In The Great Transition, Nick Fuller Googins’s thrilling debut novel, the question is not how to solve the climate crisis—it’s how to stay vigilant. Sixteen years have passed since Day Zero—that’s the day Earth’s net carbon emissions reached zero—and to some, society now looks like a utopia built on a philosophy of mutual aid: Private corporations are no more, replaced by co-ops; two weeks of civil service each year is mandatory for adults. The world looks different when there’s a common goal. But some, like Kristina Vargas, are not at peace. History repeats itself when we let our guard down, she knows, when we let good enough become the end goal.
The Great Transition employs two points-of-view, alternating between narratives in the present and the past. Emi, fifteen-years-old—daughter to Larch and Kristina, heroes of the Transition—drives much of the present narrative. A big fan of the oldies (here oldies means Nirvana, Bon Jovi, U2) with no real friends her age, Emi feels isolated and misunderstood. Although she understands and is immensely proud of what her parents sacrificed, how much they lost, how hard they worked to get to this point, she does not understand why her mother won’t relax. Emi is not allowed a screen, not allowed a pet. Instead of celebrating Day Zero, a planetary holiday, Emi’s mother instead signs them up for volunteer work every year. “We should be throwing a funeral,” Kristina argues, “not a party.” Emi finds more in common with her father, Larch, who works as a nutritionist for the Tundra co-op, a WNBA team based in Nuuk, Greenland. It’s through Larch’s POV that we learn about the hard work of the transition, demolishing and recycling materials from skyscrapers in New York City, fighting fires in the West, seizing the Transition for the people. It’s also in Larch’s POV that long-time readers of The Masters Review are reacquainted with Osman, protagonist of “Drop Zone Summer,” a story by Googins which won our 2017 Short Story Award.
When so-called climate criminals are assassinated around the world on the 16th Day Zero and Kristina disappears, supposedly affiliated with an extremist group known as the Furies, Emi and Larch embark on a mission to find her, and to find out just how much she’s been keeping from them these past sixteen years.
The Great Transition is a novel that’s as much invested in the past as it is the future, in showing how our actions today have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. “What more could we have done?” Larch asks at one time, and later: “What can I say? The ocean was not the only problem. The problem was everywhere and everything.” So Larch focuses on what’s in front of him: First, it’s manual labor: clearing debris, swinging hammers, fighting forest fires. And later, it’s Emi, his family. But Kristina is looking ahead, always. Solving the climate crisis is the first step, not the last.
For much of the novel, Kristina is absent, appearing most frequently in Larch’s flashbacks, but even then she’s constructed largely through how others see her: She’s a hero, a survivor, a symbol of resilience and sacrifice, a mother and a wife. But Googins intersperses chapters throughout the book with materials from Emi’s school project on The Great Transition, an oral history with her mother about what her life was like before, during and after the climate crisis. It’s here that Kristina really takes shape and we see how dedicated she is to the cause. Her rhetoric in these interviews is echoed in the manifesto published by the Furies after the assassinations. Kristina feels that people are forgetting the past already. In one interview, Kristina tells Emi: “History isn’t facts and dates. It’s people. It’s suffering. It’s war between the powerful few and the powerless many. And it never ends. We celebrate Day Zero like we won, but we lost and we’re still losing.”
And this is the argument that takes place over the whole of the novel: What counts as progress? What counts as a victory? For Larch, it’s Emi: their daughter, who would not be here, who would not know comfort and happiness were it not for his and Kristina’s and everyone else’s hard work and sacrifice. But for Kristina, victory “cannot last without struggle. That’s life,” she tells Emi. “Struggle and sacrifice. And pain.” The crisis happened, she argues, because of “[e]veryone caring so deeply for their own children. What about the other children? What about the rest of the world?”
Ultimately, utopia is in the eye of the beholder. In one interview, Kristina tells Emi that “forgiveness is not a virtue. It’s cowardice.” As many steps forward as society has taken in these sixteen years, Kristina fears a backslide. Letting those guilty off the hook. Forgetting. Forgetting, complacency: these are sins almost as unforgiveable as profiteering. The nuances of progress that Googins explores in The Great Transition are refreshing. There is no black and white in the real world. Are the Furies’ actions reprehensible or justified, or is there something in between? It depends on your point-of-view. Over and over again, I was blown away by the novel’s commitment to these pivotal political arguments. I found myself engaged in debates with myself over who was right, who was wrong, and where I fell. This is the mark of a memorable—and necessary—novel.
Throughout this debut, Googins incorporates real-life crises—conditions in the refugee camps along the border and the separation of children from their parents—as well as crises in the not-too-distant future: the Transition doesn’t really kick into high gear until the Antarctic ice sheet collapses. The world that Googins imagines is a world that could one day be ours—and soon. The Great Transition is a call-to-action. The climate crisis can be solved. But only if we try. Climate fiction, political thriller, and a family story all wrapped up into one, The Great Transition, out now from Atria Books, is a triumph of voice and vision.
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: August 15, 2023
Reviewed by Cole Meyer