It’s the end of the world as we know it, and nobody feels fine in Bernard’s debut portrayal of humanity’s end.
Near the middle of the 23rd century, Earth is on the edge of complete environmental collapse. The human race has dwindled to a few straggling colonies on the edges of each continent, and there’s just one shining hope left: the 32,000 colonists on the starship Apeiron, a last-ditch effort to start anew on an “exoplanet” more than 50 light-years away. The narrator of Bernard’s novel—Patrick, a senior member of the colony on America’s East Coast and a former astronomer—stays in communication with the other colonies. As they begin to slide toward oblivion, he decides to take a dangerous trip to a large radio-telescope array and find out the status of Apeiron’s mission—a voyage that offers revelations that Patrick might have been happier not knowing. As a jeremiad against human-caused environmental damage, Bernard’s novel is often effective, working details of the biosphere’s destruction into the overall flow without holding up the narrative. Like other ecological end-time novels, such as George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (2006) and Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka’s Nature’s End (1986), Bernard carefully describes what a world in the last throes of extinction might look like and shows its effects on human society, from desperate attempts to use what remains of national park systems to riots over food and water to ever-increasing swarms of refugees. However, Bernard’s novel also shares a common flaw with other, similar stories: its emphasis on worldbuilding over character development. Only Patrick appears to be fully fleshed out, serving as a beacon of reason and compassion in a world that’s seemingly run out of both. The story mainly uses the other colonists as a Greek chorus of despair, fear, and animal panic. Once the focus shifts to a book-within-a-book—a memoir of a woman who had a child with the Apeiron mission’s leader, but couldn’t go with him—the excess worldbuilding only becomes more pronounced, diffusing the novel’s focus and derailing the momentum. Patrick’s somber elegy at the end manages to preserve the power of his final words, but it underlines the relative weakness of the preceding memoir sections.
Despite an overall lack of focus, Bernard’s tale still manages to retain a mournful, prophetic power.