Another hurricane season is nearly over – thank goodness! But with oceans warming, sea levels rising, and storms intensifying, it’s hard not to think about how climate change will change the face of Florida in coming years. Lily Brooks-Dalton’s powerful novel, The Light Pirate (Grand Central, 2022), takes us right into the heart of that easy-to-predict but hard-to-imagine future.
The story follows Wanda, a young woman born in the midst of a massive storm tearing its way through her small South Florida home. As she grows, the town around her gradually begins to shrink. More and more folks drift away, pushed by the constant threat of storms and boiling-hot summers.
Rooted in place by her stubborn lineman father and her resourceful survivalist neighbor, Phyllis, Wanda endures the changes, even after Florida is officially abandoned by the United States. She gradually develops a kind of amphibious solarpunk lifestyle. Also, curiously, the ability to call forth bioluminescence – a “cool, shimmering intelligence”– from the waters around her.
A Human Scale
Climate fiction – literature that deals with the moral, social, and environmental impacts of climate change – is in no short supply these days. But one thing that makes The Light Pirate stand out among these titles is its timeframe. The opening chapter of the book, in which Wanda’s family is anxiously prepping for yet another possibly catastrophic storm, feels familiar enough to walk right into. And while the changes that Florida endures in the book are profound, the fact that they develop across a single lifetime – on a strikingly human scale – makes the story feel uncannily real (special luminescent powers notwithstanding).
And while it may seem like a hopeless prospect, the vision of a depopulated, climate-altered Florida that Brooks-Dalton evokes feels weirdly redemptive. Of Wanda’s elder years, she writes: “[Time’s] progression is marked by the smoothness of water where ruins once broke the surface. The thickening of a young grove’s canopy. The collapse of an old utility pole. It is marked by the end of one species or the beginning of another. Here, time sprawls and curls. The land returns to the way it was; it becomes something brand new.”
A reclaimed land reclaiming itself…
No Planet B
Against these elemental changes, The Light Pirate weaves a tender tale of a family in the face of existential crisis. Wanda’s father, Kirby, is a hardworking widower whose faith in the electric grid he maintains never wavers, even as he constantly rebuilds what each storm tears apart. Phyllis, a retired biologist who steps into Wanda’s life as a second parent, copes with the unraveling of the local environment by constantly sampling, surveying, observing, and recording.
Both attitudes – forlorn faith in the status quo and resigned witness to the passing of the world we know – are familiar responses to the climate crisis. And neither, young climate activist will quickly point out, is enough to save the world from catastrophe. Brooks-Dalton explores this intergenerational conflict with care and empathy.
Step Into the Light
Then there’s the new generation and Wanda’s enigmatic gift, her ability to illuminate and sometimes detect messages in the water around her. This is where I fall out with many of my cli-fi reading friends, who love the book’s realism but find this flourish of magical realism just a bit too…whimsical?
I disagree. To me, Wanda’s luminous communication with the waters around her perfectly symbolizes an ability our society has just begun to cultivate. A meaningful and sustaining connection to the living element that created Florida. And something we desperately need if we are going to endure in a state shaped by water in all its forms.
As always, though, read it for yourself – and see if my theory holds water.
Arts All Around!
The Gabber Newspaper covers live theater and art across South Pinellas and, when we find something worth the drive, in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas.