The puzzle of eco-fiction | The nation
One of the main difficulties in facing the terrible reality of climate change remains that of conceptualizing the climate itself, of thinking climatologically. This mode of understanding requires radical shifts in scale, positioning discrete occurrences as part of immensely larger models over vast expanses of time and space. This forces us to look beyond national borders and isolated events. Climatological thinking requires an advantageous position which must at least aspire to both totality and synthesis without losing sight of the fine details of the local and the particular. Taking this way of thinking and translating it into narrative form is essential for communicating what is happening on our ever-warming planet. Weaving together the fragmented subtleties of the individual and human experience of climate without losing sight of its vastness is a daunting, but deeply necessary, challenge: telling a story about climate change requires a narrative ambition of planetary breadth.
To find a model for what this task might look like, we don’t need to look any further than one of the inaugural works of eco-fiction, the pioneering 1941 novel by George R. Stewart. Storm. Stewart’s work is a heterogeneous collection of almost forgotten works in a surprisingly wide range of genres. A professor of polymath English at the University of California at Berkeley, Stewart has written works in literary criticism, speculative anthropology, history, and toponymy (the study of place names) in addition to his novel production. His varied interests, from the Donner Party to the American Highway, from the deep past to environmental disaster, are fully on display throughout. Storm. A bestseller upon its release, the novel’s main innovation of making a weather phenomenon its central character has led to the practice of naming tropical storms, and its groundbreaking formal vanity still makes for an astonishing encounter with writing. environmental 80 years after its initial release.
Storm opens with a vision of “the great sphere of the earth” seen from space before descending to two events which will intersect: a drought developing in Northern California and a collision of arctic and tropical air in off the coast of Japan. The former leads to shifts in agricultural futures markets, increased feed purchases and suicide, while the latter turns into a storm that the junior meteorologist at the San Francisco weather office will nickname Maria. Each chapter of the novel encompasses a day in Maria’s life, and Stewart fills each passage with a set of nested parts that will all inevitably be affected by the storm landing.
The narrative’s camera eye shifts away from its large number of human characters, choosing to forgo psychological depth in order to focus on the immense scale of Maria’s impact. Stewart writes that most people “did not realize that the wind blowing on [their] play was part of a planetary system, ”and so the novel attempts to tie together this collection of discrete experiences and make them appear whole. Still Storm even transcends the mesoscale of time, oscillating between narrative descriptions of geological time and ancient human life and the everyday events of current business and domestic processes. The novel’s greatest success lies in the entropy of its narrative forces, its dramatic tensions from sources as varied as a reckless gunshot that will strike a switch box and lead to a flooded underground passage to a cedar tree beginning to sprout. in 1579 which will ultimately lead to a broken telephone line whose temporary disconnection will have an impact on several lives. “The more you thought about who was causing what,” said the boss of the junior meteorologist to himself, “the more you felt that cause and effect were nothing more than words – which were handy to use sometimes, but which were not. doesn’t really make sense. On such a distant scale, Maria is just a natural force meeting countless others, a medium-sized storm made extraordinary by Stewart’s insistence that we see her more than a localized disturbance: somehow or other. another, the life of every human being in the region. He had accomplished all of this without being catastrophic or even unusual himself.
Storsion, however, is as much a novel about infrastructure as it is about the climate. His focus revolves around the built world and Sisyphus’s tasks continually of pushing back the elements and maintaining normalcy. The novel demonstrates both the effects of human works on the natural world and the limits of our autonomy against it. The coming storm cannot be delayed, only prepared and dealt with by snow plow operators, linemen, dam operators, railway managers and airport service officers. Even with all the relentless torture and anxious preparation, spontaneous accidents still occur and lives are still lost due to the ever-increasing emergence of new, unforeseeable variables. “Overall, influenced by the immediate need and convenience,” writes Stewart, “[humanity] remains through the long carefree course of the struggle, without a plan. This novel denies easy optimism at every point, emphasizing instead how precarious human existence seems from this wide angle. Storm throughout manifests eschatological nuances, convinced of the omnipresent imminence of ecological disaster and of our inability or reluctance to see it coming.
Storm was the first in a series of ecological books that Stewart would write, and the others have a similar foreknowledge. His 1948 novel, Fire, takes up the countless effects of a wildfire in northern California, and his most famous novel, 1949’s postapocalyptic The earth remains, focuses on the failed attempts to rebuild 20th-century civilization in the wake of an incredibly deadly pandemic. The gigantic fires now burning across the West present a danger of orders of magnitude greater than Fire imagine, just as the current mega-drought across the West is of a different nature to the California drought of Storm. One of the horrors of our time is the extent to which weather events are now so often both catastrophic and increasingly routine.
Thanks to climate change, all of the plummeting dominoes so ably described by Stewart now have increased ripple effects, even as capital managers stubbornly refuse to take any action that might slow the accumulation of profits. But it is Stewart’s ability to dedicate our interconnection to the primordial past of our planet, to the past of humanity, and above all to all those who currently breathe our common collective atmosphere that makes Storm a reading so vital and necessary in our present moment. There is no escape from a world on fire, and the only way to face our common crisis is to disown the naive belief that a future deus ex machina will exert climate control and restore order. . Stewart’s work demonstrates how such pride is doomed. Instead, we need to recognize how subjugated we are all by the conditions of our natural world, as “drought or flooding, cold winds and ice, heat, blown dust, shifting path of the storm – in the end, they defeat even the unruffled machines. To stop climate change, we must collectively affirm that our atmosphere belongs to all of us and that its continued destruction predicts ours. Those who wish to tell this story must consider not only the scale of the emergency, but also our own ability to make the future unfold differently.