Ever read a book and immediately wish that you’d been able to read it in school, rather than [insert inaccessible book of choice]? For me, Nancy Kress’s 2020 novella Sea Change, with its gutsy-yet-conflicted heroine and all-too-real near-future global catastrophes, is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been handed way back when.
Renata Black is a lawyer, handling cases for citizens of the Quinault Nation in the Pacific Northwest. She’s cultivated friendships among them, especially in the wake of the Catastrophe of 2022, in which a biopharmed drug caused agricultural collapse across the planet, destroyed the global economy, and brought personal devastation to Renata’s family. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were banned in the aftermath of the Catastrophe, but there are underground groups who believe that GMOs can be safely implemented to enrich the quality of life for everyone on the planet, and one such group — known as “the Org” and identified by the Tiffany Teal paint they use to mark strategic items — is stealthily making inroads toward wide-scale success.
Caroline Denton, one of the Org’s best operatives, has contacts with scientists who are hard at work on products like carrots with enhanced nutritive properties, but a mole has infiltrated the Org and put everyone within their network at risk of being shut down by the government, or worse. Complicating matters further is that fact that Caroline and Renata are the same woman, information that could destroy far more lives than just her own if it were made public. So who’s the mole — and what’s their endgame?
Kress keeps the tension taut throughout Sea Change, planting red herrings so skillfully that I had no idea who was betraying whom until the big reveal. Renata/Caroline is a well-developed character: her heartbreak and her drive to make the world a better place for future generations, as well as those currently struggling to survive, are fully understandable and relatable. Though the concept of GMOs might seem daunting to some readers not well-versed on the subject or its long history of use in agriculture, Kress explains her characters’ positions well, and her extrapolations of how GMOs can be used safely and in moderation are sound.
I enjoyed Sea Change tremendously, not only for the strength of Kress’s character work but for the ways in which she tackles difficult subjects like environmental collapse, the fraught legal status of people living on reservations in America, grief and the different ways people cope with loss, and the often-surprising ways people express their hope for a better future. Sea Change is a short novel with a powerful impact, and I highly recommend it.