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The Birth of Adam
Paul Brown, author
Laura and her four lovers, in the early 1960s, come to realize that humanity is on a course of self-destruction due to overpopulation, mass extinction, and global warming. Over the decades they are frustrated in their efforts to avert the end of life on Earth. In their letters to Adam, Laura’s son, they recount their lives, loves, and careers, in an effort to restore Adam’s humanity. In the end, their efforts having failed, they leave to Adam a bitter legacy: in his hands rests a faint glimmer of hope of bringing life back to a dead planet.
“Brace yourself,” advises the first words of the first letter in this pained yet hopeful epistolary novel, which finds Brown, the neuroscientist author of the Notes from a Dying Planet series, returning to his urgent subject, imminent ecological collapse. That suggestion applies to readers, who are in for an illuminating but harrowing ride, and to humanity itself, which Brown persuasively suggests is living on the brink after having done “nothing to avert the developing catastrophes of overpopulation, mass extinction, and global warming (which we called ‘OMG’).” That advice is directed, though, from a mother to her son, as The Birth of Adam collects heady missives that Laura, a neuroscientist herself, and a quartet of her lovers send to her son, Adam, from a grim possible future of eco-catastrophes and governments who take no steps to halt the planet’s destruction.

“It was perfectly clear how humans had reached this state of affairs, and it was perfectly clear how it was all going to end up,” writes Simon, one of the lovers. Blending personal narrative, dystopian speculative fiction, and the explanatory clarity of a first-rate science essayist, Simon’s lengthy letter exemplifies Brown’s project: it doesn’t just imagine a fallen future, it does the work to show how humanity got there, with special attention paid to the workings of the brain.

“Essentially,” Simon notes, after a dazzling passage digging into the neuroscience of Trumpism, “they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.” The letters comprising the novel teems with insights about consciousness, the brain, AI, the environment, and life itself, plus incisive jokes, jolting revelations and connections, and flashes of love, pain, and deeply human earthiness: “I was a pelvis man. And she had a pelvis to die for,” notes David. While the lovers’ accounts of their relationships at times are touching, readers should not expect traditional plotting and pacing. These are scientists’ pained, illuminating meditations.

Takeaway: Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.

Great for fans of: Illuminating letters from future scientists about how humanity let the Earth collapse.

Production grades
Cover: B-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B+