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.
As I wrote this, from the corner of my eye, I could see CNN providing coverage of a gargantuan hurricane, racing resolutely towards the Eastern coastal arc of the U.S., extending from Florida all the way up to the Carolinas. The footage showed fierce winds roiling the waters of the Atlantic; wave after wave, crashing against the shore, slopping out over the edge of the sea wall. It could have been an event such as this that prompted J.G. Ballard to write The Drowned World — a forerunner of a genre, dubbed in the 21st century as “climate fiction” — in which he paints a nightmare landscape, where the seas have swelled and swallowed up the land.
Marine biologist Robert Kerans is a member of a United Nations military team, mapping the drowned harbors for future reoccupation. As they make their way in a catamaran, they enter a “wide circle of dark green water” through whose layers they can see the “outlines of buildings looming like giant ghosts.” A straight gray promenade stretched away between the buildings, the remains of some former thoroughfare; the rusting humped shells of cars still standing by the curb.” That’s a lagoon. Beneath it is a “spectral” metropolis: London. The British capital had sunk sometime in the “closing years of the second millennium.”
All over the world, mean temperatures rose till the polar ice caps melted and the glaciers turned into torrential rivers and the contours of the continents were altered. At around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the equator had become a veritable oven. “Europe became a system of giant lagoons.” The American Midwest had become an “enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” Only the polar regions offered a feeble refuge from the encroaching searing heat.
As the mercury soared and the air boiled, the fauna and flora rapidly reverted to what they were during the Triassic, a geological period that ended 200 million years ago. The wheat fields of the temperate climes had been overrun by dense groves of towering calamites, ferns, horsetails, clubmosses, transforming them into Amazon-like rainforests on steroids. Darwinism dictated that creatures better adapted to a life in jungles, swamps, and lakes flourished; those not, perished. Iguanas “perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores.”
Today, there’s a growing worry that rising oceans will overcome low-lying areas around the world. It’s now known — at least, to some — that the agent of the recent climate change is industrial and post-industrial humankind. Over time, the relentless release of greenhouse gases (those that trap heat) has taken its toll on the planet. Three years ago, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million, last known to have existed during an epoch called the Pliocene. The New York Times reported that experts feared that more emissions could trigger a return to primitive climate conditions.
Writing in 1962, in envisioning that the global climate would be thrown off-kilter, of course, Ballard is prescient, but his foresight likely came out of his rumination on the fate of the planet, not environmental study. In this particular novel, he attributes the alarming shift in Earth’s ecosystem to “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms,” triggered by a “sudden instability of the Sun.” Humans have no role in the apocalypse in Ballard’s story.
His thoughts, in this regard, have shades of H.G. Wells. In The Time Machine (1895), as the temporal tourist travels forward in time, he remarks how much hotter it was in the future than it is in his own age. He can’t understand why that should be so, but he reasons: “It may be that the Sun was hotter or the Earth nearer the Sun.” “Planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body. As these catastrophes occur, the Sun will blaze with renewed energy; and it may be that some inner planet had suffered this fate. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Sun was very much hotter than we know it.” As he journeys, he watches the sun grow bigger and bigger till it fills the sky. It “halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome, glowing with a dull heat.” Sometime, in the very distant future, it comes to obscure a good slice of the heavens.
The narrative of The Drowned World, likewise, is laden with the fiery power of the sun and its engorgement. It’s no longer a “sphere,” but a “wide, expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fireball.” It “filled the sky, turning it into an enormous blowtorch.” It even takes the form of an organic entity, pulsing, its “volcanic pounding” beckoning men to sail south as if it were a beautiful siren.
In most works with the science-fiction postmark, typically, victims flee from a cataclysm. Not in The Drowned World. One fine day, when a swashbuckling buccaneer and his crew pull off a feat of derring-do by resurrecting the lost metropolis and London emerges “like an immense intact Atlantis.” But the reaction of the last human survivors to it is not one of joy and relief, but total repugnance. They regard it as a hellish, “drained and festering sewer” and do nothing to reclaim it. Instead, they choose to stay in their surreal, silent, waterlogged reality. Their willful surrender to it stems from their staunch belief that it’s an act of god, in the face of which resistance is futile, even unwarranted.
Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow is a tale in the same tradition. Published more than 50 years later, it proves what a difference half a century can make. A much-touted eco-fiction, it, like The Drowned World, is about a meteorological anomaly, but one that’s far more plausible. It takes place, where else, but New York?
A powerful hurricane makes landfall in the New York City. In its wake, all five boroughs of New York are battered, Manhattan being the hardest hit. The East River and the Hudson, which flank the slender island surge and converge in its middle, flooding it entirely. The United Nations Secretariat, a building built on bedrock called the Manhattan schist dips below sea level, turning into a “sunken ship in the East River.” The two-tiered concourse of the Grand Central turns into a “lake — or a sea, since it was impossible to perceive its boundaries.”
Rich marries calamity with capital. Mitchell Zukor, a young math whizz, is an economic Cassandra, of sorts. His job at a futurist concern housed in the Empire State Building is to forecast a myriad hazards — everything from asteroid strike to biological warfare to solar storm to pestilence to cyberwarfare — so that businesses can inoculate themselves against them, should they come to pass. When the storm strikes, though, no one is prepared. But Zukor is better equipped to navigate it only because of a luxe purchase: a canoe.
As in the The Drowned World, in this book too, the land becomes very, very hot before the deluge. The “whole Northeast was blanched; wilting.” There had been no rainfall, leading to a prolonged drought reminiscent of the Dust Bowl. The air was heavy with thick, black dust, forcing people to wear masks, now sold by bodegas.
Unlike both Ballard and Wells, Rich holds man squarely responsible for this ecological mishap, blaming it on his insensate greed to build on grounds reserved for fauna and flora. In the aftermath, the state government decides to let the soggy, peripheral wastelands in Brooklyn return to swampland as it once was before the colonizers arrived.
Ballard gives fatalistic shrug at a bleak future, asking man to become one with nature. Rich, on the other hand, calls for a distinct separation of spheres, urging us to co-exist with it as equal partners.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.