Book Review: Fragile
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A compelling near-future dystopia about climate collapse and helping the vulnerable survive
Alexa Weik von Mossner’s novel Fragile is about a dystopian, near-future New York. Climate change has rendered it barely livable. It’s partly submerged, the airport left with “flooded runways” after Hurricane Shelby, the maple trees dying of heat, the sunrises implausibly colorful ever since scientists began injecting chemicals into the atmosphere to cool the planet.
This situation defines the characters’ lives. Jake works on importing antibiotics. The 51st president of the United States declared the antibiotic shortage a national emergency and created the SAFE centers, an arm of Homeland Security, for which Jake works.
Because there aren’t enough antibiotics, there’s no industrial livestock anymore, which means people will eat mystery meat they get on the underground market and pretend it’s not dog. Shavir, for her part, breaks into those illegal puppy mills to rescue the dogs. Finding homes for them is a challenge, since there’s a hefty licensing fee to keep a dog, even as a pet.
The novel is in large part about how Jake and Shavir understand who they are to each other and learn from each other about why their work matters. Other characters’ relationships add dimension to the story. Tara and Shavir, for example, had “started exploring the neighborhood together in direct defiance of both of their parents’ orders, spending hours observing squirrels, chipmunks, birds, and all the other animals that would soon disappear, either becoming extinct or being eaten.” It’s about the tenderness alongside the violence. It’s about the care networks in a place where you can’t trust anyone.
In Fragile’s New York, people have begun to implant their technology. Having a Spine is like having a smartphone inside your neck, so you can take phone calls with a voice command and watch video whenever you like, and those around you may not realize it. People who have once seem happy with “the white noise of the Spine cloud,” but others resist it, asking: “If you can’t ever cut the signal, what’s the point of this?”
As always, in every place and time, people self-medicate. The worst drug to take off-label is Emovia. It gives you an emotional high, but it ruins your life. And what will happen to the city if Emovia is ever in short supply?
Fragile is about living amidst surveillance cameras, barely survivable heat, and police who want to take your dog. It’s about compassion in hard times, working hard to improve the world, and cultivating hope. The characters feel real and understandable, not so different from ourselves today, but adjusted to the technology that’s available to them. (The dogs are also dogs I’d like to meet.)
The novel makes me think about three things. First, that we as individuals often seek to patch gaps in structural problems, and that sometimes we have enough power and luck and sometimes we don’t. Second, that our perceptions of our close relationships may really be about large-scale social problems—vice versa, that our perceptions of social problems may really be about our close relationships. Third, that we don’t need to have a Spine to “have a spine;” that is, we already have the ability to do what needs to be done.
Fragile is compelling worldbuilding: a dying world that paradoxically comes alive for us. It speaks from the near future to questions and concerns we have today.
Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopia / Environment
Print Length: 330 pages
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