PrintE-mail Written by Jennie Bailey

“The nations of the world shared the same eco-system, the same biosphere.”

Trevor Hoyle's The Last Gasp was first published in 1983, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were at nearly 343 parts per million. In 2015, when this novel was updated and re-released, this had risen to over 400 ppm. The increasing levels of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere will have a significant impact on climatic systems and on rising global temperatures. No, you're not reading a science lesson; it is one of the factors that underpin the re-release of The Last Gasp. Using scientific models, and imagining the very worst case scenario of what would happen in a world depleted of oxygen, the book portrays an apocalyptic future where polar sea ice melt leads to the release of billions of tonnes of methane gas, affecting earth's atmosphere to the point where everyone literally begins gasping for air.

This is a timely re-release; over the last few years there has been a rise in climate fiction – or the rather clunky label of “cli-fi” – in the vein of novels by Liz Jensen, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy. At the heart of this form of speculative fiction is a sense of the apocalyptic with the trope of the disastrous effects caused by climate change.

The main protagonist, Gavin Chase, an affable Lancashire lad and brilliant scientist, is placed in an impossible situation. There is an element of satire as Chase and biologist Cheryl go up against shady government officials and rich industrialists who seem to have geopolitical decision-making sewn up and unfettered access to clean air. As the oxygen levels decrease, existence is only possible through use of oxygen masks, condemning the poorest of the world to a slow and painful death. Meanwhile, the powers-that-be is experimenting, planning to breed “protozoic prototypes” for a brave new anaerobic world. Gavin's quest is to alert the public to these unfolding events, and to try to devise scientific ways of dealing with this seemingly unfixable problem.

The book is epic; it spans a long period of time: 2016, 2030, 2042, ending with an enigmatic first person 2052 epitaph. The amount of scientific research that has gone into this book is admirable, however, perhaps the story takes somewhat of a back seat at times. Another weakness is that some of the characterisation is stretched; while Hoyle has a great ear for colloquial dialogue, it's not completely convincing when applied to other (non-Anglo-American) characters' dialects. That said this novel would be fascinating for disaster nerds who love a good catastrophe yarn.

The re-release of The Last Gasp is more of a reminder than a global warning. The sheer breadth of the book – at 700 pages it's a mighty tome - and of the science, may leave the reader, while rooting for Gavin, also gasping for breath. The apocalypse is well researched.


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