Kate Wilhelm’s 1979 Juniper Time is a stand-alone climate catastrophe novel.
Jean Brighton’s father is an astronaut, a true believer convinced that the space program in gener al and the space station in particular will produce results justifying the expense. America being beset by local effects of an ever-increasing global drought, public support for the space station is waning. Following Jean’s father’s accidental death, the program is put on hold … for a time.
Fast forward a decade or so. The children of the astronauts who worked on the almost completed space station are adults. They are ready to take up their parents’ cause. Except Jean, who is a linguist, not an engineer, and who hated the space station for stealing her father.
Cluny and Murray are glib true believers for whom no alliance, no matter how dubious, is unacceptable, so long as it gets them closer to reopening the space station. Their machinations are successful. The space station is re-activated. Humans once again orbit the Earth.
Down in America, the West is increasingly uninhabitable. Millions flee the drought zone for the East, where the refugees are settled in ramshackle Newtowns. Life there is unpleasant and dangerous but it is at least possible.
Jean is one of the lucky ones. True, her academic supervisor Arkins is a tyrant and nobody can replicate his linguistics research results. Nevertheless, she has a job and a small apartment, something millions of Americans do not.
The government takes an interest in Arkins’ work. His research is classified. Arkins is unwillingly absorbed into the military-industrial complex. Jean is discarded. Her economic descent is swift, landing her in a Newtown.
After surviving a brutal rape, Jean learns that she has inherited her grandparents’ property out West. The desert offers a sanctuary the East cannot. Out West, she forms an alliance with local Native Americans, rediscovering how to live in a hostile environment. Given sufficient climate change, even the most cunning adaptations will fail, but survival is possible for now.
Up in space, the steely-eyed rocket men have made an unexpected discovery, a cylinder seeming of alien design. Is it real? Is it a hoax? Either could bring calamitous geopolitical results. Finding a way out of the crisis may depend on translating the cylinder’s contents, something beyond Cluny nor Murray. It is a task ideally suited for Jean … if they can drag her away from her new life.
Ah, once again the girl has to do the boys’ homework.
To rip the band-aid off quickly, the alien message plot is revealed as one of the hoariest skiffy cliches. Worse, it is a cliché carried out in a particularly unlikely to succeed manner. The original message’s architects are no longer around to question, but one has to wonder how they thought the scenario would play out.
It is possible that the dubious alien message plot is part of a critical view on true believers and the lengths to which they will go. Cluny and Murray believe as fervently as their fathers did in humanity’s destiny in SPAAAACE, but the evidence that the crewed space program will produce returns greater than costs is meagre. Also, the space cadets become entangled with some very shady characters, something they justify on the ground nobody else was willing to throw money at them. On the one hand, they do manage to get the space station restarted. On the other, the end result of that is a near miss with World War Three.
Elsewhere, the novel suggests there are strict limits to the human ability to shape the world to their needs. While humans are unsure of the cause of global climate change, there’s reason to think the culprit could be extraterrestrial events beyond human ability to affect. The American government1 embraces obvious coping measures (rationing, relocation, shelters, irrigation). The Native Americans with whom Jean lives embrace different coping mechanisms. Neither group’s survival is assured.
The novel is competently written in a rather literary mode. Many of the characters are disagreeable but they are effectively painted, as is their bleak world. The plot exists to make philosophical points but will not necessarily go where SF fans expect. This divergence from the standard model may explain why Juniper Time appears to be almost entirely out of print.
Juniper Time is available here (Amazon UK). Otherwise, I did not find recent editions at any of Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, or Chapters-Indigo.
1: Cluny and Murray sneer at the government’s efforts to mitigate the crisis, dismissing it as “fascist.” However, the various administrations admit there is a problem, identify the problem correctly, and take steps which while not entirely successful, succeed in making a catastrophe less catastrophic.