Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer is set in Helsinki in the near future, perhaps two or three decades from now, but it portrays a world that is hardly recognizable. Finland, like every other European nation, has become a failed state due to the influx of millions of climate migrants, with its own citizens abandoning urban centers to head north, where private security firms offer the promise of safety and security. Amidst this chaos, a radical environmentalist is targeting those responsible for accelerating climate change, hoping to “heal the planet.” It’s not only an excellent piece of noir with a truly shocking twist on the final page, but a chillingly realistic description of what could await many countries in the very near future. While other recent climate change novels, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, have received more attention, The Healer is worth looking at in some detail.
In Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Christian Parenti documents some of the secondary consequences of changing climates already visible around the world. Throughout the Global South, disrupted weather patterns mean failed crops and competition over scarce resources, which leads to violence and emigration. As he shows in his chapter on “military soothsayers,” recent reports from military planners in the U.S. and other industrialized nations foresee hundreds of millions of climate refugees in coming decades, which, according to one, will “create a sense of desperation… Europe will be struggling internally, large numbers of refugees washing up on its shores and Asia in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.” (15)
In The Healer (published in the Finnish in 2010, in English in 2013) this prediction is realized. While searching for his kidnapped wife, the narrator, Tapani, mentions that
The southern regions of Spain and Italy had officially been left to their own devices. Bangladesh, sinking into the sea, had erupted in a plague that threatened to spread to the rest of Asia. The dispute between India and China over Himalayan water supplies was driving the two countries to war… Estimated number of climate refugees planet-wide: 650-800 million people. (4)
While most Americans can still believe that we will remain (or are currently) buffered from the adverse consequences of climate change—apart from hot summers, cold winters, and the occasional destructive force of “nature”—it’s only a matter of time before these chickens come home to roost. (In fact, Parenti has an excellent chapter on the connection between recent historic droughts in Central America and violence in Mexico.) For example, Tapani’s search, aided by a North African taxi driver (himself a recent immigrant), takes him to a formerly ritzy Helsinki neighborhood:
The waterfront homes at Kulosaari were, with a few exceptions, among the first houses left empty by their owners and were now filled with new arrivals. Those who had the means had moved north: those with the most means to northern Canada, the rest to Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian Lapland. Dozens of high-security, privately owned small towns had been established in the north in recent years, both on the Arctic coast and in the interior, with self-contained water, sewage, and electrical systems—and, of course, hundreds of uniformed guards to keep out undesirables. (28)
Throughout the city “armed robberies had increased—they were being committed in the daytime now, and closer to the city center.” That is to say, Finland has become just another failed state, with its only the wealthy able to find any measure of security (a dynamic that is reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, explored in Eddie Yuen’s excellent chapter in Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth). Failed-state noir is pleasantly liberated from the extra-legality of the noir antihero’s search for justice: Tapani is forced to hunt The Healer himself since the depleted police force is no longer capable.
The novel doesn’t engage with the imperative and ethics of environmental radicalism with as much complexity as it might have—it’s not on par with T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000), for example—but The Healer’s actions raise all sorts of questions about appropriate political and personal responses to carbon emissions:
He said he did it on behalf of ordinary people, to avenge them… a healer for a sick planet. That’s why he had murdered the CEO of a manufacturing company and his family. And that’s why he would continue to murder whoever he claimed had contributed to the acceleration of climate change. (11)
While Tuomainen never endorses these actions, and makes it clear that they are without effect (“twenty years too late”), Tapani frequently looks back with anguish at the decades of inaction, and asks, “How many of us are truly innocent, anyway? We’ve all spent decades knowing what was coming, but nobody wanted to do anything that would make the slightest bit of difference” (188). While The Healer isn’t likely to satisfy Derrick Jensen or Ward Churchill, the juxtaposition between The Healer’s demand that “actions have consequences” and Tapani’s self-criticism certainly leaves the question of ethical radical environmental activism open.
And without giving away too much, it can surely be said that The Healer fully confronts the existential dread that the future might very well hold. That Tuomainen is able to pack such a depth of consideration of environmental futures into a tightly-wound, compact (less than 200 pages), and often quite tender noir novel is a marvel indeed. The Healer should surely find its way onto the syllabii of courses on literature and the environment, and perhaps deserves a spot on your bookshelf as well. Read a short excerpt here.