May 26, 2019

Cli-Fi Fictions Imagines a Grim Future for the Earth

“As part of its ongoing “Original Stories” series, Amazon has assembled a collection of climate-change fiction, or cli-fi, bringing a literary biodiversity to bear on the defining crisis of the era. This online compilation of seven short stories, called “Warmer”—containing work from a Pulitzer Prize winner (Jane Smiley) and two National Book Award finalists (Lauren Groff and Jess Walter), among others—offers ways of thinking about something we desperately do not want to think about: the incipient death of the planet.

There is something counterintuitive about cli-fi, about the fictional representation of scientifically substantiated predictions that too many people discount as fictions. The genre, elsewhere exemplified by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” brings disaster forcefully to life. But it is a shadowy mirror. Literature has always been a humanist endeavor: it intrinsically and helplessly affirms the value of the species; its intimations of meaning energize and comfort. But what if there is scant succor to be had, and our true natures are not noble but necrotic, pestilential? We have un-earthed ourselves. Yet we claim the right to gaze at our irresponsibility and greed through fiction’s tonic filter. The stories in “Warmer,” which possess the urgency of a last resort and the sorrow of an elegy, inhabit this contradiction. They both confront and gently transfigure the incomprehensible realities of climate change.

The collection starts in the near future and marches forward chronologically. The first two entries, “The Way the World Ends,” by Walter, and “Boca Raton,” by Groff, sketch our “before” or “before-ish” purgatory: weather systems in rebellion—a “swirling, greasy snow” in central Mississippi, rashes of hurricanes—but their effects pale in comparison to what characters dread is to come. (Catastrophes hinted at in some of the stories serve as backdrops for subsequent ones, as if to fold “now,” “soon,” and “after” into one continuous descent: an unhurried extinction-in-progress.) In Walter’s contribution, a hydrogeologist in her late thirties contemplates the idiocy of freezing her eggs when “one hundred percent of legitimate climate scientists believe the world to be on the verge of irreversible collapse.” In Groff’s story, a mother berates herself for having a daughter—a “terrible mistake she had made out of loneliness. The sheer selfish stupidity of bringing a child into the beginning of the end of the world as humans know it.” Both authors summon a sense of frustration and crashing despair, and an anguished appreciation for the beauty of life as it is, which proves inseparable from the beauty of the lie that that life will stretch on forever. One must give up on such beauty—one must not have children—and yet the tranquilizing pleasure of the world forbids it. After a storm, a student in Walter’s story notices “the clarity and richness, the way the air is imbued with moisture and the colors—the sky a soft white-blue, like a thing forgiven.””

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