The Language of Climate Fiction

March 25, 2021   •   By Katie Yee

A Children’s Bible

Lydia Millet

The New Wilderness

Diane Cook

GRETA THUNBERG IS the poster child for environmental activism. Her name has become synonymous with a rallying cry — an indictment of our world leaders and an appeal to the younger generations. Here she is on Hulu: “I want you to panic. We are in the middle of a mass extinction.” Her words cut through the din, the chaotic nonsense of bureaucratic meetings. There is clarity. Finally: A voice of reason. It doesn’t come from the mouths of our elected officials taking charge or from company executives accepting responsibility. No, this voice of reason is bellowed from the body of a teenager, piped in through our television sets. This voice shows up in ads for a documentary, but, in a sad and surreal way, they are also trying to sell people on the idea that they should care about our climate crisis. The bleak reality is laid out in front of us before we are able to skip ahead and return to our regularly scheduled programming. But for a few short seconds, we are pulled from the distractions we surround ourselves with.

The landscape of climate fiction is populated by Greta Thunbergs. It features eerily mature kids, left on their own. While our instinct should be to protect and pacify the children, ironically, in these novels they are forced to be the purveyors of cruel truths as the adults around them are lulled into a state of passivity. The roles are reversed. The alarm here is new, electrifying, contagious. Just as Greta Thunberg speaks directly to you in the ads, these characters invite you into the fold of these stories. They warn us not only with the tragedies they face but with the careful words they use to recount them. Climate fiction is just as much about the tales we spin, the way we talk about our actions.

Take, for example, the characters of Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. The novel follows several families renting a lake house together one disastrous summer. It is narrated by one of the children, a wry and cynical adolescent named Eve. The parents are all friends from college and spend the whole of their vacation drunk and drugged, sex-crazed and ineffectual. (They are the blissfully clueless parents in a sitcom for kids; they are the “wah wah” sound on the other end of the telephone in every Peanuts special.) From the beginning, the children are left to their own devices.

What starts as a somewhat banal neglect becomes harmful as the group meets a series of disasters that echo the events of the children’s bible that Eve’s brother, Jack, carries with him: a flood, a plague, the arrival of a prophetic stranger, the birth of a new child. The adults in this story prove themselves useless in the face of an emergency; in fact, they seem incapable of recognizing the danger that stands before them.

The obvious metaphor here is that the burden of climate change rests on the shoulders of the young. But A Children’s Bible takes the allegory one step further. Perhaps the more interesting component here is that, similarly to the way that the parents absolve themselves of all responsibility, the children of Millet’s world renounce their parents.

Even before all of the biblical occurrences, the kids fill the hazy days of an empty summer with an odd and darkly sinister game that persists throughout the story: they try to pinpoint who is related to which parent. The children try to exist in a totally autonomous state. If one is caught, let’s say, in the kitchen being scolded by their mother or asked to run upstairs to fetch their father’s reading glasses, they are out of the game. Early on in the novel, there is even a scene in which the children sit their families down to explain the rules. They ask that their parents try to make the blood relations less obvious. They plead that they not be treated as beings that belong to anyone, so that they may stand a better chance at this kind of survival.

A similar emancipation occurs in Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness. At the start of this story, young Agnes is five years old, and she is dying. She cannot live in the City, a place cloaked in pollution so oppressive that life has become impossible for many. In this novel, the world is broken into three parts: City, Wilderness, and Private Lands (which may or may not exist). To the Wilderness then. Her mother, the ever-resourceful Bea, signs their family up for a research experiment designed to see if humans are capable of living in nature without destroying it. They will live in the protected Wilderness so long as they follow a strict set of rules.

Agnes, having grown up in the Wilderness, is particularly adept at tracking animals and reading the natural land. For a while, they are okay. Yes, a few of the lives of their fellow Community members are lost to bear attacks and white-water rapids, but Bea and Agnes are strengths to their team — until Bea hears about the death of her own mother. Their relationship had been complicated by Bea’s decision to live in the Wilderness, a choice that made her mother, then sick in the City, feel totally alone. With absolutely no warning, Bea runs away from the group, leaving both the experiment and her child behind.

It is the ripple effect of abandonment: a woman abandons her mother in order to save her daughter and feels abandoned when she is orphaned. She, in turn, casts her own daughter away. Once again, we are met with the loud metaphorical comparison: a defenseless child in a rapidly changing world, something we did not ask to inherit.

The abandonment jolts Agnes into a more primary role in their Community. Halfway through the novel, the group is tasked with welcoming Newcomers, other people who have decided to live like they live. Agnes becomes a ringleader. The Newcomers have to be taught how to hunt and how to build a meat smoker. In quiet moments, they learn the lore of the Community. Shortly after Bea’s departure, she became a sort of myth, fodder for their fire-time stories: “They called them Ballads, and they took some wild turns, as stories do. Some ended with her heading up a new Administration and tearing down the buildings of the City, though they never decided where people would live after that. That wasn’t the job of fire-time stories.” In her own Ballad, Agnes tells them her mother is dead.

Much like in A Children’s Bible, there is more than a reversal of roles. It’s not just that the young have to take care of things. It’s not a total one-sided abandonment that renders them helpless lambs left at the slaughter. When the children cast off their parents, they claim their agency. This is the story Agnes needs to tell in order to move forward. Climate fiction is very much about the stories we need to tell ourselves.

This willful delusion is endemic in all of our conversations about climate change. When Agnes’s mother does indeed return to the Community, she regales the group with tales of her time in the City. That night, the adults gather in a circle and ask for their bedtime story, like children looking to be ushered into the safety of sleep. Bea is happy to comply; she describes in great detail what it is like to drink milk, a luxury that no one in the Community has experienced in years. It is only when she is confronted by Agnes that she admits to her embellishments, saying, “Sometimes you have to give the people what they want.”

It’s the same with the Private Lands, supposedly an oasis if you can get there. It’s discussed in hushed tones throughout the novel as a beacon of possibility. They’re never sure if it really exists, but they need to believe that it does.

Millet and Cook draw gutting parallels between the ways we soften the harshness of the world for children — through games, in stories — and the mental aerobics required to disguise our obliteration of the planet.

Climate fiction is, yes, about the horrors we inflict on the world and the dystopian path we are plummeting toward — but it’s also about the way we tell these stories. The words we use matter. The characters that walk these pages know this.

In the Wilderness, after new arrivals have been with the Community for a while, one of them asks if they might stop being referred to as the Newcomers. A man who fancies himself a leader says, “I think it’s important to remember that we are, in a way, elders. Teachers. And you are still learning. I think there needs to be a distinction until we are all on more equal footing. So you will continue to be the Newcomers. And we’ll be the Originals. No, we’ll be the Originalists!” See Cook’s authorial wink. Originalists, as in the people who oppose the view of governing texts as living documents, the people who believe that they fully understand history’s intentions. The people who control language control everything.

In A Children’s Bible, Jack notes the patterns in the tragedies, correctly tracing the arc of this story. “God’s a code word,” he tells the others. “They say God but they mean nature […] And we believe in nature.” From here, he diagrams the other parallels. Like Jesus’s ability to heal the sick? That’s not a miracle; that’s science. Not only does Jack hit on the significance of every individual word choice, but he offers us a key and invites us to dissect the allegory with him.

Here is our way in. The premise of A Children’s Bible is that the world of the Good Book is unfolding. In naming her narrator Eve, Millet is saying that we, too, are reading the Good Book. We can see our lives played out in these pages. In The New Wilderness, every section is called a Ballad, and in this framework, Cook casts us into the same world. We, too, are sitting around the fire. We, as readers, exist as audiences and participants. We are implicated. Perhaps the most powerful tenet of climate fiction is this kind of invitation, the realization that we are in this story, too.

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Katie Yee is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Book Marks associate editor at Literary Hub.