— Originally published on November 14, 2021 in the Stabroek News
I love cosmic horror. There is something unsettling about one day finding one’s self battling against giant incomprehensible forces older than humanity itself. Add a dash of action/adventure to the mix and set it in the early 2000s and I am hooked.
Premee Mohamed’s 2020 novel, Beneath the Rising, gives readers this exact combo. It’s about an ordinary teenager and a child scientist battling to save the world from an ancient evil threatening to destroy it. They travel the world together, confront their childhood traumas, and defeat real monsters to save the planet. The book is funny at times, heart-breaking at others, while the looming sense of dread throughout amps up the tension with each chapter. By their wild journey’s end, both characters and reader alike understand the weight of genius, and the cost of saving the world.
“She’s done it again. The headlines lined themselves up. Child prodigy changes world. Child prodigy…makes a million things obsolete.– Nick Prasad, p. 16
We could have electric cars, like in sci-fi movies. Electric…planes? Electric submarines. Electric everything, the whole world humming to her tune. No more wars over oil. The entire world looking at each other and thinking: We could get along now. We might not have to be friends, but we could be neighbours.”
Nick Prasad and Joanna “Johnny” Chambers are the best of friends. They have been for most of their lives. Nick is a Guyanese immigrant, recent high-school graduate and one of the breadwinners in his single-parent household. He stocks shelves at his local grocery store for a living and takes care of his younger siblings when his mother goes to work.
Johnny, on the other hand, is a tech genius. Since she was around six years old, she has been using her inventions to cure diseases, and make sustainable development a global reality. Because of her, the world is safter, cleaner and healthier.
And she’s not done yet.
The novel opens with Nick picking her up from the airport. While on the plane, she had another big idea: she wants to make a reactor that will generate clean, emissionless electricity. She does it and it is successful, but the reactor does not change the world in the way she and Nick expect.
Instead, strange things start happening. Monsters stalk and attack Nick and his family. The Northern Lights blaze all the way to the equator. Familiar constellations shift out of place, and the gravity of the replacement stars pull on mind and body. Johnny must fix things before it gets out of hand and Nick is there to help her.
Together, they travel around the world, racing against the clock to figure out how to reverse the reactor’s influence, as more monsters begin appearing. Along the way, Nick slowly begins to uncover hidden truths about Johnny, himself, and the forces beneath the rising of this impending apocalypse. Will the truth set him free, or will it doom him and Johnny and their decade-long relationship?
The Cost of Saving the World
Being a super genius may seem like an amazing ability, especially when you’re able to invent tech and sway politicians to improve the world. But we get to see how Johnny’s genius hurts her through Nick’s narration.
In Mohamed’s world, Johnny has done a lot for a seventeen-year-old. She’s cured HIV, malaria, and dementia; developed a spider-silk substitute for plastic, created efficient solar panels and wind turbines to help wean the world off fossil fuels. However, she has also sacrificed a lot accomplish all these things in her twelve-year career.
For one, she’s fundamentally lonely since there’s no one else on her intellectual level. Nick is her only friend, but he is just an ordinary person who cannot keep up with the way her mind works for the most part. Her abilities also make her push her family and potential friends away, and since she didn’t need conventional schooling, she couldn’t make friends through the traditional school system either.
With only one friend and a personal assistant for company, we see how Johnny prioritises work over socialisation and even her own health.
“She’d almost burned herself out when she was ten or eleven, working hundred-hour weeks, never sleeping, publishing paper after paper and combining them with press conferences and lecture tours,” Nick recalls, “till Rutger and her parents had to put their collective foot down. Don’t, they said. You’ll die.”(p. 42)
But her self-destructive love for the world doesn’t stop there. In the opening chapter, soon after she has the idea for the reactor, Nick scolds her for trying to survive on a diet of espresso and mentos. Nick ensures that she cares for herself, sometimes by forcing her to slow down to eat or drink something. It’s heart-warming to see how much he cares for her when she doesn’t care for herself, but it’s also heart-breaking to know that Johnny is just a child, who is eating away at herself to try to solve all of humanity’s problems on her own. When we learn the full reasons for her almost super-human ambition, the truth shatters both Nick and the reader at the same time.
Groundings with Nick
I love Nick as a character. He’s funny, a bit chaotic, but attentive to both Johnny and his younger siblings. But unlike Johnny, who is far more bombastic and a bit of an idealist, Nick’s realism plants his feet firmly on the ground, stabilising the crazy story he and Johnny find themselves in.
Not only does he point out the ways Johnny has hurt herself or is hurting because of her abilities, but he also is real enough to criticise her blind spots. And she has a lot of them. Johnny is a rich, white, Canadian teenager, who gets richer by the year because of her patented inventions, lecture tours and commissions. Nick, however, is a working-class Guyanese immigrant who refuses to ask for any handouts and works hard for everything he owns. Also, because the novel is set in 2002, and Nick lives in a post-9/11 world, he’s also being targeted by xenophobes who think that every brown man is Muslim and therefore a terrorist.
These very real challenges help him to see the world and solutions to his problems very differently from Johnny. Johnny has her own struggles as well, like battling through the old boy’s club of STEM in order to be taken seriously as a scientist. But she is also rich enough to believe that tossing money at most of her problems will solve them.
I loved this juxtaposition because although Nick loves Johnny, he isn’t afraid to point out when she is naive or biased about the world. It makes the book more interesting and shows that being a genius is great, but without someone to challenge your perspectives, your inventions can harm rather than help the ones around you.
I loved Beneath the Rising, especially since I got to watch a Guyanese kid run around the world, destroying monsters, and saving the planet. I’m excited to see what Mohamed does in the upcoming books. From the description, it seems like it will focus more on Nick’s journey, rather than him mostly narrating the life and times of Johnny Chambers, and I’m here for it.
I also loved the book because it’s just full of early 2000s references and inside jokes that make me a bit nostalgic for my own childhood. These, combined with the way she used the cosmic horror elements to show the effects of childhood trauma made the book an incredible read. If you like monsters, smart kids, and a lot of corny puns and early 2000s chaos, I’d highly recommend this book. It’s fun. It’s heart-breaking and it’s thrilling.
Want to read more cosmic horror? Here are my recommendations:
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Want more books about Guyanese kids saving their world?
Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh
The Dark of the Sea by Imam Baksh