Little cloud-white lambs wobble over the leas and paddocks, nibbling clover under a wooly sky. Ladies and lords and mustachioed manservants converse through the halls of castles. The subjects and soldiers in the hay fields out past the battlements are content, and peaceful in their boisterous way. There is a tallow candle in every midnight window, a sachet of herbs for every howling teapot, and a ruddy-cheeked family relaxing around every hearth. Welcome to the outskirts of London at the twilight of the 21st century.
When Mary Shelley imagined the year 2100 in The Last Man, a lesser-known apocalyptic novel from 1826, she didn’t anticipate the rapid pace of technological and social change that would transform the world. Not only would penicillin prove to be a better cure-all than leeches, but mankind would also devise cell phones and cluster bombs, bitcoin and better long distance travel options than leaky sailboats. And so the frilled nobility and feudal economy of near future Great Britain that Shelley portrays seem anachronistic to contemporary readers, but so too should the notion of a drawn-out apocalypse. In The Last Man, the obliterating pandemic takes a dreadful seven years to finish us off.
Can we imagine a slow apocalypse now? Most contemporary depictions of the end of the world in literature and popular culture involve a bang, not a whimper. Think of the luminous comet barreling toward Earth. Think of the radioactive shockwaves of nuclear holocaust rippling around the planet as if across a pond. Think of all the happy Evangelicals slurped out of their pajamas during a rapturous breakfast. Even abstract notions of collapse—say, reaching peak oil or detonating a “population bomb”—portend a quick topple. Our neighborhoods and nations have grown interdependent on complex international networks, and it’s no trouble to imagine everything swiftly tumbling in the direction of rock bottom.
But when the world ends, I want it to take a long, long, achingly long time. Time to feel our collective loss, to grapple with the grief of it, and time enough to call up the best in us.
That’s why I found Shelley’s take on human extinction oddly refreshing. In The Last Man, the plague that throttles us—characterized as an “invincible monster”—exercises a wicked patience in its malice, and by extension we readers are given what feels like a rare opportunity to mourn our genuine achievements as a species before they are snatched away one by one.
Season after season, Shelley’s invincible monster barrels across the globe. It originates in Africa, moves against Asia, and then conquers France and Italy, where the institutions of genteel diplomacy and uplifting commerce start to falter. News becomes scant and gossipy; information unbelievable. Once the disease hops the English Channel, abstractions fall too. While London is racked and ravaged, the government and its practitioners wither. (Somehow the stoic rule of law, for a time, survives the death-spiral of British society.) Out in the idyllic countryside, we watch as wealth and hereditary privilege suffer their own grim fates, as the noble families relinquish their lands to house the poor, transient, and sick.
Lastly, we are given the time and space to mourn the emotions that make us human. After fleeing the English countryside, the weary remnant of humankind seeks the salubrious airs of the Swiss Alps and Mediterranean shores. Along the way we witness, with utmost relief, the final gasp of religious extremism. A chance encounter with a church organ and its only remaining players gives us our last experience of the sublime. Jealousy and exuberance, doubt and heartfelt fondness—one by one they disappear. And the sudden death of our narrator’s two final companions, which follows the extended death scene of his son, grants the space to even mourn the act of mourning itself.
By the book’s final pages, not much of civilization remains to be mourned except for the odd marble ruin erected by the ancients. “Thus are we left,” says one friend to our narrator,
two melancholy blasted trees, where once a forest waved. We are left to mourn, and pine, and die. Yet even now we have our duties, which we must string ourselves to fulfill: the duty of bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief. Nor will I repine if in this extremity we preserve what we now possess.
Decline’s easy pace in The Last Man, despite being written nearly two centuries prior, prefigures a semi-apocalyptic genre with contemporary salience: climate fiction. These are speculative stories of individuals and communities whose lives are threatened by the effects of global warming and climate change. Many of the novels in this genre end not in the shadow of a killer wave, but in the murk below a rising tide. Alternately, the characters of these stories may toil under a sweltering sun, whispering sand dune, or encroaching glacier.
Drought chokes the plotlines of both Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. In both, the American West and Southwest have run dry and the desert heat evaporates what little remains of the human soul. In the novels of Jeff Vander Meer, including Borne and his Southern Reach trilogy, we witness the phantasmagoric reversion of the planet to a natural world unbound from human agency. Lush swarms of monarch butterflies descend upon rural Tennessee in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, portending great, horrible changes in both the near term and far future. In Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Australia’s social and political structure is rocked by climate-induced migration. After the mother of all storms, we see the granular erosion of capitalism in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow. Classic cli-fi novels include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Ian McEwan’s Solar. This is a small sample of the burgeoning genre.
Like all of the natural “antagonists” in the books above, Shelley’s imagined plague advances with a creeping surefootedness, not unlike the incremental buildup of troubling symptoms within the global climate system. There’s an almost unfathomable (and growing) body of data about climate change and the ways it will disrupt our civilization’s pleasant march toward enlightenment. Meteorologists can point to the residential neighborhoods the future’s floods will swallow, forest ecologists can draw the lines of retreat for harried conifer groves, marine biologists can deluge you with estimates of fishery collapse, and glaciologists would prefer instead to recommend options for inexpensive bourbon, so dire is the condition of our planet’s large ice reserves. By these predictions, we can start to imagine the loss of the places to which we’ve grown most connected.
Coming to terms with those losses will take more than insight or experience. Describing the strange remnant world left at the conclusion of his aforementioned novel Borne, Jeff Vander Meer writes:
There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos or in relation to the normal workings of a day. Worse, when these events recur at an even greater magnitude, in a cascade of what you have never seen before and do not know how to classify. Troubling because each time you acclimate, you move on, and if this continues, there is a mundane grandeur to the scale that renders certain events beyond rebuke or judgment, horror or wonder, or even the grasp of history.
If mourning is the process of acclimating to loss, then climate fiction is a new literature of mourning.
Recall Shelley’s exhortation to duty in the face of grief: “bestowing pleasure where we can, and by force of love, irradiating with rainbow hues the tempest of grief.” While “tempest of grief” may be the most apt and chilling phrase for global warming, “force of love” is a good description of the radical political willpower required to counteract our decline. Both emotional states will naturally arise from the loss of those things, places, and people we cherish most. But, Shelley continued: “Nor will I repine if in this extremity we preserve what we now possess.” This is her exhortation to cherish our individual happy memories, our civilization’s grand triumphs, and our species’ fateful legacy. If we do not mourn those things, we cannot move on from our grief.