JULY 27, 2019
IN HIS RECENTLY RELEASED book The Uninhabitable Earth — developed from an eponymous July 2017 New York Magazine article on climate catastrophe — David Wallace-Wells catalogs pop culture’s “incredible failure of imagination” when it comes to climate change. “On-screen,” he writes, “climate devastation is everywhere you look, and yet nowhere in focus, as though we are displacing our anxieties about global warming by restaging them in theaters of our own design and control — perhaps out of hope that the end of days remains ‘fantasy.’”
Wallace-Wells’s descriptive point is basically indisputable: the contemporary explosion of dystopian and apocalyptic speculative texts encompasses a range of works that restage the social collapse of the Anthropocene beyond the parameters of climate and refract the horror of climate change into more fantastical forms of global apocalypse. He focuses on film and TV, naming Game of Thrones, Children of Men, and Mad Max: Fury Road, among others, but literature follows this pattern to a degree as well. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, for instance, is paradigmatic of “Anthropocene literature,” yet the catastrophes driving the series are pollution, genetic engineering, and a pandemic, not climate change. What’s more debatable, however, is the normative thrust to Wallace-Wells’s remarks, which name this thematic skewing as a “failure of imagination” and thus suggest that contemporary speculative fiction should be engaging more directly with climate forecasting and modeling — that climate fiction’s task is to catalyze the climate movement, and that its strategy should be centering climate change itself as an empirical phenomenon.
Wallace-Wells’s comments come in a moment after the decline in popularity of the “deficit model,” which suggests that public disengagement with science stems from a lack of information, and that experts thus simply need to communicate more so that the public can react appropriately to threats. Under the deficit model, many considered data itself the solution to climate skepticism. Now, with the growing consensus that more information does not on its own change perceptions or create political will, the popular frame has shifted. If the problem is not a lack of available information, but a lack of emotional investment in the implications of that information, then the solution is not to provide more information, but to provide that information in ways that balance empirical loyalty with emotional excitation. This conclusion provides a compelling defense for the value of the arts in the Anthropocene. However, it also tends to produce a limited and troublingly prescriptive account of climate fiction, in terms both of what that genre properly contains, and of how exactly fiction might contribute to public perceptions of environmental collapse.
Charlie Jane Anders’s excellent novel The City in the Middle of the Night exemplifies what this model of climate fiction misses. Anders, one of the co-founders and editors of the SF, technology, and futurism website io9 (she stepped down as head editor in 2016 to focus on her career as a novelist), is certainly aware of current climate science, and quite invested in how fiction could create the political will to respond to climate change. She addressed exactly this in a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, writing, “Stories about climate change might be fiction, but they can help to sway people’s hearts and minds in a different way than a recitation of the undeniable facts.” Yet Anders’s book deviates dramatically from the narrow parameters of climate extrapolation. The novel takes place not on a near-future Earth, but many thousands of years from now, on a human-colonized planet named January, where humans live in the thin crescent of barely habitable land that balances precariously between a scorching sun-facing desert and a freezing space-facing wasteland that each occupy half of the planet. This is even further afield from a realistic portrayal of climate change than the post-peak oil drought of Mad Max. Yet in Anders’s writing — as in the often-fantastical writing of Ursula K. Le Guin, to whom Anders is often compared for good reason — this is not a deflection, not a “failure of imagination,” but instead a critical form of defamiliarization. It’s a way to engage the unsolvable dilemmas of the Anthropocene without retreading tritely didactic ground.
Much of the pleasure of The City in the Middle of the Night comes from its slyly understated novelty. Outside of the human zone, January is beset by many dangerous beasts, which are misleadingly named for long-forgotten Earth species: “bison” may roam the plains, but they sever people in two with a single carnivorous bite; “crocodiles” have squirming tentacles, gaping maws, and, readers will quickly learn, social-fabric-altering secrets. There are only three ways to survive this harsh terrain. First, in the city of Xiosphant, authoritarian rule controls citizens’ movements down to the minute. There, each segment of the population is assigned to particular and tightly timed tasks vital to the material functioning of the city, and deviation from the rules — breaking curfew, for instance, or engaging in idealistic political discussions of a civilization in which people are free to determine the course of their days — is punishable by varyingly draconian consequences. Second, in the city of Argelo, lush, wild anarchy reigns. There’s a thriving club scene and an even more vibrant, barely underground network of warring criminal clans; it’s all a great deal of fun, except for the fact that Argelo seems to be running out of resources. Third, you can live on the margins, traveling between the two cities to engage in illicit trade or, like the migratory Citizens, take the road itself as home.
Chapters alternate between two main characters. Sophie, a girl from the wrong side of the Xiosphanti tracks, holds both a precarious position in an elite university and a burning crush on her classmate Bianca, equal parts political firebrand and party girl. When Bianca, on a whim, commits a petty theft for fun, Sophie takes the fall, and police drag her out of the city and throw her down into the freezing night. There, she meets the crocodiles, who, as it turns out, are not instinctively brutal predators, but a kind and technologically adept species that has lived within, respected, and gently modified the terrain of January since long before the human colonists arrived. The crocodiles, whom Sophie calls the Gelet, rescue her. They learn to communicate with each other, not by speaking, but by sharing memories and thoughts directly, a neat trick of Gelet physiology. With a newfound friendship forged, they help her return secretly to Xiosphant, with the mutual knowledge that Sophie will continue to venture beyond the city and visit them.
As a young, female outsider, defined by a founding psychic trauma of isolation from a former life — namely, her inability to return to her life at the university, and thus to her beloved Bianca, after sneaking back into the city — Sophie is a classic SF/fantasy character. The second character through whom the novel focalizes shares some archetypal traits: Mouth, a former Citizen, who is haunted by the nomadic group’s violent and mysterious destruction while on the road, even as she strives to forge a decent life as a trader and to maintain somewhat normal relationships. Of course, Mouth and Sophie’s stories quickly intertwine. Bianca is the first catalyst, turning to Mouth for help with the political revolution that (she seems to have convinced herself) serves as righteous revenge for her poor lost friend Sophie, and not as a rash act of self-aggrandizement. I won’t spoil the many twists, but it should come as no surprise that this first point of connection quickly escalates into a wild series of dangerous journeys that take the girls from Xiosphant to Argelo to parts unknown.
The characters’ raw, painful honesty and their troubled relationships to each other form the heart of the novel. These relationships reach, with realistically varying success, across a range of barriers — not only of social class, but also of national identity and, indeed, of species. These finely drawn intimacies concretize the much larger social and environmental issues with which Anders’s ambitious novel grapples. The staging, in Xiosphant and Argelo, of two diametrically opposed forms of economic, political, and social organization, two distinct ways of responding to harsh environmental realities, never feels sterile. The characters are idiosyncratic and diverse enough to pick out distinct notes in each city, rather than allowing the system to collapse into a utopian/dystopian binary. (“That’s the problem with grand social ideas in general,” one character says, just before embarking on a revolutionary liberation quest founded in another grand social idea; “they break if you put too much weight on them.”) It’s impossible not to see in this urban dichotomy a nod to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but the dichotomy also provides an important update of that parable for the Anthropocene: the perils of both crisis-driven authoritarian control and deregulation are laid bare in the specific context of shared ecological catastrophe. The troubling realization that certain parts of Xiosphant’s dictatorial rule may end up being necessary for survival, for instance, is a lesson readers learn rather more quickly than the privileged Bianca. Ultimately, though, like the “ambiguous utopia” that subtitles Le Guin’s novel, the Xiosphant/Argelo division never resolves, narratively or meta-narratively. “I can’t help feeling this tawdry nostalgia,” Sophie thinks after returning to Xiosphant, “[b]ut actual people are more complicated.” Instead, Anders uses the contrast between the two cities to explore environmental philosophy and ethics, probing freedom both as a privileged expression of fetishized individualism and a vital component of ecological and social justice.
Here, Anthropocene allegories emerge without eclipsing organic characterization or plot. The development of the Gelet plot line is handled slightly more clumsily, but still with a depth of imaginative world-building that keeps the novel compelling. While the Xiosphant/Argelo binary is a fable of divergent political responses to environmental catastrophe, the revelation of the Gelet’s particular perspective on the history of January’s climatological precarity serves as a profoundly and (productively) uncomfortable vision of climate debt and climate justice. “If they’re people,” Mouth wonders aloud, “then what does that make us? Invaders? Is our struggle here even meaningful, if we’re just squabbling on the margins of their history?” This plot line seems at times a bit too conveniently scaled to the world of the characters, a bit too neatly explained, but the vividness with which the characters are drawn — especially Mouth, whose personal traumas are cast into discomfiting light by what the Gelet teach her and Sophie — keeps the narrative taut, driven by well-grounded emotional conflict rather than ham-handed moralizing.
The City in the Middle of the Night is both an urgent exploration of the political exigencies of the Anthropocene and a sprawling epic that refuses simple reduction to climate extrapolation. I’m put off by normative claims that literary stories “should” take a particular aesthetic or ethical approach to climate change. There’s certainly room in the emergent canon of climate fiction for near-future predictions of climate change on Earth with compelling human stories attached. There’s also room for stories like Anders’s, stories that don’t lay out recognizable cautionary tales so much as they probe the boundaries of how to live meaningful lives and build meaningful communities amid ecological devastation: how to live, as well as survive, in a world that appears ever more unlike the Earth we’ve known.