawn. Bass thumping our walls. Neighbors laughing loudly getting a big jump on their day-drinking. Today is the day. I roll over and turn on my screen. Parades in Wellington. Moscow. Johannesburg. Minsk. Upsala. Holiday inching our way with the sun. Dad? Emi in the doorway. I pat the bed: Holiday watch party, want in? No thanks. Want to run? I flip on the light. Emi is dressed in basketball shorts and sweatshirt. Her sneakers in one hand. My sneakers in the other. Seriously? I say, yawning. Okay. Alright. I’m awake. Let’s roll. Our jogging loop is a zipper—straight upcity and straight back down—a route that sends us through each of the six plazas above ours. If Kristina were here she would be clocking Emi. Pushing her to lift her legs higher. Beat her best time. Emi and I keep an easier pace as we pass beneath the streetlamps and the hanging gardens and the last wisps of northern lights. Three mornings since Kristina has left and three mornings Emi has woken me early to jog: her way of saying she is happy to do anything that her mother does not force her to do. I don’t mind. Except today. Today I mind a little. It is extremely early. We are not alone in the first glow of dawn. Workers in headlamps putting final touches on food booths. Unloading portable toilets. On Sorlaat Plaza three older women in beach chairs and blankets have arrived early to stake a spot. They wave sparklers as we run by. At Summit Park—when Kristina jogs with Emi—they do pushups and squats and lunges. On our own Emi and I high-five and throw in a few half-assed hamstring stretches. We catch our breath as morning turns the horizon into a thin pink ribbon. Too dark to see the bay or the fjords. Little cotton balls of fireworks burst silently below lighting up columns of geothermal steam from the plants. Strains of music float from downcity. Horns and bells. One loud drum thumping quarter notes. I squeeze Emi’s shoulder: Happy Z-Day, Em. Happy Z-Day, Dad, she says. Emi should not be here this morning. She should be skiing with her teammates. Am I disappointed she backed out of her trip? A little. She worries too much. I want her to be a carefree kid having fun with friends. But she is growing up. Making choices for herself. I must accept that. And I am grateful she chose me for this week. I squeeze her again. Love you lots, Em. Love you too, Dad. We watch fireworks. Enjoy the quiet. Then she asks, Are you glad Mom left? Glad? No, I’m not glad. But it’s more fun without her. You have to admit. I don’t like to hear that. Your mother loves you. Yeah but why does she always— Emiliana. She just wants the best for you. Hey party people! Happy Day Zero at the top of the world! Five young men stagger over the lip of the park. Draped on each other laughing and weighed down with bottles. Either the end of a long night or an early start to a long day. Emi steps behind me. Happy Z-Day fellas, I say. They totter over. One hugs me. Another pushes a shot glass into my hand. I toss the liquor over my shoulder when they cheers and throw their heads back. * Emi and I return downcity juking through the growing crowds. Norsaq Plaza sounds as though every speaker wall has been assembled and every DJ is playing a test set. The music stops Emi. She bobs her head. Shuffles her feet. Dawn has chased away the last of the northern lights. Emi asks if we can stay. Let’s go home and eat first, I say. I’m not hungry. You will be. We have a long fun day ahead of us. Fine. Then we’ll come right back? Her excitement is contagious. I feel the spark in our kitchen standing at the sink: Emi chugs a glass of water then wipes her mouth and asks—practically yells—out of nowhere if we can go downcity to the Esplanade? Please? I hear Kristina’s voice in my head and I almost say no. But I do not say no. I entertain the idea. Emi has never seen the parades. Probably the only kid in Nuuk to miss last year’s big anniversary celebration. And this year is estimated to be even bigger and better. She does not love crowds but she will be okay by my side. And how special to experience her first time with her? Especially from the Tundra viewing box with Lucas and the team. Plus if Emi is volunteering—begging—to step outside her comfort zone I have to encourage her. Although she is not merely stepping outside her comfort zone. She is also rebelling against her mother. Like the early morning jogging. But a little rebellion is a good thing. Kristina of all people would agree. Kristina who has not been in touch once in three days since leaving for New York. So maybe—if I am being honest—I want to rebel a little bit too. Sure, Em. We can go downcity. Really? Why not? I laugh. We’ll go straight to the Tundra box, watch the parades, then come straight back. And we can leave earlier if you want. Deal? Deal, she says, bouncing over to hug me. Deal, I say again. But first breakfast. * Meals have become difficult for Emi. She prefers soft foods. I try to accommodate. Breakfast this morning is a gazpacho of cantaloupe and peach. Applesauce. A single hen egg slow poached. I crack the shell for Emi as she sits. The egg is warm and creamy and perfect. I nudge over the saltshaker. I pour a glass of watermelon juice for her. Coffee for me. I watch her examine her food. I say nothing. I eat. I was genuinely excited for her to go skiing this week. Maybe too excited. I want her to know good snow. I want her to stay up late with other girls eating junk. Laughing, slaphappy. Kristina agrees she needs to spend more time with kids her age. Emi seemed excited too—bags packed—but then two nights ago she backed out. What if something happens? she wanted to know. Something will definitely happen, I told her. You’ll have fun with your friends. What if I fall off the ski lift? They have safety bars. What if there’s an avalanche? The resorts are very safe, Em. What if I choke? You won’t choke. I could. Then do this, I said, and demonstrated how to perform a solo Heimlich using the back of my chair. A skill everyone should have—especially Emi who was never an anxious child but almost sixteen now and she suddenly is. Scared of crowds. Scared of choking on food. Kristina and I have different theories of what is happening. What we should do. Lately Emi has been gagging on her food. She says she can’t help it. I say the problem is anxiety. Anxiety from what, Kirstina wants to know. She says Emi has it too easy: without anything to challenge her, her mind is inventing challenges. When Emi declared she could only eat smoothies, Kristina all but gave away our blender. Today it’s smoothies, tomorrow it’s something else, Kristina says, we cannot give in so easily. But this week, without Kristina, I decide I will. Give in. Give my girl whatever she wants. * I change into my old Forest Corps jumper and return to the kitchen sneaking a peek at Emi’s plate. She has not eaten a thing—just redecorated her food like a pro. Well how do I look? Fat? she says. Old? Wrong, I laugh. I look like a hero. That is the message they push in the leadup every year. Plastered on the maglevs and windbelts and banners on farms. The old episodes of Corps Power they love to recast on a loop. Correction, Emi says. You look like a fat old hero. I suck in my stomach and say that most veterans cannot even fit into their uniforms and Emi points out I’m not exactly fitting into mine and we laugh some more and the laughter feels so good like a vitamin that has been missing from the diet of our family for too long. Can we go? she asks. Try to eat something first. Have a bite of egg. I did. Doesn’t look like it. I mean I tried. Can you try again? Emi has the same wavy hair as Kristina. Same thin upper lip. Same skin that freckles and browns at the mere mention of sunshine. The likenesses end there. Kristina is not a tall woman but she is solid. Emi on the other hand is all length: already taller than her mother. But too thin. She has a calcium deficiency, her doctor tells us. She needs more calories. More protein. She had a difficult start to life. Born two months premature. In and out of newborn intensive care. Infections and IV drips and catheters. I worry that she might never catch up. We’ll be on our feet all day, I say. You need energy. Just a few bites. Please. Em? She will not look up from her plate. We are no longer laughing. Her teachers have had her studying the Crisis all year. Big research projects to honor the Transition. She has interviewed me. Kristina. Our neighbor Maru. I think it was too much too soon. Kristina disagrees. She thinks research projects are too little. It’s unnatural for a fifteen-year-old girl to begin and end each day in luxury, she says. The human body is not built to sustain endless comfort. She must face challenges—and no the basketball court doesn’t count. She must have something to overcome. Something real. I watch Emi mash her egg into paste. She has never gone hungry. Never worried for water. Never inhaled a burning forest or waded a drowning city or buried friends. She missed the collapse of the ice sheets. The extinctions. The evacuations and migrations. I like to believe this is a positive development. I like to believe we should not worship the past. Instead start over. A blank happy slate. Yet we must remember. Like Kristina always says. To avoid our mistakes and such. And our children must face some adversity. I know this. As a father. As someone with common sense. But does knowing make it easier? It does not. The other night for example—watching Emi practice the Heimlich on the back of her chair to rehearse for a time when she has nobody to save her—not Kristina not me—it turned my vision narrowblack. I told her to stop. Maybe yelled at her to stop. Maybe knocked the chair away and hugged her thin body to mine and told her she didn’t have to go skiing if she didn’t want. She could shadow me at the Tundra stadium all week. Hang out in the clubhouse. Help with inventory. Meal prep. We’d have fun. I promised. Dad? she says now at the kitchen table. Em? She looks up. Her eyes are shining. I can’t eat, she says. That’s okay. Can I make a smoothie? No, I tell her. Let me. * Norsaq Plaza is a solid mass of people everyone dancing and singing and swaying and sweating. So many bodies that they block the view—no fjords no bay—just a panorama of celebration. We shoulder through. Emi’s hand hot in mine. You’re doing great, I tell her. Broken glass pops underfoot. A slight tang of vomit in the air. Larch my man! Emi! Happy Z-Day! Have a nip! Maru hugs me. Kisses Emi. Knights us with beaded necklaces from around her neck. She is so intensely happy and red-eyed from whatever liquid is in her jar that Emi cannot help flashing her gums as she does when smiling her radiant unguarded smile. Hi Maru. Hey there girl. We are fortunate to have Maru as a neighbor. She mentors Emi at CareCorps. Walks Emi home. Trusts Emi with feeding her cat when she is gone on extraction duty. Today she is wearing her Deconstruction Corps uniform. A patch on her sleeve: Miami Company. Meaning Maru has earned the right to celebrate as hard as she wants. Make it a party Larch baby just toss it on back. I take her jar. It is cold fire behind my eyes one instant then a heavy blanket the next. My pulse drops. The music wobbles. And you girl? Emi looks at me. Special occasion, I shrug. Don’t tell your mother. Where is wonder woman? Maru asks as Emi sips and coughs. Brooklyn, I answer. Extraction duty. Maru raises an eyebrow: Storm season. Tough draw. She volunteered. Course she did. We’re going downcity! Emi blurts. To the Esplanade. Just for the parade, I add. Can you get me in that VIP box with your Tundra girls? Maru asks. I tell her where to meet us. Assuming she can still walk by noon. She eyeballs her jar and estimates her chances at twenty-eighty. We laugh. She kisses Emi. Shimmies off. Emi and I bump into a few more neighbors as we weave our way to the maglev platform. Waiting for the next downcity train is a dance troupe in face paint and head dresses. A youth group in red uniforms. And more people surging onto the platform. Emi holds my arm. One of Maru’s jobs during the Transition was to find people who drowned, she says. Deconstruction was not a fun deployment, I say. You did some. Not like Maru. People drowned in their attics, Emi says. Maru had to chop through the roofs. That’s why you should never go to the attic when it floods. Maru says always get on the roof. She’s right. But you know you don’t have to worry about flooding here. Some people had been in their attics for months. Their bodies were rotten. It wasn’t a fun time, I say, wondering what else Maru has shared with my daughter. Maru’s parents died too, Emi says. Em, I say, pushing against the crowd to better face her. We don’t have to worry about those things anymore. Nuuk’s a safe city. The safest. The ocean is hundreds of feet below. Look. We have seawalls. Raingardens. Barrier islands. We are so fortunate. That’s why we’re celebrating. Don’t you want to celebrate? Don’t you want to have some fun? She seems to think on this. Then she tells me that it could happen again. A second Crisis. I tell her she is wrong. It can’t and it won’t. She tells me that we shouldn’t have waited so long to begin the Transition. You should’ve acted sooner, she says. I say I agree. Which I do. She wants to know why we waited so long. I say it was complicated. Which it was. She wants to know how exactly it was complicated and although it is clearly my daughter speaking I am hearing her mother. And perhaps some of the cold fire from Maru’s jar. I remove my beads and slide them over her head. Look at Maru, I say. Her life’s been tough. She’s seen horrible things. But you saw her just now. She isn’t scared. She isn’t worried. She’s happy! She’s drunk, says Emi, leaning into me as the maglev whispers up to the platform. * When the maglev tilts downcity you get the famous Nuuk view: a sparkling flow of hexagonal metal and mass timber and photovoltaic glass that cascades from plaza to rambla to plaza to rambla—the whole city hugging the cliffs above the ocean which has nearly finished rising, the scientists say. From Norsaq Plaza Emi as a girl learned to count the clipper ships sailing north with batteries from New York. Cargo blimps like ribbons of seabirds returning home to nest. Geothermal plants pushing skyward their towers of steam. The living rooftops and hanging gardens that sway and ripple in the breeze to make the city appear as though it is breathing which Emi—as a girl—believed it was. People from away like to call us elitists. I hear it every game. We act as though Nuuk’s the center of the world, they say. All I can say is come live it for yourself. We are the new New York. But safer. Younger. Greener. Twenty-one glorious daylight hours mid-summer. Northern lights. An international hub of public finance. A bedrock of the precious metals’ industry. And of course home to the Tundra: defending world champs. Do I miss the forest? The morning dewdrip? The hiss of waves on sand? We all miss something. But unlike Kristina I am not stuck in the past. I am thankful for the now. The security we have built. Our rescued planet. Our new economy. The view from the maglev. Emi. All of it. * Three stops from the seaport a man with a wide forehead and red nose shuffles onto the maglev. He nods at my jumper and thanks me for my service. It was a team effort, I say. I wasn’t old enough to enlist, he says. Sold G-bonds instead. His breath is sour with alcohol. Trying not to slur. Doing so-so. He eyes the patch on my sleeve and asks if I fought fires or reforested. Both, says Emi on my behalf. He was a smokejumper. He did controlled burns with the Tribes. And deconstruction in New York. He was on Corps Power. Season three. The man squints as if trying to place my face. Only a few episodes, I say. They ever send you to Jersey? he says. I shake my head. So where’d they send you? Kansas, Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, California, Mexicali, Nevada—Emi rattles off my deployments. Her pride makes me proud. Hell of a lot of tours, says the man. My mom did even more, Emi says. Not that many more, I say, mostly joking. My people were from Jersey, says the man. Held out till the end. Still be there if they built us a damn seawall. Instead they sent you to Mexico. Not right. We need our borders back if you ask me. You ask me it’s time for some serious housekeeping. I feel Emi tense. If Kristina were here she would be reminding this man—and the maglev—that the Crisis didn’t give a shit about borders and why not pack his racist ass south if he misses it so much and good luck surviving down there and while he’s at it go ahead and fuck the fuck off. Kristina’s public displays in such situations are locally famous. A few have been upvoted to the top of MemeFeed. A big reason she nearly won a council seat. An equally big reason she lost. And a major reason I am glad she is in New York: one thing I do not want to do on Emi’s first Day Zero is relitigate the politics of the Great Transition. The maglev glides to a stop. Two plazas upcity from the Esplanade but I whisper to Emi that we could walk and she gets the message. We stand. My dad wasn’t old enough either, Emi says as we step onto the platform. Huh? says the man. My dad wasn’t old enough to enlist either. But he did anyway. It’s called courage. And bravery. And sacrifice for the common good. Asshole. She flashes him a thin middle finger as the doors hiss and close. Emiliana! I say as the maglev glides away. You can’t do that! Mom would. You aren’t your mother. That is one-hundred-percent not okay. Then why are you smiling? I’m not smiling. Dad. You one-hundred-percent are. * We hear the Esplanade before we see it: a tangled chorus of competing bass lines and drums. The hightide roar of crowd. The crackle of fireworks. The sounds grow louder until suddenly the rambla delivers us into the hot supernova of the holiday. Emi chews on her beads. Comes to a stop. We can turn back, I say. No pressure. We can watch from home. She frowns like I have offended her. Yanks me ahead by the hand. The Esplanade hugs the seawall along the curve of the bay. Set against the seawall are the bleachers and viewing boxes where people are claiming spots. On the landward side are the mutual aid associations and Transition veteran clubs and unions and cooperatives. Each with their own flowing tent with banquet tables and induction grills and dance floors jumping to music from speaker towers ten twenty feet tall. There are rides for kids. Games and prizes. Paper lanterns and flowers strung through the birch trees turning the Esplanade into a fluttering canyon of color. Emi and I are theoretically making our way to the Tundra viewing box. In practice however it is stop and go and stop again. Stop to make way for a Teamsters’ marching band. Stop to watch a drum corps on stilts. Stop so I can eat a salmon kebob. Drink a beer. At one tent run by Carbon Capture they play a song I have heard from Emi’s room a million times and she is caught on a line—she lets go of my hand to run over and leap in with the other kids. All of them dancing in synch like they know the same moves which clearly they do. I watch from the bar. A group of CCCers are swaying arm-in-arm singing their anthem. One waves me over: Happy Z-Day brother! She pours me a dark beer the color of tar and one for herself. Happy Z-Day, I say back. We cheers. Keeping an eye on Emi I sing along with the CCC crew knowing maybe half their words. They laugh and clap me on the back. Big bear hugs lift me off my feet. We always had a friendly rivalry—Forest Corps and Carbon Capture. Same end different means. Today though it is all love all around. Like when the Tundra won the championship—everyone in Nuuk suddenly best friends. Strangers hugging strangers. High-fives in every plaza. Kristina would enjoy this. The solidarity. I take out my screen and ping her. No response. I try again. I aim my screen at Emi to record her dancing and laughing. She is so happy. Her joy is a filament from her heart directly to mine that puts tears into the back of my eyes. Threatens to knock me off my stool. So real I can practically reach out and pluck it. That’s my girl! I shout to the woman refilling my mug. Your girl’s got moves, she smiles back. I will never see this woman again but I am thrilled she can experience a flash of my Emi. The real Emi. How she used to be. Unafraid. Unabashedly joyful. I send Kristina the recording. She will not be happy to see us downcity but I am feeling expansive and know that she will be happy to see Emi so happy. She has to be. Em’s having a blast. We’re thinking of you. Love you so much. Happy Z-Day. Emi runs over out of breath. She wants to stay for one more song. Have at it, I wave. We can stay here all day if you want. I tell myself that Emi has loosened her knots of worry because of the music. The holiday atmosphere. The taste of Maru’s liquor. But I know it is really her mother’s absence. Kristina puts so much pressure on the girl. She wants Emi to be resilient. Strong. Prepared for any future. I want these things too. Of course. What father would not? The CCC woman goes to pour me another beer. Better make it water, I say. Long day ahead. Right it is, she says, and refills my mug all the same. * We take our time enjoying the Esplanade. When we finally arrive at the Tundra box Lucas has a necklace of beads over his Forest Corps jumper and sure enough there is Maru. See you found your sober legs, I say. Same place you lost yours, she says, throwing Emi a wink. Maru is not so interested in basketball as she is in women in athletic uniform. To her grave disappointment however the players are dressed as civilians. Lucas introduces her to Dani Te—our star rookie point guard. Maru must be twice Dani’s age but she has Dani blushing and getting her a drink and all we can say is go Maru go. Lucas pounds me on the back. Hugs Emi. Brings us to a spot he saved up front where Emi can see. The first parades are already underway. Huge decorated floats with multiple levels some as long as a maglev. Musicians and dancers. When the Forest Corps float rolls by Emi whistles and cheers. Lucas and I take our bows. After the floats come balloons and bands and jugglers followed by the largest floats from the Leadership Council and the Nuuk Mining Cooperative and the Nuuk Financial Cooperative. Amidst the cheering there is some light jeering. Some good-natured. Some not so good-natured. It grows louder and less kind as the massive floats inch by. Why are they booing? Emi asks. You know why. Because people can’t live without a villain, Lucas says. Because they profited from the Crisis, Emi says. Not all of them, I say. And right then—as if Kristina can sense she is missing a chance to shame the Council and big cooperatives with Emi—my screen pings and after three days of silence here she is. I open my mouth to greet her but she cuts me off. She is angry. Screaming. Why isn’t Emi on her ski trip? Why would you bring her downcity of all places? Why? You promised Larch! You promised not to go the Esplanade! Mom? asks Emi. I nod and turn a shoulder so she won’t overhear every word. Lucas flashes me a sympathy grimace. Calm down, I say. Emi’s fine. You saw her dancing. She’s having a blast. Leave, she says. Take Emi and go home. You have to go right now. No, I say, my voice rising. We’re allowed to celebrate. Today of all days. Give Emi a break. Let her have some fun. Let her be a kid. This is so good for her. I wish you were here. Larch! Shut up. Stop talking. Listen to me. If you love our daughter you need to get her away from there. Go upcity! Now! Please, my love. Please. Go! A switch flips in me: My love. Why? Is something wrong? Just go! Take Emiliana and run! My arms prickle. A slug of nausea in my gut. I look at Emi. Okay, I tell Kristina. We’ll go. We’re leaving right now. You are? says Lucas. We are? says Emi. We are, I say, and grab her hand. Lucas follows as we start pushing through the crowd. I nod for him to tap Maru so she can join us but we are too late. They sound like fireworks. Two sharp bangs. They are not fireworks. A board member collapses on the Financial float. Another from the Leadership Council loses his head in a red mist. Shock ripples over the crowd. Then a swell of panic. The Esplanade heaves. People jumping off floats. The sky fills with drones. Everyone screaming and scrambling—trying to escape but from what and from where? I pick up Emi. She is suddenly so small in my arms. So light so young. She clings to me. People stampede. The fence around the Tundra box splinters and falls. Emi yells as she and I are crushed together. The breath from my chest is being squeezed out. My ribs straining. Lucas helps lift Emi onto my shoulders. She screams again: Maru! Not ten feet away we watch Maru go down. The crowd closes around her. Over her. Emi screams Maru’s name again and I try to push against the rush of panicked people but they are a wave crashing into us and you can never save everyone—believe me—you can at best save some. Lucas and I turn with the crowd and push like we are back in the Sierras shouldering over a beetle-killed pine. Together we break through. Arrive at the seawall. Nuuk Bay twenty feet below. The water maybe four degrees above freezing. The crowd is crushing us against the seawall which was built to keep us all safe yet this is the nature of walls—they work both ways. I raise Emi above my head so she can climb up and straddle the wall. Then using Lucas’s shoulder for leverage I claw and scramble to join her. Give Lucas a lift. All down the Esplanade people are following our lead. We have to jump, Lucas says. I nod. He’s right. The music from the Esplanade cuts. The silence makes the screaming and crying that much louder. Emi can’t look away. I touch her chin. Turn her face. We lock eyes. Em. It’s going to be very cold. Just keep breathing. You will feel like you can’t, but you can. Just keep breathing. Then start swimming for shore. I’ll be there with you. Lucas too. You can do this. Got it? Got it, she says, her eyes huge like she knows I mean it and because there is no other option I do. Her mother would be so proud of her. Will be. I tell her this. I kiss the side of her head. Take her hand. Lucas takes her other hand. We jump.
I was fifteen—same age as Emi—when the ocean saved me for the first time. My father and I were harvesting kelp. Working the granite ledge at dawn. Wetsuits and goggles and knives. Plastic laundry baskets on the boat to collect the slick ribbons that we would dry and cut and package and ship. The early morning sky was veiled in haze from faraway fires that had been raging all summer. This was the heart of the Crisis but hardly anybody called it that. It was just the world I had grown up in. Which is the only world that any of us know. When I was eight Acadia burned shore to shore. We lived well north of the park but all summer the sun shone sickly through the haze. No stars. The blackberries my mother grew on a trellis by the drying huts turned sour. My parents and I were eating breakfast when the sky finally cleared. We had just sat down for oatmeal by the big kitchen window when it happened: a shock of blue so sudden we all stopped eating. The winter I was nine we had record snowfall. The winter I was ten it did not snow an inch. When I was eleven there was a fish die-off in the Penobscot. Nobody knew why. When I was thirteen the lobster disappeared. When I was fourteen the puffins disappeared. When I was fifteen the hemlocks disappeared. They had been fighting the invasive woolly adelgid as long as I had been alive. You could spend a whole morning crushing the tiny insects between your thumb and index finger and not clear one branch of one tree. I had to walk deep into the woods to find a living healthy hemlock. One such search I came across an emaciated moose calf on the ground covered in ticks. Thousands of them. Some big as grapes. Moose were extremely rare then. This was partially why. The calf opened an eye like pleading with me: Do something. So I ran home and got our rifle and I did. Ever since her school project Emi has been asking why we did not act sooner. Her mother has an easier answer. She grew up protesting with her family. Blocking oil trains. As for me, what can I say? My parents were loving people. Resourceful. Intelligent. They knew what was happening. My mother pointed out how the goldenthread blossomed months before the pollinators arrived. And the loons which used to winter on our shores—how long since we’d heard their ghostly calls? My father knew the tidepools better than anyone. He’d watched the Irish moss march south. Alaria gone north. He’d watched Laminaria longicruris—a kelp that prefers cold water—disappear in favor of sugar kelp which loves warmer shallows. He’d seen the last of the eelgrass. So yes they knew. We knew. But I am asking for Emi—and not in a rhetorical sense—what more could we have done? My family like most families was busy adapting. My father’s father had built our house with upcycled materials at the turn of the century. The house was a patchwork castle rising three stories out of the hemlock and pine. Each floor had its own woodstove. I remember that warmth. My mother reaching into cast iron with bare hands to turn logs and encourage embers. The glow on her face. Steam on the windows. The windows were not true windows but used glass patio doors my grandfather had sealed horizontally in place. For ventilation he had built a system of flaps into the walls to cycle out the damp maritime climate. But that climate had long since passed away with him—by the time I was fifteen our woodstoves were cold eleven months of the year. Instead of chopping wood we were assembling cisterns to collect rainwater. Installing solar. Digging a deeper well. Constructing tent platforms for the migrants coming north from the Gulf. We gave up on corn. Planted peaches. Dug two tiered paddies for rice. We continued the family business: Wild Maine Seaweed. My father and I foraged and harvested. My mother prepared. Her kitchen was her laboratory. Mortars and pestles and hanging scales. Little glass jars by the dozens. She had formulated seaweed blends that she packed in capsules to treat everything. Hypothyroid. Weight gain. Heart disease. Gut health. Clients across the globe as far as Japan. She’d authored a cookbook. Seaweed soups. Dulse salads. Kelp noodles. Irish moss custard. Kimchi. Dashi. She kept a ballcap on a peg above the sink. She’d flip it backwards for a hairnet as she worked and turn up the kitchen speakers and sing along to Dolly Parton and Valerie June and Taylor Swift. Everything about sharpening knives and seasoning cast iron and pickling and canning and caring for a sourdough starter—everything I know about food and cooking I learned it all from her. She was a resourceful, fun woman. Emi would have loved her. The Crisis was economic ruin for our neighbors who knew nothing but lobstering. Lots turned to drugs. Some to suicide. For my parents however it was a boon because kelp contains iodine 127 which prevents the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine 131. This was important because the Turkey Point nuclear plant outside Miami had gone underwater. And the San Onofre repository in Southern California was leaking. And sunny-day waves were cresting the seawall of a third nuclear plant near Houston. My parents had more demand than they could meet. And then my mother came down with a new strain of Lyme. She spent all her kitchen time trying for a cure. Alaria-kelp reductions. Tinctures. Salves. When not experimenting she was in pain. Joints. Back. Head. Everything hurt. It was not a fun time. She slept a lot. The more the better. Sleep was her great peace. And so she was sleeping—in peace—that terrible morning when my father and I were harvesting kelp with dawn slipping over the horizon and the ocean beginning its lazy tilt from low tide to high. Later with the Forest Corps I would learn more about wildfire than I ever wanted to know. At fifteen I never could have imagined. The speed. I was underwater cutting kelp. When I surfaced the sky had turned a glowing red and my father was gone. Just like that. I heard the whine of the gasoline outboard motor which was only used in emergencies. The dead hemlock forest. It had gone off like a bomb. The sky was flickering. Towering fingers of smoke and embers like an angry blizzard. And my father speeding into it. I watched him ground the boat. Run for the house. The smoke took him whole as the fire jumped to the shore in one rush. The fire made its own wind. And the sound: a roar like a freight train. Three hundred yards offshore and I could feel the heat on my face. The fire announced its entrance to our house by shattering the windows my grandfather had sealed in place decades ago—clear crystalline pops that met me as I stood waist-deep on the ledge. Embers and burning shingles sailed out on the firewind to hiss and die in the cold water. I held a twist of sugar kelp in one hand. My knife in the other. I remember that. And the tide coming in. Like it always does.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for THE GREAT TRANSITION includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nick Fuller Googins. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
For fans of Station Eleven and The Ministry for the Future, this richly imaginative, immersive, and “profound” (Alice Elliott Dark, author of Fellowship Point) novel is the electrifying story of a family in crisis that unfolds against the backdrop of our near future.
Emi Vargas, whose parents helped save the world, is tired of being told how lucky she is to have been born after the climate crisis. But following the public assassination of a dozen climate criminals, Emi’s mother, Kristina, a possible suspect, disappears, and Emi’s illusions of utopia are shattered. A determined Emi and her father, Larch, journey from their home in Nuuk, Greenland to New York City, now a lightly populated storm-surge outpost built from the ruins of the former metropolis. But they aren’t the only ones looking for Kristina.
Thirty years earlier, Larch first came to New York with a team of volunteers to save the city from rising waters and torrential storms. Kristina was on the front lines of a different battle, fighting massive wildfires that ravaged the western United States. They became part of a movement that changed the world—the Great Transition—forging a new society and finding each other in the process.
Alternating between Emi’s desperate search for her mother and a meticulously rendered, heart-stopping account of her parents’ experiences during the Great Transition, this novel beautifully shows how our actions today determine our fate tomorrow. A triumphant debut, The Great Transition is a breathtaking rendering of our near future, told through the story of one family trying to protect each other and the place we all call home.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Compare and contrast Emi’s parents, Kristina and Larch. How do they define the future? What are their different priorities for their daughter and themselves?
2. Emi often listens to music (specifically the “oldies”) when she is worried about the planet and wondering what she can do now that the crisis is over. What does this tell us about humanity in the post-Transition future? Do you find yourself using music to cope with anxiety in your life? Do you ever turn to music to grapple with with the big problems facing society?
3. The field producer Joanna Lee reminds Larch that Corps Power was propaganda: “The good kind. Hearts and minds.” Do you believe Culture Corps had good intentions in televising positive content about fighting the climate crisis? Do you think there such a thing as good propaganda?
4. Larch and Kristina have different ethnic backgrounds. How does race and immigration play a role in their individual worldviews and their outlooks on the future?
5. Kristina says, “School isn’t the only place to learn . . . School can’t teach you how to live with hunger, or go weeks without a shower. The greatest lessons come from life experience.” Do you agree with Kristina’s view? Why do you think the author, who is an elementary school teacher, would include this perspective in his novel?
6. We get to witness the progress of Emi’s North American History paper for Mrs. Helmandi’s class. What do these drafts reveal to readers? How was this component necessary for the novel?
7. Larch’s best friend, Lucas, is Puerto Rican. However, he views the Transition differently from Kristina, who was born and raised in central Mexico. If Lucas and Kristina are both refugees from the Global South, why don’t they share similar views? How do they interpret their experiences differently?
8. “A revolution is not a tea party” is thrown into conversations multiple times throughout the book, a variation of the famous saying coined by Mao Zedong. What does this phrase mean to you? Can a revolution be peaceful? Give examples of historic revolutions that emulate, or contradict, that slogan.
9. Why do you think Indigenous people are exempt from extraction duty? What does this tell readers in regard to the relationship between Indigenous people and North American land post-Transition?
10. Kristina abruptly leaves Emi and Larch to work for the Furies. Later, Kristina tells Larch that she did it to keep her family safe. How does Kristina view parenting, in comparison to how Larch views it? Do you consider Kristina to be a good mother? How do traditional parenting roles play into this conversation?
11. Reena and Angel, who befriend Emi in New York, want to join the Furies and participate in the revolution. Do you think children and young adults have a place in this revolution? In what ways do children and teenagers today become involved in political conversations, such as those about gun control or the climate? Should they be involved? Why or why not?
12. Socioeconomics play a huge role in this book. We learn that the Furies are targeting rich officials whose actions led to the climate crisis. In a conversation between members of Larch’s deconstruction crew, his coworker Ellen says “The rich are coming off a two-hundred-year rager that burned our planet to the ground. We’re the cleanup crew. The moment we’re done the party will be back on. And if you think you’re getting an invite, Larch, I just feel sorry for you.” What are your thoughts about the class gap? Do you believe, if given the chance, the rich will relinquish their lifestyles and accept a lower standard of living? Is there a chance that a new, more equal “normal” can be instated?
13. Larch is vocal about Emi enjoying her youth and participating in celebrations. Are celebrations essential to society? Can joy be defined as another form of resistance? In what ways do you practice active joy?
14. Larch and Kristina’s love story is one with many obstacles and much turbulence. Towards the very end of the book, we witness the conversation between the couple about having a child. Why do you think Kristina changed her mind about having a child? Do you think young people today have valid concerns about bringing children into the world, given the ongoing climate crisis?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Great Transition emphasizes the importance of environmental and climate activism. Research local climate or environmental groups, an environmental cause in your area, or other ways you can incorporate climate activism into your life. Share these ideas with your book club members.
2. Emi’s love of music, especially “oldies,” is very present throughout the novel, with a particular emphasis on musical artists from the 1990s and 2000s. Visit https://sptfy.com/thegoldenoldies to enjoy Emi’s playlist with your book club!
3. To learn more about Nick Fuller Googins, visit nickfg.com.
A Conversation with Nick Fuller Googins
When did you start writing the manuscript for The Great Transition? What inspired you to write this plot centered around the climate crisis?
I started seriously thinking about the novel in 2018, when I was installing solar panels in rural Maine. At the time there was a lot of exciting momentum for big climate solutions, primarily the Green New Deal, a plan to put tens of millions of Americans to work saving the climate, installing solar and wind infrastructure, building public transportation, and so on, transitioning us away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. I felt a glimmer of real hope. Here was a concrete roadmap that we could afford as a country. The only thing preventing it was politics, meaning we could, theoretically, with a lot of work and organizing, make it a reality. So there I was, lugging solar panels up ladders, scrambling around scorching rooftops, and wondering what a mass mobilization to save the planet would look like, and what if I could be a part of it? How might it feel to be one small character in a movement so big and hopeful and transformative? Those were the first seeds of The Great Transition.
Do you think your role as an educator influenced the way you wrote this book and Emi’s character?
I’ve had the fortune of working with children for almost two decades. Now I teach fourth grade, but I’ve taught kids as young as kindergarten and as old as college freshmen. I’ve come to see teaching as emotional and social work first, with academics second. Kids are smaller humans learning how to navigate the joys and traumas of life on our planet (just as most of us bigger humans are still figuring out!). I’ve taught some of the wealthiest children in America, as well as incarcerated children and victims of abuse and devastating poverty. All of them, regardless of background, are simultaneously anxious, sarcastic, silly, hopeful, vulnerable, eager, and present, just like Emi. Emi emerged as a character from all the wonderful kids I’ve worked with, each of them beautifully complex, like her, trying to figure out how to best live life.
Kristina and Larch view the future so differently. Between the two, who do you see yourself more in?
I do aspire to Kristina’s passion, her commitment to justice, her belief that the struggle is never fully won. Her mentality was a driving force in my twenties, when I did more activist work. These days, I write in the morning, teach, then maybe go to my book club, or take a walk with my wife, or we’ll stretch, play guitar, see friends, watch TV. I’m involved with some local climate and environmental groups, right now trying to stop my town from giving four acres of our public forest to a developer, but overall I’m in more of a Larch phase, enjoying life. Yet I can’t shake that voice in the back of my head: What am I doing to stop the climate crisis? Why aren’t I doing more? This is a real dilemma of our time, something that so many of us struggle with. Many of us would do anything to save our one and only planet. But we also want to enjoy our short time here. We want to come home from work and go walk in the woods, watch a fun show, wrestle on the couch with our niece and nephew, share a meal with the people we love. So this is my big struggle: figuring out a way to do both, to be Kristina and Larch.
Music is important to Emi in this novel. Why did you choose music as Emi’s coping mechanism?
I used to work as a tutor in Maine’s juvenile prison, where the children were prohibited from using personal electronics, meaning they had almost zero access to music. Of the many daily humiliations and injustices these kids faced, the deprivation of music sometimes felt like the most egregious. Music is essential to our species—no human culture has ever developed without it—but music feels all the more vital during adolescence, when we are bursting to assert our agency, yet still living very prescribed lives. I have a memory from age thirteen, in bed late at night, listening to the Counting Crows, the same song over and over (“Mr. Jones”), rewinding the cassette, playing it again and again, determined to memorize every last lyric. Looking back, obsessing over “Mr. Jones” was probably a way for me to have control over some small part of my life at that age. Emi, who worries there could be another climate crisis, whose mother is always making her feel guilty for being privileged, whose basketball teammates never invite her to anything, turns to Britney, Beyoncé, Taylor, Prince for a sense of comfort, a degree of control.
The readers learn about Kristina’s Mexican background and how her immigrant experience impacted her family. Why was it important to you to write in these details? Do you feel that the topic of identity often intersects with the topic of the climate crisis?
Kristina is one of the 1.2 billion people that the climate crisis is projected to displace by 2050. Climate refugees, environmental justice, frontline communities: these are all terms that remind us that the climate crisis is not only polar bears and ice caps but people. Human beings. Families. The crisis will affect us all, but those most harmed will be (and already are) the “frontline communities,” made up primarily of individuals like Kristina: people of color, immigrants, refugees, the poor, those living in the Global South. So Kristina’s background was vital for two reasons; first, to have a broad coalition of all types building a movement large enough to truly transform society, and second, to acknowledge the reality that the people most affected by the climate crisis are often the ones leading the charge, just as many frontline communities are doing in our time, most famously with the Indigenous-led protests of Standing Rock. Kristina is not waiting for some nonprofit or government program to save her. She is not counting on those in power to suddenly do the right thing. She is leading the charge to take power for regular working people and create a better world for all. She lives very much in the spirit of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s famous words: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
Why did you choose Greenland and New York as your two settings?
New York and Greenland became central in the fictional world of The Great Transition because of their real geographic importance given the very real, very bleak climate projections that we are not doing nearly enough to prevent. I happened to be teaching fourth grade in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. I remember lower Manhattan turned off like a light switch. As ocean temperatures rise, storms like Sandy will become stronger and more common in New York, bringing untold suffering and destruction. The utopian in me, however, wanted to imagine a “best worst-case scenario,” and after some searching, I came across a group of amazing urban planners and designers who had rendered a future New York, reconfigured not for permanent habitation, but as an “extraction city” that could capture storm-surge energy. As for Greenland, a mass migration to the poles is inevitable as the planet gets hotter. Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, is perched on steep cliffs, making it an ideal urban center in a future world with much higher seas. During my research, I was both inspired and dismayed to learn that urban planners are already thinking about long term adaptation, planning decades ahead into the climate crisis. To acknowledge that we aren’t doing a fraction of what’s required to stop the crisis is a bitter truth to swallow, but I’d rather us plan for a best-case future scenario than pretend everything will somehow be fine.
Your characters have different outlooks on hope. How do you define hope?
I found inspiration for Kristina’s character in reading oral histories from the Soviet Union, hundreds of stories of regular working people who had lived through purges, famine, World War Two, Chernobyl, and expressed all the bitterness you would imagine yet still believed deeply in the collective project of the Soviet Union to create a better, more equal world. That is Kristina: a generally pessimistic person who has experienced unspeakable traumas and learned to expect the worst from people and systems; yet she is also a hero of the Transition who fights harder than anyone for a future that she doesn’t expect to ever see herself. Larch, on the other hand, embodies more of a classic American optimism, a sort of cheerful, if naive, belief, that things will generally turn out okay on their own, whether we work for them or not. Writing Kristina and Larch helped me come to think of hope as a special kind of verb that must be earned, through action and struggle, in the face of harsh realities that often make success seem impossible. Optimism is a passive state, an adjective requiring no action and contributing nothing materially to any positive outcome. To put this in terms of the climate crisis today, optimism is believing that some corporation will invent a miracle carbon-capture technology to save us, or that the president and Congress will pass the Green New Deal out of the goodness of their own hearts. Hope, on the other hand, is acknowledging that we face an extremely dire situation, with hostile corporate control on almost every lever of power, yet we can still fight like hell. A better future is possible, but we have to actively hope, and work, for it.
What takeaway do you want your readers to get out of this story?
One, there is always a future worth fighting for, no matter how bleak things may seem in the present. Two, justice is a human need just as vital as love and respect and self-actualization. And lastly, the 1990s are, objectively, the Indisputable Golden Age of Music.
If you were Emi’s teacher, what advice would you give her and other children her age post-Transition?
I’d point out to Emi the same thing that I point out to my fourth graders now, and which they love pointing out as well: look at all the mistakes I make, as an adult, every single day. How many times this year have I forgotten to call in attendance? How many times have I misspelled the word equivalent on the board? As a teacher, I’m most concerned for the kids who make no mistakes, who are terrified at taking the tiniest risk. Mistakes are how we grow. I’d remind Emi of this: adults mess up daily. It’s mostly what we do. So make some mistakes. Rebel a little, cause some mischief, blow past that No Skateboarding sign. When you’re older, you can fight for the world. For now, enjoy life. Mess up. Have some damn fun.
Nick Fuller Googins has published short stories and essays in The Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Maine, and works as an elementary school teacher. The Great Transition is his first novel.
Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels 2023, The Washigton Post
Goodreads Choice Awards 2023 Nominee, Best Science Fiction
“The Great Transition sets itself apart through its visionary scope and possibility for change…Urgent but hopeful…an important read for those ready to advocate for future generations.” —Chicago Review of Books
“Googins writes inspiring, vivid depictions of people putting aside their differences as they work to restore damaged habitats and put out massive forest fires in the novel’s past. But “The Great Transition” shines especially in its nuanced exploration of generational trauma and denial.” —The Washington Post
“A page-turner chock full of optimistic ideas for how we can reimagine our collective future, The Great Transition is a necessary antidote to climate doom and nihilism.” —Lit Hub
“Hopeful, bold, imaginative, and heartbreaking, The Great Transition lucidly shows the incredible capacity of utopian thinking to inspire and change lives, while addressing the devastating costs of climate inaction. I can’t stop thinking about this visionary novel and its singular characters. Nick Fuller Googins has written a book for the present and the future — read this and you will be changed.” —Michelle Min Sterling, New York Times bestselling author of Camp Zero
“A magnificent debut novel that’s both an important cautionary tale and a deeply compelling family story. Although set in a stunningly well-imagined future in the aftermath of a climate apocalypse, The Great Transition is electrifyingly relevant. I can’t remember ever being more impressed with a first novel.” —William Kent Krueger, New York Times bestselling author of This Tender Land
“Nick Fuller Googins demonstrates exactly the kind of clear-eyed utopian thinking we’ll need more of as we work together to solve our climate crisis, wrapping a call to action, accountability, and mutual aid in a story that’s as thrilling as it is moving. Every worthwhile novel sets out to change its reader—this one sets out to change the world. I hope it does.” —Matt Bell, author of Appleseed
“The Great Transition asks what it means to start over—as a society and as individuals—and then answers with visionary scope. Offering readers thrilling glimpses into utopic possibilities born from collective mobilization, as well as an unflinching assessment of our climate crisis, Nick Fuller Googins brilliantly renders the personal political and the political personal. A must-read debut that kept me enthralled and left me inspired.” —Allegra Hyde, author of Eleutheria
“This book melds the huge and the intimate, the imperatives of our global climate crisis with the more compact narrative of a family trying to do right by one another when the world goes sideways. Fuller-Googins stares down some of today's biggest societal issues with abundant imagination and endless empathy.” —Emily Nemens, author of The Cactus League
“This remarkable novel tells the story of a family trying to hold together after the world has shattered by a cataclysmic climate disaster. Nick Fuller Googins writes beautifully and knowledgeably about the speculative future while focusing on a compelling human story. I was moved by the enormous moral conviction at the heart of The Great Transition and its vision of the future, one that is full of human folly but ultimately offers hope. This is a profound work of great wisdom.” —Alice Elliott Dark, author of Fellowship Point and In the Gloaming