I think it fair to say that many of us have participated in a conversation like the following:
Some weather we’re having today.
Yes, it really got warm all of a sudden.
Odd seeing everything melt in January…
And then there befalls that awkward, knowing pause, where each interlocutor wonders–do I dare speak its name? Certainly, one thinks, it is unnecessary, given the two words must be present already in everyone else’s mind as well: “climate change,” that dreadful, looming presence, that white noise behind our day to day routine.
As I’ve been arguing in my blogs thus far, literature of all sorts–from the sacred to the profane, from the smugly literary to the unabashedly pulp–reveals something about the world in which it was produced, and thus it should not be surprising that climate change is increasingly appearing as a theme in contemporary works. There is even a genre devoted to such themes: coined by Dan Bloom, “cli fi” enlists climate change as theme, setting, antagonist, or any and all three. Many, although not all, such texts fall as well within the bounds of dystopian literature. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, for instance, opens with a character nicknamed Snowman, who believes himself to be the last-living human being, struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by both a man-made disease and anthropogenically induced global warming.
But like the conversation with which I opened this piece, some contemporary texts only gesture to the creeping yet still inchoate dread felt today, instead of focusing on the full blown effects that are to be felt in the decades to come. Hummingbird Salamander–a brand new novel written by Jeff VanderMeer, author of the acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy–captures this looming dread perfectly. It follows Jane Smith, a security consultant, as she investigates the life and whereabouts of Silvina Vilcapampa, a billionaire’s daughter turned eco-activist turned bio-terrorist. The novel embraces the label techno-/bio-thriller long before it does the label cli fi: yes, environmental degradation, illegal trade in rare animals, global pandemics that result from such degradation and illegal trade, and climate activism play roles in the plot, but extreme adverse climate effects do not directly impact Jane for most of the text like they do Atwood’s Snowman.
Instead, the novel gives only the occasional glimpse of climate change’s slowly accruing effects: raging wildfires affect other countries (pg 37), climate refugees are seen on the news commandeering a cruise ship (157), American disaster refugees “two hundred miles inland” are on the move but don’t come within sight of Jane’s temporary West Coast residence (238). The direct effects of climate change are always playing out elsewhere, “always somewhere else” (329)–until, all of a sudden, they aren’t. Jane’s privilege of ignoring the ills of the world, a privilege that Silvina calls “the fatal adaptation” (37), is taken away in the book’s final twenty pages, as the American government buckles and collapses under the accumulated weight of climate change’s effects. What was a looming dread haunting but only indirectly affecting the plot erupts into the narrative and conditions its ending (which I won’t spoil, for those who wish to read it).
If there is a lesson in the book, and cli fi more generally, it is “Silvina’s gospel, to overturn the comfort of the everyday with the knowledge of what would come tomorrow” (255). It is the same lesson that has been taught to us this year by the Covid-19 pandemic, namely that preventative action is preferable to reactive amelioration. So, next time you find yourself in that awkward, knowing pause, don’t let it pass unspoken, but give it a name and don’t look away–it is climate change, its effects are already visible should we choose to look, and these effects will only increase exponentially should we choose to do nothing.