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I was happy to have the opportunity to review Orphans of Canland, the debut novel by author Daniel Vitale. Climate fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I was excited to dive into Vitale’s unique spin on the increasingly popular narrative of climate disaster and the rebuilding of human society.
Set in 2088, we follow the journal and narration of twelve-year-old Tristan, who has a condition rendering him unable to feel physical pain and emotional distress – almost an inversion of Lauren Olamina’s condition in Octavia Butler’s Parable duology. Tristan lives with his mother, a woman with dangerously radical beliefs, and his older brother, a satellite hacker whose drug addiction and illegal hobbies leave Tristan with little in the way of family support. They live in Canland, one of many settlements, or “Parts”, run by the authoritarian WORLD (Worldwide Objective: Restoration Longevity Dominion) program. WORLD arose after the environmental collapse and subsequent wars of the mid-21st century.
Located in modern-day California, residents of Canland dedicate their lives to ecological restoration. Tristan loves Canland and hopes to one day contribute to the goal of greening the desert and living in harmony with nature. As the son of two of Canland’s founders, he has special privileges and tolerates many of his mother’s restrictive rules for his behavior, and forgives her ideas which often border on eco-fascism. But as the novel progresses, he can’t help questioning the issues plaguing Canland: a mounting number of suicides, mistreatment of climate refugees, and rampant substance abuse.
Since the story is told entirely through Tristan’s eyes, the reader is subject to his narrow view of the world. He often misses things that would seem obvious to a narrator without his physical and emotional limitations. This leads to situations that can be uncomfortable, like when he tries to force a friendship with a classmate, and sometimes dangerous, like when he doesn’t fully recognize his mother’s abuse. We are left to read between the lines of Tristan’s accounts. Our source of information is so easily manipulated, so eager to please those whom he loves – can we trust what he’s telling us?
To be clear, Tristan doesn’t lack emotional depth. He is fully devoted to the people close to him and has strong relationships with his brother and other friends in Canland. I loved seeing Tristan’s capacity for empathy revisited again and again throughout the novel as he strives to understand and explore the darker elements of Canland. Despite his age, he often feels much wiser than one would expect a teenager to be. Tristan’s experience of the world feels authentic and remains consistent to his character even as he ages throughout the book. He is a deep, well-rounded character who, while frustrating at times, I enjoyed spending time with.
The world is also a creative take on the typical ecological apocalypse scenario. I appreciated the idea that valuing sustainability and striving for ecological restoration would be a priority held by most parties, good and bad, who survived an ecological catastrophe. The structure and roles within the new society were inventive and the descriptions of scenery were rich and engaging. The questions being asked by and of this future society – What is our place in nature? What duty do we have to fellow humans? – are the very questions we’re asking of ourselves in 2022.
Overall, Orphans of Canland was a thoughtful and engaging read. I’m looking forward to what Vitale has in store for us next.