Book Review: Fragment by Craig Russell
Fragment by Craig Russell is the exciting tale of an enormous fragment of Antarctic ice that breaks off into the ocean, wreaking havoc on the human and non-human world. If you have an interest in climate fiction stories, seafaring adventure stories, communication with whales, or all of the above, be sure to check this one out.
Genres: Climate Fiction (Plot), Political Thriller, Xenofiction
Genres are dynamic frameworks that describe texts with similar or related forms and contents. Readers and authors alike are free to ruminate on the nature of genre and how it relates to any given text. For Fragment, three different genres come to mind: Climate Fiction (Plot), Political Thriller, and Xenofiction
Climate Fiction (Plot)
Fragment tells the story of an enormous fragment of glacial ice that breaks off of Antarctica in a single catastrophic event. Several groups of humans — and even a whale — respond to this development in several intertwined subplots. But the common thread that ties all of these other events together is the arrival of this almost incomprehensibly large ice fragment and the way that all of the characters respond to it.
Since everyone is responding to a natural disaster sparked by human-caused climate change, this is definitely an example of plot climate fiction rather than setting climate fiction (which features a “post-change” setting but otherwise doesn’t address the question of climate change).
Fragment is a particular type of political thriller. I’m not sure if there’s a term for this subgenre, but I’ve seen others take a similar approach. It introduces a dramatic crisis with far-reaching political implications, shows the response of several different groups of characters to that crisis, and ultimately draws their stories together as the action picks up and approaches a climax. It’s not quite so action-heavy that I would classify it as a pure thriller, but there’s enough action and suspense in there for me to classify it as a certain type of political thriller.
Xenofiction is fiction that tells stories from the point of view of a non-human living organism. This approach to storytelling is rare enough that I would have mentioned it even if it only played a small part in the novel. However, it’s especially important to talk about it in this case because non-human animals (whales) play a pivotal role in the story.
Oneof the main characters is a whale. We get to see the world from his perspective and watch as his actions have an influence on the course of the plot for both humans and non-humans. Anyone who likes whales and wonders what their inner world is like should find this very fascinating. I didn’t have a specific interest in whales before reading this, but I found this aspect of the story compelling and fascinating anyway. It leaves me feeling more curious about what whales think, feel, and communicate in real life.
Strengths of Fragment
The greatest strength of Fragment is that the author has an interesting and complex story to tell. There’s the ice fragment that breaks off into the ocean, wreaking havoc on human and non-human realities; the responses of several different human factions to the crisis; the way that a lone blue whale responds; the discovery of a means of communication between humans and whales; the ultimate ecological and social consequences of the fragment being unleashed upon the world.
The most interesting and unique element of Fragment for me was the storyline about a blue whale named Ring, his encounter with the ice fragment, and the group of human scientists who learn how to communicate with him. I don’t know if there are other stories like that out there, but I’ve never read another story quite like it. In real life, whales are believed to be among the most intelligent animals on the planet, at least in terms of how humans qualify and quantify intelligence. If we could discover how to speak their language, they might very well have a great deal to say to us. Scientists learning how to communicate with a whale in the midst of a climate-related crisis was particularly interesting to me. You could tell a similar story about whale communication in another context, but this particular context adds a sense of urgency and high stakes to this “first contact” between humankind and whalekind.
As a climate fiction author and advocate of climate action, I also found it interesting that the author chose to make an enormous chunk of glacial ice the driving force behind the action of the novel. This is the first time I can remember a climate fiction novel taking that specific approach. Others have dealt with catastrophic sea level rise in response global ice melt generally, or other aspects of the climate crisis such as drought and severe storms. Instead, Fragment went into great detail about a specific ice sheet collapse, the glaciers that contributed to it, the floating fragment it created, and the specific catastrophic consequences. I’m not a glaciologist or climate scientist myself, so I don’t know how plausible these specifics are, but they sounded believable enough for the sake of a good story. They gave the novel a different feel than narratives about generalized ice melt or sea level rise. Whatever the details, fiction is a great place to explore the implications of a scenario like this. Even though it may be unlikely, something like this may be within the realm of possibility, which is a concerning thought as someone living on this planet and a riveting premise for a reader who enjoys a good thriller.
Weaknesses of Fragment
One weakness of Fragment is that the author is trying to pack a lot of different elements into a single novel. Each individual thread is interesting, and they did all intersect at some point, tied together by the fragment. But the pacing seemed a bit uneven at times due to the presence of multiple disparate elements The pacing and style of a climate catastrophe story, a whale communication story, and an Antarctic adventuring story are all a bit different. I found myself drawn in by it all, but I anticipate some readers preferring one thread to the others, or feeling like they don’t all come together neatly.
Some of the characters also seem two-dimensional, like colorful caricatures rather than fully-developed characters. This was particularly true of the president and his political operative, who were the closest things this story had to an antagonist other than the fragment itself. If this were a general interest work of literary fiction, I would be more critical of that level of character development. But the characters suit the thriller/adventure genre. Most political thrillers and similar adventure narratives are focused on telling an exciting story rather than developing complex characters with nuanced motivations. The characters in Fragment are colorful, interesting (if you don’t mind some characters that conform rather rigidly to gender stereotypes, which is also common for the genre), and serve their roles well in advancing the plot and themes of the story.
The “second climax” — the movement of the fragment through the world’s oceans and the havoc it wreaked upon the world — also felt too rushed. I was okay with the somewhat unconventional choice of having two separate climaxes for the actions of the humans (and the whale) and the “actions” of the fragment. I found it interesting and niquely appropriate that the fragment took its own grandiose course to resolution of the crisis regardless of what all of the other characters said or did. But the switch from describing human actions moment-to-moment versus describing the fragment’s destructive drift over the course of weeks and months seemed jarring to me. The scene of the fragment’s encounter with Grenada was very intriguing and suspenseful because it zoomed in and told the story of a single day’s events in vivid detail and with real human (and whale) consequences. The rest of the fragment’s final journey was also quite interesting, but didn’t have the same feel of immediacy to it. Since it didn’t go into human-scale detail, it felt more like reading news reports or a historical document rather than a fictional narrative. I might have liked several scenes similar to the Grenada scene to show the impacts of this glacier rather than telling the reader about it.
The scene at the very end where humans and whales are communicating and forming positive interspecies relations also seemed rather simplistic and utopian. I’m a bit of a sucker for stories where different groups and species learn to live together in harmony, so I didn’t object too strongly. But I suspect some readers will roll their eyes at how relatively easy it was to aaccomplish. The narrative almost seems to be taken as a given that humanity (and whalekind) will come together effortlessly in the wake of a tremendous climate tragedy like the fragment, when unfortunately that may not be the case. Even so, I do appreciate a narrative that strives to envision a positive resolution to the climate crisis since too many climate tales go in the opposite direction.
Fragment has its shortcomings, but on the whole, I found the premise and execution so fascinating and compelling that my suspension of disbelief carried me through any bumps along the way. It’s the exciting tale of an enormous fragment of Antarctic ice that breaks off into the ocean, wreaking havoc on the human and non-human world. I definitely recommend it for everyone interested in disaster-based climate fiction. I also expect that it will be a fun reading for a much broader audience who don’t have a specific interest in climate tales, but do like disaster stories, Antarctic adventure stories, and tales of contact and communication with whales. If any of the above sounds interesting, be sure to give Fragments a try.