Book Review: Voice of the Elders by Greg Ripley
Voice of the Elders is the story of a young woman who attends a UN youth conference on climate change and is visited by aliens offering to help humanity respond to the climate crisis. She soon finds herself on a journey to meet with these aliens and evade the regressive fossil fuel tycoon who will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo and squash any serious action on climate change.
Genres: Climate Fiction (Plot), Sci-Fi (Aliens), Political Thriller, Religious (Daoism)
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 Voice of the Elders, four different genres come to mind: Climate Fiction (Plot), Sci-Fi (Aliens), Political Thriller, Religious (Daoism).
Climate Fiction (Plot)
The main plot arc of Voice of the Elders focuses on the climate crisis and humanity’s response to it — or more accurately, humanity’s response when aliens appear and offer to help us resolve the climate crisis. There’s a lot of intrigue and exploration that doesn’t relate directly to this plot, but the whole purpose of the main character’s entire journey is to respond to this offer by the Elders to help humanity resolve the climate crisis.
Like many cli-fi novels, most of the action doesn’t focus on the nuts and bolts of the climate crisis or climate solutions. Instead, it follows the exciting adventures of a plucky band of travelers who are pursuing a particular solution and grappling with the challenges thrown at them by the anti-environmentalist antagonist.
As a cli-fi author who is obsessed with the role of climate in fiction, I would’ve liked to see more focus on climate and more exploration of the solutions. However, a broader audience without as heavy of a climate emphasis may actually like that most of the action doesn’t focus on climate change or climate solutions per se.
The main antagonist is a fairly one-dimensional caricature of a wealthy fossil fuels tycoon who is willing to do anything to maintain his wealth and power at the expense of humanity taking action on climate change. It’s a bit entertaining to see such an overtly villainous character in play, and it reminds the reader of how the plot relates to climate change. But it’s also a bit off-putting that the villain is so simplistic and obviously nefarious. I prefer for my villains to be three-dimensional, or at least two-dimensional.
This is one of the few examples of cli-fi I’ve come across where aliens play a prominent role in the story. As a classic sci-fi fan, I would love to see more such stories. There’s a whole audience of readers who love aliens and would enjoy and benefit from stories at the intersection between aliens and climate change.
Whether or not you like the aliens in Voice of the Elders will depend largely on whether or not you like aliens that are human in appearance. There are no little green men or bug-eyed monsters in this novel. However, the exact role that these aliens play in human history, past and present, is very interesting.
Voice of the Elders has many of the trappings of a political thriller: international intrigue, secret agents, secret societies, a geopolitical crisis to resolve, a mystery to solve, several action sequences, etc. However, the pacing seems a bit off to me for a political thriller. Most stories I’ve read in that genre are heavy-handed in their efforts to build tension. This novel has its moments of tension, but it also has long periods where it explores the role that the aliens have played in human history, the history of a certain secret society, the backstory of the characters, the finer points of Daoist philospohy and practice, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this mellow pace as long as the reader doesn’t pick up the novel expecting it to be full of action and dramatic tension from start to finish.
Since I’m not a Daoist, I may not be the best person to offer a detailed review of how the novel explores the genre of Daoist fiction. However, I’m somewhat familiar with the basics of Daoism, and I found this take on it very interesting.
Voice of the Elders delves extensively into Daoist history, philosophy, mythology, and practice. I might even consider the primary genre of the novel to be Daoist fiction rather than cli-fi. As we follow the main character in her journey, we learn about Daoism and how it relates to the alien Elders, their history of involvement in human affairs, and their proposed course of action in response to the climate crisis. It was interesting to see how this Daoist theme, the climate theme, and the alien theme all came together in a single plot arc.
Strengths of Voices of the Elders
The strength of Voice of the Elders lies in the ideas it explores. This is one of the few cli-fi stories I’ve read that features aliens — and I like the role that they play in the story. Aliens offer to help with the climate crisis, and different factions of human beings respond to this offer in different ways — some with suspicion and aggression, others with relief and gratitude at the prospect of some much-needed assistance.
The idea of these Daoist aliens is also a really interesting sci-fi & fantasy idea independent of their role in responding to the climate crisis. Of course, if there are any Daoist aliens out there, I really do suspect they’d have a thing or two to say to us about climate change and the extractive approach to development that is driving climate change.
Weaknesses of Voices of the Elders
The weakness of Voice of the Elders lies in the spotty execution of these ideas, especially early on in the novel.
Much of the exposition is done by telling rather than showing, with either the author or a character explaining things about the characters and setting rather than revealing them through action and descriptive text. There are times when telling rather than showing makes sense, such as when an alien is giving a speech about their purpose on this planet, or a character is telling other characters about history and mythology that’s relevant to the story. But there were several points where it felt like we were just reading biographical notes about a character or organization rather than seeing the author reveal that information more organically as the story unfolds.
If you stick with it, though, the novel eventually smooths out into an interesting and compelling story. The antagonist doesn’t get any more nuanced; he’s just a malevolent fossil fuels tycoon, and you just have to accept his plot for world domination at face value. He’s doing it because it’s what villains do, and he is clearly a villain. But the journey of the main character and her companions becomes more and more interesting as time goes on, making up to some extent for the lack of development in the antagonist.
Voice of the Elders has its flaws. It would benefit from another round of editing, and the villain will only appeal to people who like their villains simple and without remorse or nuance. But the idea of the Elders and their relationship with humanity is very interesting. It goes well with the idea of doing something about climate change and the underlying imbalances in human behavior and social systems that are driving it. The author seems to be preparing the reader for future books in the series, and I would read the next book just to see how the storyline with the Elders and any other alien interlopers plays out.