It's 2032. You've just been elected President of the United States with a mandate for wholesale reform, including reforming your country's response to an environmental crisis that is already critical. Low-lying cities like New Orleans and Miami are being flooded; drought and desertification are rife inland. It is already clear that a massive relocation of people from the affected areas will be needed, at a massive cost, but that's - sort of - all right. You've persuaded the electorate to vote for that. Then, within a few days of the election, you learn that the outgoing administration has been hiding the true extent of the emergency. The onrushing catastrophe looks far worse, and the cost of forestalling it far higher, than the American people have been told or are prepared for. It's anyone's guess as to how they'll react when they are told. And beyond the public there's the rest of the world to worry about; the problem is not one that America can solve alone. So what do you do next?
* The plot *
The question posed above is the one that confronts Joe Benton, the presidential protagonist, at the outset of Ultimatum, a novel by Matthew Glass. Benton is convinced of the need for decisive action, but all the customary political and diplomatic channels look clogged with the potential for procrastination. There has been a "Kyoto process" meandering its interminable way from half-baked treaty to half-baked treaty for nearly forty years; the commitments made have always been too little, too late and too easily circumvented or ignored. The same is likely to happen again. In an attempt to cut through the knots of multilateral diplomacy, Benton decides to enter into secret negotiations with China, by this time the world's biggest economy and biggest polluter. If the Chinese and the Americans can agree on what must be done, surely their combined muscle will bring the rest of the world into line.
Leading the negotiations on the American side is Larry Olsen, Benton's surprise choice to be Secretary of State - a surprise because he has not been part of the campaign team, but has persuaded the incoming president that he alone has the requisite vision, skill and sense of urgency to forge an agreement with the Chinese. Others in Benton's cabinet are appalled at Olsen's sometimes belligerent brinksmanship, but do not have a more persuasive alternative to offer.
As time goes by agreement proves ever more elusive, whilst the political pressures mount and in the diplomatic poker game the stakes are raised forever higher. Are the Chinese negotiating in good faith, or are they simply using the talks to manoeuvre for gains in other spheres, trade and territorial? Are they looking for a pretext for aggressive action of their own? Who is calling the shots on the Chinese side, in any case, the affable but inscrutable President Wen, the hard-line 'security minister' Ding or others in the hierarchy? The signals are as impenetrable as they are mixed, until events suddenly start hurtling towards a terrible conclusion.
* Narrative style *
Glass's narrative style relies heavily on dialogue. Page after page is devoted to dense and detailed debate among Benton's close circle of ministers and advisers - almost like minutes of their meetings - or of the negotiations themselves. It's very credible dialogue; one feels that one is reading an authentic account of how crucial decisions are taken, and this ensures that it isn't dull, but it does demand close attention and comes across as rather dry. For Ultimatum to work as a thriller, and I think it's intended to be at least partly a thriller, less talk and more hands-on action would be required.
Characterisation is thin, to put it mildly. Benton himself is depicted clearly, albeit conventionally, enough - not naïve, but an essentially good man trying to make the best fist he can of the almost impossible hand that has been dealt him. We have met fictional presidents much like him before and doubtless will again. We have certainly met fictional presidential families much like his before, even if it's made out to be a matter of controversy that his wife intends to go on pursuing her own career after becoming First Lady; forty years after Hillary Clinton entered the White House with Bill this somehow seems unlikely. In any case, apart from acting as a sounding-board for him, she plays little part in the plot. As for the ministers and advisers, they are merely names representing stereotypical roles and attitudes, even the initially enigmatic Olsen. They never come to life as flesh-and-blood human beings.
Glass has been compared to Tom Clancy, that hugely successful exponent of the political/espionage action novel. There are similarities, not least in the cardboard characters and a prose style that is more functional than inspired. In other respects, Glass is both better and worse than Clancy. His command of political language is more convincing, but also more long-winded. He's better in that he does not rely on gung-ho heroics or toys-for-boys technology to bring the plot to its resolution, worse in that he generates much less excitement as the story unfolds. The pace of Ultimatum can and does flag; you don't lose interest but you can put the book down. Nevertheless, Glass's book is probably more important than anything Clancy has ever written, both because it is more realistic and because of the immense significance of the theme it addresses.
* Realism and significance *
Like so much futuristic fiction, Ultimatum is as much about the present as the future. Like so much political fiction, it's actually about political fact. Nothing in the book requires any great leap of imagination or inventiveness; it simply extrapolates from current trends, both environmental and, in the case of China, economic. Indeed, you might say that for the supposed passage of over twenty years remarkably little seems to have changed from today, just a few feet of sea level and a degree or so of temperature.
Sooner or later, some American president is going to be faced with exactly the kind of dilemma that Benton is portrayed as facing, and will be taking his decisions under much the same political pressures and constraints, both within the USA and internationally. I say "sooner or later", but of course it's really now. In essence American presidents - and statesmen around the world - are already taking such decisions, even if cataclysm is not yet staring them quite so squarely in the face. Mostly, whatever their rhetoric, they tend to decide to follow the line of least resistance, to push the need for painful self-restraint into the future, when, of course, it will be more painful still. How very much more painful still it will be is the message that Ultimatum has been written to convey, and it does so extremely well. For that Glass should be applauded, whatever minor shortcomings the book may have.
* The author *
Matthew Glass is a pseudonym, and this is reportedly his first novel. He is said to be an Australian now living in Britain, but one who has worked in the States. Certainly his portrayal of the political process there is extremely well-researched, well-imagined or based on personal experience. It is one of the book's great strengths. And, with his command of the well-turned sound-bite, Glass could always apply for a job as a presidential speech-writer if the fiction day-job failed.
* Price and Availability *
Ultimatum is published in the UK by Atlantic Books, cover price £9.99 for the hardback's 433 pages. Needless to say, you can find it cheaper on the web, just £5.49 from Amazon. So far as I've discovered, there are no plans as yet for a paperback, but it seems unlikely that it would be a whole lot cheaper than that.
* Recommendation *
Ultimatum is a credible and creditable attempt to show us what climate change will mean in reality, not only in the scorched fields and flooded ports, but in the corridors of power where men and women will wrestle with the horrifying consequences of their actions or inactions - and of our actions and inactions now. It reminds us that, whatever political and diplomatic games people play, the ultimate ultimatum is in nature's hands and that none of us can ignore it. As such Ultimatum is a very valuable book, and well worth reading.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2009