AE Reviews: When North Becomes South by Becky Bronson

What would happen if the Earth’s magnetic poles reversed? Quite a lot actually, most of it unpleasant.

Solar flares accelerate the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles, causing worldwide power outages that make most electronics technology impossible. Weakening magnetic fields allow fatal levels of solar radiation to pass through to the Earth’s surface, making large swathes of the planet uninhabitable. Entire countries empty out as millions migrate towards the Equator, where the magnetic field temporarily preserves a zone of habitability in which the last functioning human settlements cluster. Eventually, everyone is forced to confront the possibility of seeking refuge underground as the magnetic field weakens further – but there isn’t room for everyone.

Against this turbulent backdrop, a family finds itself split between continents, and struggles to adapt to a more primeval existence. Penniless in Texas as the flight network collapses, Josh survives the violent streets of El Paso while struggling to make his way home to San Diego, and then on to a safe haven in the mountains of rural Ecuador while discovering his life’s purpose along the way. Stranded in rural West Africa, his brother Brendan discovers the joys and perils of starting a new family in a remote village. Meanwhile, their parents Laurie and Stan, proud residents of a once-prosperous town in Connecticut, confront the reality of having to make a dangerous journey to Africa in order to escape radiation poisoning.

Becky Bronson’s When North Becomes South is a novel of planetary scope and deep reflection, and an intriguing meditation on borders, climate change and the perils of technology over-reliance. With relatable characters, credible relationships and a terrifyingly plausible disaster scenario whose implications make COVID-19 feel like child’s play, this is a fresh, thought-provoking and well-researched debut novel from an engaging new voice. While the prose may not break new ground and the plot is straightforward, the book nonetheless succeeds in starting a broader conversation about the forces that shape our lives, and in conveying a sense of our fragile existence within an unstable environment.

When disaster strikes, cities are overwhelmed, food networks disintegrate and law-and-order collapses. Loss of electrical power and mass migration quickly causes once-developed societies to descend into anarchy and post-apocalyptic survivalism. Advanced cultures which successfully used their wealth and technology to absorb threats and convert challenges into opportunities suddenly find their advantages turning into liabilities, and their fortunes reversed more sharply than those of poorer societies for whom this disaster is just one more in a long litany of misfortunes, and so something to be taken in stride. Indeed, it is the pre-industrialized and poorer societies that remain civilizationally intact: life continues largely as it always has, with communities remaining strong and vibrant, law and order remaining mostly functional, and open borders allowing refugees fleeing the devastation to settle and make new lives for themselves.

Borders turn out to be at once irrelevant and fateful. In the latter half of the 20th century, affluent liberal democracies in Europe, North America and elsewhere dedicated enormous effort and resources to restricting immigration, even as they opened their borders to each other, and erected obstacles to prevent many immigrants from entering unless they could demonstrate merit or wealth through complex and time-consuming application processes. Using their wealth to drain rich and educated talent from poorer countries, these countries closed the door to millions, while showcasing liberal values that went largely untested as the socioeconomic structure of their societies remained stable. When economic stagnation and demographic change became issues in the first two decades of this century, reactionary movements emerged calling for borders to be reinforced to prevent mass migration from changing the structure of societies, most prominently seen in the massive infrastructure of the US-Mexico border wall, and the populist movements that made it possible. In the United States of our novel (c. 2021), the border wall is still under construction but largely built, and policed by hostile border patrols. When devastation hits, suddenly it is Americans who find themselves fleeing south into Mexico and Latin America, and “the wall that had originally been built to keep immigrants out of the country was acting as a prison keeping people in”.

The upheaval leaves the fictional West African country of Loscoaya as one of the last few places on Earth with a functioning power grid, making it a regional power even as the United States devolves into a continental post-apocalyptic wilderness. History repeats itself in an inverted fashion with African (not European) mariners looting the American (not African) coast for resources, including advanced technology such as solar cells and batteries, for which a thriving black market has emerged. A shift in the magnetic poles upends the entire global order, and turns an erstwhile Third World country into a new power, reminding us that it is frequently the caprices of history, climate and geography that influence prosperity and fortune as much as human endeavour.

Advanced technology (including electrical power) turns out to be an Achilles Heel: its failure means most methods of long-distance transportation no longer exist, and most forms of long-distance communication (save for ham radio technology) become impossible, triggering de-industrialization and an abrupt downgrade in quality of life that culminates in societal collapse. “We were clearly too dependent on our gadgets,” ruminates one character, while resting by the side of an eerily empty interstate highway. “Our society wasn’t prepared for this. Everything was mechanized, and when the technology fell apart, we had no backups…the most successful spots are ones that didn’t rely on technology to begin with. Maybe rural villages where they never had electricity or running water. Areas that didn’t have internet access, so they wouldn’t miss it when it fell apart. You can’t miss what you never had. At least not in the same way as those who depended on all that stuff.”

Most disaster or dystopian novels have a moral organizing principle, a take-home lesson that drives home the message needed to change one’s outlook on life. In the case of When North Becomes South, what emerges is the view that technology addiction has served to rob humanity of its imagination and weakened its ability to adapt. Technology has disconnected us from the harsh realities of the “natural cycles of life” for which constant growth and movement are essential. Take, for example, an observation by Josh, in the decaying city of El Paso, now “overflowing with people”:

“Mankind had created all sorts of devices to make life better and easier, and everyone took them for granted. No one bothered to consider how to feed a city of over a half million people without electricity. Or how to farm a thousand acres of land or manage herds of thousands of cattle without gas for vehicles or electricity to operate machinery. Automation had allowed the world population to grow and evolve in specific ways, and without that technology, civilization, as they knew it, was doomed.”

And what of Diego, another character, whose addiction to his “phone as a crutch” is emblematic of the many teeming millions who people our cities today? Stripped of “the sea of technology he grew up in” and “the virtual reality he used to enjoy”, he initially struggles to make friends and develop a healthy perspective, but eventually finds his calling as an artist, recognizing that “games were simply a way to fill up some empty holes” in his life, and that the situation is “not a video game in which you had many lives.”

Something similar happens to Laurie and Stan, who scramble to learn the basics of subsistence farming – including hauling water, weeding gardens and fixing machinery – and then, realizing that “movement was necessary for survival in the world”, abandon their home to make the perilous journey to Loscoaya. Laurie later takes stock of her new life in Africa, noting that while technology makes life easier in some respects, it doesn’t necessarily make it better, only more complex. Life in a village is simpler, though still challenging and difficult, but while they have fewer choices about what to eat, they do have the basics, providing for a richer and more fulfilling life than the one they had led before.

“What they had lost in material things, they had more than gained in relationships. Never again would she look at strangers the same way. She had been on the receiving end of strangers’ generosity countless times, and she felt like they owed their survival to the kindness of these people.”

Recognizing that she and her husband represent the last of a generation “with some memory of what it was like to live before the digital age”, she becomes a writer of children’s books, as she reckons that with the immense cultural and civilizational loss that has taken place as libraries go up in flames, museums fall into ruin and virtual reality disappears, the entire history of an earlier era now exists solely in their minds.

“It was as if they had come from a different planet, and in a sense, they had. In many ways, they had all lived in a virtual reality for their lives. It was almost impossible to explain that reality to those who had never even experienced the act of looking at a screen and having it come to life.”

As families, societies and entire states are cut off from each other overnight, the world suddenly becomes smaller and wilder, and the loss of advanced technology reverses human progress by several centuries. Yet, in this brave new world, the last survivors of humankind discover the beginnings of a new wisdom, and a hope for the future. The struggle to survive makes everyone humbler and more resilient, increasing the depth and abundance of meaning in their lives, and reorients them around the view that change is inevitable, adaptation is unavoidable, and kindness is essential.

As a whole, When North Becomes South is a captivating and original work that tackles some of the most important issues humanity will confront in the coming decades, with a nuance and accessibility that is often lacking in popular discourse. Becky Bronson has fashioned a moral compass for us to rely on in these uncharted waters – it is up to us to turn to it for guidance.

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