Fire season in California ended in mid-December, but I can’t bring myself to unpack the boxes near the front door. I threw them together overnight—family photos, backup drives, mementos, passports—in late September, when three wildfires merged, creating the Glass Fire, and burned west into rural Sonoma County, where I live. The Walbridge Fire, which came closer, had been contained only ten days earlier. For weeks I kept the gas tank full and wore a respirator mask on my trips out for groceries and bottled water. (The electricity had been cut, and without it the well doesn’t work.) Mostly I stayed in with the windows shut, watching birds materialize through the smoke to land on the feeder. Blackened, blistered bay leaves spattered the driveway.
At night, I woke hourly to scan the surrounding woods for an orange glow. What if no warning came? Like almost everyone in the Bay Area, I have friends who’ve fled fires at night, driven through flames. I ran my risk assessment daily. You could say the fire had already gotten me.
Climate fiction is a genre of necessity—a new, rapidly expanding chorus of alarm. It’s beginning to seem strange not to mention climate change in realistic fiction, and not only because it’s an existential threat. As Bill McKibben wrote in these pages, “we are entering a period when physical forces, and our reaction to them, will drive the drama on planet Earth.”1 The term “climate fiction” itself came into use around the turn of this century. (Its catchy abbreviation, “cli-fi,” was coined by a blogger and environmentalist, Dan Bloom, in 2007.2) While environmental disasters have been a staple of dystopian science fiction since the late nineteenth century, writers before the mid-1960s rarely envisioned anthropogenic climate change. Terrible things just happened, like the hurricane that sweeps humanity off the planet in J.G. Ballard’s first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961). But more recent climate fiction tends to assign blame. The reproductive toxins that render most women infertile in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for example, derive from leaking nuclear plants and discarded chemical weapon stockpiles—very much humanity’s doing. Almost all climate fiction is political now. It wants to kick the reader’s chair.
In The Inland Sea, an artful debut novel by Madeleine Watts, the effects of climate change have become inescapable and relentless. The book opens during the record-setting Australian heat wave of 2013—until 2019, Australia’s hottest year on record:
Ambulance crews raced towards Circular Quay and Parramatta to tend to the elderly, the pregnant, and the very young. In the western suburbs dogs and babies were discovered comatose after five minutes left inside locked cars…. At Taronga Zoo, the lions were given milk-flavored ice blocks. Carrot-flavored ice was fed to the zebras.
Dozens of fires break out along the south coast, and flash floods follow the fires: “The ocean bled into the land. Salt water seeped into the crops. Rivers not rivers. Homes not homes.”
The narrator, who is unnamed, is adrift after dropping out of a one-year postgraduate honors program. She moves to a semi-seedy part of Sydney and takes a full-time job at an emergency call center, a temporary stopgap, she thinks. She knows the work might be stressful, but
the script we were taught on our first day was meant to shield us from distress. If all went as planned, the person calling didn’t tell us about the fire raging down their cliff or the body they’d discovered at the bottom of a gully. We waited to hear the caller engage with the paramedic or the firefighter and then quietly hung up before hearing the details. We were not meant to hear the problem. We were not meant to hear the woman howl for the baby turning blue in her arms.
Her own life is also in crisis. Her plans for a doctorate have come to nothing; when she starts drinking, she can’t stop. Her boyfriend, an aspiring playwright, dumped her for a fellow student two days after the narrator had an abortion: Cate is “really worth trying for,” he tells her. “I want to be a good man, with her.” The narrator calls him “Lachlan” as a kind of in-joke: it’s the name of one of Australia’s inland-flowing rivers (now dammed) that led nineteenth-century white explorers to believe that the continent had a large body of water and fertile lands at its center. “The inland sea,” the narrator says, “allowed everyone to believe that the prisonscape they had established in the Antipodes might really be a kind of pristine Eden, which God had set down on the earth as a gift to the British Empire.” Among the explorers was the narrator’s ancestor, the real-life explorer John Oxley. Oxley’s failed 1817 expedition to find that inland sea mirrors the narrator’s attempt to find a safe haven with Lachlan—one of many correspondences in this metaphorically rich, tightly patterned novel.
After Lachlan leaves her, she plunges into risky, random hookups that parallel her attraction to danger in other areas of her life: “I wanted to be undone. I wasn’t interested in protecting myself.” The narrative recourse to risky sex as coping strategy, distraction, and self-inflicted punishment for young women is something of a trend in contemporary fiction (see Queenie (2019) by Candice Carty-Williams and last year’s Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey), and the unnamed narrator is another. As Sam Sacks wrote in an essay titled “The Rise of the Nameless Narrator,” in The New Yorker,
Behind this effacement, there seems to lurk a deepening distrust in writing itself, a crisis of faith in the ability of words to either capture the essence of a life or else speak truthfully to its essenceless condition.3
While Watts’s narrator’s chaotic sex life taps into larger debates about gendered violence and the policing of behavior and identity—you immediately recognize the “bad man” in this novel when he shows up on the dance floor and moves in on the narrator while she’s dancing with a female friend—the decision not to name the narrator of The Inland Sea reads more as a marker of contemporaneity, a shrug toward Everywoman, though she hardly seems typical in her choices.
At work, she finds that others’ emergencies are “leaking through the borders” of her own life. Riveted by the calls that come into Triple Zero—Australia’s emergency call number—she jots down details in a notebook. When more than 135 fires are burning across New South Wales, a woman calls to let the fire service know that she has “chosen to go instead of stay. I lived through the fires of ’94, she told me. It’s like a war zone. Smoke everywhere. I’m not going through that again.” The narrator thinks, but does not say, that she also remembers driving through those fires with her mother, “remember[s] the smoke and the heat and the roads blocked off and no way home.” She connects the caller to the fire brigade and writes “like a war zone” in her notebook.
No Triple Zero script can entirely protect her. Even the fellow worker who advises her not to take the calls too much to heart blurts out “Climate change is real,” followed by a string of dire ecological facts and projections—the kind of abstract bad news that takes specific form in the callers’ lives. During her year on the job, the narrator begins to study ecological collapse and write articles, and saves up money to leave Australia. When a woman is raped and killed in Sydney, she pores over news of the investigation. “Everything contained the potential for menace,” she observes, while also contriving to put herself in harm’s way whenever possible—swimming too far out in the bay, walking home alone drunk, getting in taxis with strangers.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Amitav Ghosh argued that literary realism could not handle the “improbabilities” of climate change. Yet Watts’s elastic, digressive narrative shows that literary realism can adapt to these new exigencies—and that little may remain improbable to us now. Readers may sometimes resist being pulled away, however, from the novel’s main story for abrupt science reports and extended childhood memories.
The conceptual heart of the novel, the narrator’s harrowing job fielding calls from people in crisis, is drawn from life. Watts grew up in Sydney and worked at an emergency call center there. In an essay for The Irish Times, she recounts her first, unusually warm American winter, after she moved to New York City in 2015 to study writing at Columbia:
The book I had begun writing was about the idea of emergencies, but it was around this time, when the cherry blossoms bloomed at Christmas, that I began to suspect I was missing a vital connection to the natural world, and that it was the natural world that portended the biggest emergency of all.
These changes—now evident all around us—felt to her like part of a “slow apocalypse.”
In Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), another recent novel suffused with climate dread, a celebrated speaker is asked to explain the difference between a disaster and an emergency. She answers:
A disaster is a sudden event that causes great damage or loss. An emergency is a situation in which normal operations cannot continue and immediate action is required so as to prevent a disaster.
Clearly the slow apocalypse unfolding around us does not always feel urgent. Between extreme disruptions like the California wildfires, Hurricane Sandy, and the recent winter storms and power outages in Texas and Oregon, we carry on ordinary lives. This may be changing as climate change accelerates, but even the climate-obsessed narrator of The Inland Sea—who pauses her own story near the end to bluntly lay out the “best-case scenario” for Sydney in the future, in the event of a plausible two-degree temperature spike—does not throw herself into activism. She takes notes.
But she is a writer, and we infer that she will someday devote her talents to the cause of environmental awareness, as Watts has. “To not write about climate change, the most important issue of our time,” Watts comments in her essay, “seemed like lunacy.” How to write about it, though? Her command of physical detail, combined with her narrator’s attunement to nature, makes for an immersive, visceral read. The elemental furies of fire and water elicit some of Watts’s best descriptive prose. One night when the narrator has just walked back to her empty house after a hard rain, she hears a sudden crack, then another:
With every crack the darkness of the bedroom was flooded with light. Blue and bright and sickly. I stood at the window and looked out at the mechanic’s and the paperbark tree and Elizabeth Street slicked wet by the rain. The sky’s heart torn wide open. Blue light splintered the room. I could see, out there above the fig and the mulberry trees, the flash of light, and then the smoke.
The power line was on fire.
She dials Triple Zero and goes outside in the dark alone to wait for rescue—“I knew the protocol.” This is the moment one of her neighbors, a large man, chooses to make an unwelcome physical pass at her, adding the fear of rape to the existing emergency, from the fire to the frying pan. The vulnerability of the narrator’s female body is expressed not only through the threat of male aggression and her often self-destructive sexual choices but in intense descriptions of her abortion. Later, the narrator attempts to get fitted for an IUD—surely a rare account in fiction of a gynecological procedure and, in this case, its traumatic aftermath. The narrator wakes in the night afterward, bleeding and trembling:
What punishment was this?
My temperature rose. The streetlight shimmered and lifted. Fever took hold….
I waited for the waters to rise and cover my salt plains, waited for the stretcher to bear me away, the policeman to hold me down, the fireman to douse my flames. Every siren was personal, because the border between world and self had been—it was now clear—washed away in the flood long ago. I was swimming in it. All things were wet.
Every siren was for me.
In image after image, Watts evokes the ancient association of the female body with the suffering, life-giving earth, but at its logical end point: no more life-giving.
Watts’s constrained metaphoric range—nature, disaster, violence—lends this novel the compressed charge of poetry. The narrator, who starts to sleep with Lachlan again secretly while he is involved with Cate, knows the relationship hurts her, but “the burn seemed worth it, or the fire seemed interesting, or both.” Lachlan speaks in “that voice which seemed to promise that he could refreeze the ice pack and replenish the floodplains,” and the narrator imagines them collaborating, their writing and research projects helping them “build a kind of life raft we could float on together when the flood arrived.” Watts falters only in sometimes spelling out too much; even the section titles refer to catastrophes (“Tremor,” “Wildfire”). As the narrator tells us midway through the novel, “the environment was merely the outer equivalent of my inner reality.” Anyone who does not already know this has been reading a different book.
A larger question is whether Watts’s controlling analogies—the narrator’s body as the earth, her personal crises as the earth’s crises—work as a narrative strategy or whether they lock down interpretation. They do allow her to skip any redemptive arc. The fate of the earth appears gloomy, and so does her narrator’s future, even as she secures her flight to America. Safety is illusory, and there is no point in trying to protect herself: “If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided. Emergency would come for you no matter what you did.”
The novelist Lauren Groff has said that while she finds it hard to face the climate crisis—“the deepest terror of our lives now”—she feels as though “I am being immoral if I am not addressing it somehow in my work.” Despite her roots in speculative fiction (Groff’s 2008 debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, featured a fifty-foot lake monster), she has taken against “catastrophic apocalypse” novels: “Humanity always comes through in the end, and that seems to me as though it’s a false catharsis.”
Maxim Loskutoff’s first novel, Ruthie Fear, offers no such relief. Set in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana in (for the most part) the present day, the novel develops many of the themes from Loskutoff’s much-praised debut story collection, Come West and See (2018): the beauty and menace of the American West; the weirdness of rural folk; romantic individualism, with its fantasies of freedom and self-sufficiency; and of course the mad, ruinous grab made by the succession of settlers, from the earliest white explorers and loggers and trappers to the current-day right-wing militia movement and the new ultrarich in their compounds. The fat of the land has long since been skimmed. After years of drought, the locals in Ruthie Fear are as economically and spiritually parched as the surrounding woods and hills. But developers still see opportunity and won’t rest until nature is fully paved and gated.
Both The Inland Sea and Ruthie Fear are in part about girls in danger: from men, from themselves, from forces beyond their control. Ruthie is the half-feral daughter of Rutherford Fear, a crack shot but underemployed day drinker who poaches firewood from the national forest and plots revenge on the feds and the rich ranchers who have blocked access to land he grew up hunting. “All this land used to be free,” he tells Ruthie. “Free game, free wood.” Topping the roll call of the dispossessed in the Bitterroot Valley are the few surviving Native Americans, the Salish, ruthlessly suppressed and liable to burst into complaints that white townspeople don’t want to hear. Only one steady employer remains in the area: a mysterious high-security government biolab, the target of a lackluster but heavily armed protest by disgruntled former millworkers and conspiracy nuts.
The road through the valley is marked by signs at either end—one advertising Christ and the other the Second Nature Taxidermy School, where, we’re told, “farm boys with ghoulish ambitions came to learn the modern, fetishized art of embalming. Between these risen corpses, thirty thousand people lived.” The mills are closed and the last wolf was killed by Rutherford years ago and exhibited outside his trailer for admiring locals.
We read stories set in the West in part for such details—the wild peculiarity that flourishes in people there—and in part because frontier mythology still pulls at us: the dream of expansion, of gold in the hills. Like the exemplars of Western fiction Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner, Loskutoff grants his landscape the agency and complexity of a main character, but not one you’d trust. Climate-change-induced drought is the malign backdrop to the damaged beauty of the valley, the next bad thing after the depletion of the woods and the degradation of its delicate ecosystems.
Rutherford’s battered trailer sits on a dry acre near the mouth of No-Medicine Canyon, a forbidding place, unfriendly even to old-timers: “The Bitterroot Range loomed overhead. Ten-thousand-foot peaks seeming to attack the sky with jagged, glaciated teeth.” Ruthie’s mother left when she was a baby, and Rutherford has raised her with his frontier values. All his small wealth is in firearms. Ruthie, who at six ingratiates herself with nearby children by shying a rock at a toddler, has one equally strange friend, Pip Pascal, and a Yorkshire terrier, Moses, the only animal in the book allowed to live peacefully until old age. The story follows Ruthie through childhood into her thirties.
On the whole, climate fiction is not an understated genre. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015), an elegant nightmare set in a dune-covered, postapocalyptic California, marries gore and shimmer on the page in descriptive riffs like a latter-day William Burroughs. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “drought thriller” The Water Knife (2015) draws on noir: clipped sentences, casual violence, careening between sex and death. The New Wilderness (2020) by Diane Cook, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, deploys the most restrained prose of this group, perhaps because her premise—a team is sent as an anthropological experiment to live as foraging nomads in the last remaining wilderness on the planet—already has the reader by the collar.
Loskutoff’s harshly vivid prose—a duck’s nostrils look “as though they’d been bored out by a dentist’s drill”—and his pleasure in grisly details suit his version of the West. It’s fully recognizable to anyone who grew up in or near these sparsely populated regions, but also edges into fantasy. As a child, Ruthie senses “unseen beings” watching her and one day smells something “from the canyon’s depths: a rot, a dead thing come back to life.” She finds herself drawn helplessly toward the mystery. Peering through the grass and underbrush, sensing shadows moving, she spots a “tall feathered thing” in the murky canyon, “misshapen and lumpy, frighteningly perched atop the thin legs…. A monster, deviant in its unsteadiness. But what horrified Ruthie, what made her want to scream, was that it had no head.”
Monsters fit comfortably within climate fiction, and it’s been argued that eco-fiction as a whole is monster fiction. The climate crisis is our own creation, a weird, uncontrolled force; and like Frankenstein’s creature, the mutant monster in the canyon both terrifies Ruthie and elicits her compassion. For the rest of her life, she can’t stop looking for it. Local rumor hints that she is not the only one to have seen it, and suspicion points to the biolab.
Not long after she spots the monster, an earthquake strikes—that biblical portent. Fire and floods follow. The community withers, its various factions settling into poisonous distrust. After a stint in jail for dynamiting a rancher’s duck feeders, Rutherford teaches his now nine-year-old daughter to shoot; she has to be able to fend off the sheriff. The long scene of their first lesson is one of the most affecting in the book. “An instinctive switch occurred within her” as her aim improves:
She began firing not for his love but through it. Channeling his skill…. The barrel an extension of her eye, the trigger extra length to her finger, the butt molded to her shoulder, and the lines between her and him slipping away.
Torn between love for her father and disgust at his boozing and anger—and the squalid, motherless existence he somehow accepts for her—Ruthie permits a shared language to grow between them. Her conflicted impulses trouble her: she kills and eats the animals she loves; she hates the headless creature but also imagines rescuing it, carrying it to the vet with her friend Pip to have its eyes and ears restored. She is another generation removed from the settler’s urge to master, mine, and clear-cut the West, and Loskutoff movingly conveys the pain of loving wildlife and wild places that you know to be vulnerable yet are complicit in harming: the dilemma facing any nature lover on this crowded planet. The headless monster—which only Ruthie and Pip fully believe is real—comes to embody woodland mythology, the fragile otherness of wildlife, and humanity’s reckless ambitions and failures.
Isolated, recently arrived rich folk are not well regarded by the valley dwellers. But wealth has its uses. Private land can be conserved or rewilded. When a new landowner appears, Ruthie, now a young adult, begins an affair with him and pulls him into this movement. When he leaves, her hopes go with him. Ruthie cannot escape the valley (a brief stint working in Las Vegas ends with her gun drawn), and she pushes away love until nearly the end of the book, when Loskutoff, throwing off the bonds of realism, unleashes an environmental apocalypse and a surprising, mystical postscript.
Climate fiction can typically be plotted along a hope–despair axis. In works with urgent moral or political messages, endings are tricky: too despairing and they risk further paralyzing readers; too optimistic and they let us off the hook. Sometimes the darkest, most dystopian work, like Atwood’s, comes from secret wellsprings of hope. “I’m a screamingly optimistic Pollyanna,” Atwood has said, “or I wouldn’t write these books, would I?” Neither Loskutoff nor Watts, it’s clear, wants to end their novels conventionally: take that, bourgeois narrative arc. Climate justice demands new forms. The last pages of Ruthie Fear are not even a call to action, but a gratuitous burst of natural beauty unfolding over decades. One hint of a moral: there are no humans in sight.
March 25, 2021
A Gift for the Long Game
“It’s Not Science Fiction,” a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, December 17, 2020. ↩
An alternate name, “eco-fiction,” suggests a broader focus but does not seem to be taking off. Nevertheless, see the excellent Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction (2010) by Jim Dwyer. ↩
The New Yorker, March 3, 2015; and my “The Fleshly School: Sex Writing in Recent Fiction,” The Point, November 12, 2020. ↩