The Last Whale by Chris Vick

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Review by Peter Reason

The Last Whale is a fiction book for teens and young adults that covers serious themes in an engaging story. The narrative threads together tragedy and hope, tempers purposeful action with luck and disaster, and portrays the love and tension that must co-exist between generations; all the while addressing the calamitous and very real problems of climate change, ecological collapse, artificial intelligence, and the dominance of capitalist organizations.  The twitter comment by children’s author Rebecca Gomez ‘People who don’t read children’s books are missing out on some of the best stories ever told’ is certainly true of this book (thanks to another children and young person’s author, Mimi Thebo, for the retweet).

Abi Kristensen is a young teenager who is at odds with her parents and teachers: she has been excluded from school and is being whisked off, against her wishes, on a family visit from England to Norway. She won the NewTek Challenge competition and as her prize has been licensed to use a portable artificial intelligence device called AI for ecological research. Contrary to her licence, she is not returning AI to NewTek: it is not stolen, she says, but ‘borrowed’. She intends to use the device as part of her radical Earth Crisis activism to help her disrupt the Global Environment Summit.

Her activism is stymied now she is on a remote island with no internet access. But then Bestemor, her Swedish grandmother, casually remarks, ‘Well, be sure you do not miss the whales’, and it is from here that her adventures really begin. 

The plot is intricate and multidimensional, and the writing absorbing and pacy. The protagonists are young people who can be impulsive and foolish, who get themselves into scrapes from which they have to be rescued, but who also show wisdom, foresight, and courage beyond their years. They wrestle with those who don’t understand (teachers and parents), enemies (NewTek and its drones), and get help from surprising allies (Abi’s little sister Tig and Bestemor). All these characters are convincingly portrayed, their relationships believable.

Amy discovers another dimension of the ecological crisis through a curious family history which AI helps to uncover: Whales are fast becoming extinct, and their loss as top predators will lead to ecological collapse of the oceans and the death of earth. Halfway through the book, when all seems to be lost, the story jumps a generation to the near future when state of the world ecology is gathering to a crisis. Abi is now the grown-up and her daughter Tonje the key young protagonist.

Through this ecological story is a thread of science fiction (although how far ‘fiction’ is debateable given recent development in AI). The device that is called AI in the first chapter soon becomes Moonlight and ‘she’ (so named by Tig, much to Abi’s initial annoyance). Moonlight develops close relationships with the children, who increasingly show her affection and treat her as a person. She becomes deeply linked in with whales and the wider ecology. And so, over the course of the story Moonlight develops self-awareness, a sense of purpose, and eventually the ability to make choices. She becomes, in some sense, an independent actor: a kind of consciousness that can inhabit different devices and networks. The implications of this are lightly and optimistically touched on.  

The book also draws on deep understanding of the crucial part whales play in the ocean ecology, which itself will fascinate readers, both young and old. Chris Vick knows about whales; he has long been closely associated with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. His Author’s Note points out that the ecological science on which he bases his story is very real, even if he has been imaginative rather than 100% accurate in his book. (full disclosure: several years ago Chris Vick participated on a Masters programme I was closely involved with at the University of Bath).

This book is an exemplar of climate fiction that addresses our predicament head on. It is engaging and entertaining with a strong narrative and characters I think many young people would identify with. As I write, I am making a list of those I want to gift this book to. When you read it, you may well want to do the same.

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Peter Reason is currently engaged in a series of experiential co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: How does Land and the community of life speak to us? How do we learn to listen?  He is writing about this inquiry in a series of posts on Substack Learning How Land Speaks. His most recent publications include The Teachings of Mistle Thrush and Kingfisher,  On Presence, and On Sentience (all with artist Sarah Gillespie). His online presence is at peterreason.net, Twitter @peterreason, and peterreason.substack.com

Chris Vick, The Last Whale (Zephyr, 2023). 978-1803281629, 301pp., paperback.

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1 comment

  1. I like the sound of this one – will look out for it

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