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James Goodall
Features Writer
1:00 AM 7th February 2024
arts

Blow, Winds, And Crack Your Cheeks: Daniel J. Mooney’s the 14th Storm

 
The 14th Storm (2023) by Limerick-born author Daniel J. Mooney is an Irish eco dystopia – the first I’ve had the pleasure of reading, though I doubt there are many contenders for the title!

It is 2043, and climate change has taken a turn for the worse. Violent storms are a regular feature of life, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable. Crops are failing, viruses are rampant and food, internet, and power are in short supply. People are forced to live in hastily assembled shanty towns, accustomed to a life of impermanence – structures that can be quickly built and rebuilt.

In many ways, dystopian Ireland resembles District 12 in The Hunger Games. Life is a scavenge; everyone is weather-worn and prematurely aged; stronger, more reinforced townships are controlled by semi-feudal dictators, and the government is fanatically totalitarian.

Desperate to maintain control, the government exploits the environmental crisis to oppress its people. Climate change denial is now illegal, and retribution meted out by agents from the newly formed Department of Environment Justice. Deniers, or those with a history of climate change denial, are hunted down and put to death.

Imagine if the likes of Just Stop Oil were upgraded from mere activists, defacers of paintings, and disrupters of traffic to become state-sanctioned mercenaries. A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but sometimes caricature is the best form of criticism.

We follow at the heels of two agents, Broderick and Malley, as they pursue their latest runner. “Thus are you judged,” Malley says before plunging a knife into the man’s chest. But she has a moment of doubt. We then learn that Malley has a sense of justice. Death to the guilty, a pardon for the innocent.

Broderick, meanwhile, believes solely in vengeance and sees guilt everywhere. His intractability and inability to reflect upon or modify his beliefs are reflective of our current problem with cancel culture. We’ve seen it many times when someone makes a gaff on social media or holds the wrong point of view on a hot button topic like climate change. The perpetrator is made to pay not only with their career, life and reputation but to keep on paying indefinitely. Even if an apology is offered, it can never be forgiven. Broderick represents cancel culture at its worst: ‘“Sorry?’ … Broderick practically spat the word out”. For him, it’s sufficient for a runner to be old enough to have been part of the problem – from the time before the ‘Chain of Storms’; before climate change worsened to the point of irreversibility. For him, anyone from this era is automatically guilty with no hope of reprieve, even if they’ve changed their views and are now trying to do good. He even goes so far as to pursue the families of climate change deniers, considering them “guilty by association”. When he speaks, it’s described as a “rare moment of speech for the man”. Little wonder he’s so opposed to free speech when he uses so little of it himself!

The plot shifts into gear with the arrival of Joseph, the titular 14th Storm. As the country readies itself for the worst, and preparations are made to weather the storm, Broderick and Malley are summoned to head office. They are tasked by the minister for the environment with tracking down and killing another two runners, Gibson and Kelly. Malley is sceptical, believing the assignment to be politically motivated, for the two men are leaders of a resistance movement known as the Blue Arms. This isn’t so much an organisation of climate change deniers as a group opposed to the general tyranny of the government. Though the government has no official political opposition, it is incredibly insecure and can brook no dissent of any kind. Therefore, it has been decreed that Gibson and Kelly must be taken out. Malley believes this to be outside their remit; Broderick, on the other hand, is more than willing to perform the task. He sees enemies everywhere and thinks nothing of scratching another two names off his list. Furthermore, he thinks Malley is slipping and losing her nerve.

But Malley is a creature of her conditions, a woman made hard by a hard world. Attacked as a child, her hands bear dreadful scars. Furthermore, her sister, Hilda, whom she once tried to protect, has joined the Blue Arm movement in direct opposition to her.

To complicate matters further, a young runaway, Fionnuala, crosses their path. She claims she wants to be an agent like them and fight for justice. But she is a Blue Arm. Her true agenda for joining Broderick and Malley is to prevent them from murdering the leaders of her movement. She believes Gibson and Kelly must survive to reunite the displaced peoples of Ireland. Fionnuala is idealistic, has hope for the future, and acts as a voice of conscience for Broderick and Malley: “Her strength was the capacity to let go of the past and forgive”.

The story then becomes a journal of the trio’s progress as they negotiate the storm-battered terrain in search of their targets.

And the storm always accompanies them: “The wind had followed them over the bridge at Gorestown, playing alongside them … rustling trees and tugging at clothes”. The storm intensifies with each moment of action and builds to a crescendo as the plot reaches its climax. The storm is also heavily personified. Joseph is a character in his own right and is depicted as a constant threat throughout: “Joseph … (O)ver the weeks that would follow, the name would become that of a serial killer … (F)inding his feet for the first time, (he) began to stomp across the land”. At times, he seems like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Even during quieter moments, he reminds the characters that he’s always there and mustn’t be ignored.

The 14th Storm is well timed. Climate change has never been more popular or divisive as a subject; indeed, we now live in an era of named storms. I began the story during Storm Pia, during which my house received a battering, and I felt every line of Mooney’s prose. I kept wanting to batten down the hatches, secure the windows, and pop up an umbrella despite being indoors!

However, Mooney chooses 2043 as his year of reckoning, which is perhaps too soon for climate change to have reached the extremes he depicts. His weather conditions resemble those of The Day After Tomorrow and don’t so much depict climate change as climate sea change, hedging on catastrophe. But the truths of 14th Storm are hard-hitting because they need to be. Climate change is happening now. It is both real and serious.

But The 14th Storm doesn’t have a specifically pro- or anti-climate agenda. It is non-partisan. Instead, it asks that an agreement be reached on how to move things forward; otherwise, progress can never be made. In many ways, the novel is brave for daring to voice scepticism on this issue, knowing it carries with it the risk of censure. Sceptics may take pleasure in seeing the agents parodied in such an extreme fashion; others on the pro side of the debate may feel the warnings don’t go far enough.

The 14th Storm shows us what can happen when a movement loses its way and tends towards excess. And the agents have most certainly lost their way: Broderick and Malley fail to understand that blaming and murdering people won’t solve the environmental crisis or help build a better future. To quote Iain Banks, this is a classic case of “(f)anatics … (being) driven by their own their fanaticism”*. Everywhere they go, they leave a trail of dead behind them. Anyone who gets in their way is cut down without exemption. No attempt is made to instill their philosophy in others. They care about the future but see no illogic in killing its people. In many ways, they are now part of the problem. To this end, they are described in storm-like terms themselves – “Malley … cold and deadly … (a)n arctic wind that left bodies in her wake. Broderick – roaring wordlessly. A tornado tearing through the melee”. The storms fuel them and give them energy. Ironically, the climate avengers are often one with the storm, feeding off its power. They serve humanity, but neither could be less human. Every climate change denier they encounter is put to death. Even at the conclusion, when the conflicted Malley has the chance to listen to Fionnuala and spare Kelly, she draws her blade. Thus, for Fionnuala, hope ultimately fails. And with no hope for the future, she too becomes an agent.


*From Transition (2009).

The 14th Storm is published by Legend Press.