Everything Ends: The State of Apocalyptic Fiction

In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh lays out the case for climate change and charges contemporary fiction writers with the responsibility of writing about it. But why, Ghosh wonders, aren’t our fiction writers writing about it? Ghosh condemns contemporary fiction writers for a failure to address climate change. 

I found it an interesting accusation because, in my experience, fiction writers were, in fact, writing about climate change and had been for years. Ghosh proposed the idea that writers in the literary mainstream would tend to be relegated to science fiction when writing about climate change, and considering the realities of western literary culture—where we tend to draw lines of artistic merit between literary traditions—I think he had a point. To me, though, a good story is a good story.

Regardless, in the eight years since Ghosh’s book hit shelves, I think we’ve seen a more widespread willingness of writers to go there.

2016 was a pivotal year in western society to say the least. The realities of climate change have become less deniable as each year is the hottest on record, there is less arctic ice than any time since we started measuring it by satellite, and wildfires are so widespread we smell them thousands of miles away.

Maybe Ghosh’s book was influential and got fiction writers off their butts and on their feet to stand their ground on the most existential issue facing humanity today. Maybe his book was prophetic. Maybe publishers didn’t think apocalyptic fiction would sell. Or, maybe the fiction writer’s disposition to write about the end of the world was always there and humanity’s real and creeping apocalypse gave fiction writers more license and inspiration to write about it, and maybe publishers realized there’s an appetite for it and they can, in fact, sell end-of-the-world stories.

One year after Ghosh’s book, Omar El Akkad published American War about America’s deep political and cultural divisions in conflict with climate change as an incidental world building mechanic. Three years later, Chuck Wendig published Wanderers, a speculative fiction novel worthy of Stephen King’s The Stand’s legacy with climate change as a linchpin in the plot. Four years later, Jenny Offill found a way to connect intimate literary fiction with the massive issue of climate change in her popular novel, Weather, and author Jonathan Dee wrote in response, “Novelists don’t need to dream the end of the world anymore—they need to wake up to it.” Six years later, Lily Brooks-Dalton’s The Light Pirate was a Good Morning America Book Club pick. 

The funny thing about all of this is writers have written about existential threats to our species for millennia. The Sumerians had Gilgamesh and their flood myth, which later surfaced in the Christian Bible with Noah and his ark. The Bible, of course, is rife with apocalyptic stories, such as Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah is in the Quran, you know, and there’s a great world-ending deluge in the Hindu Dharmaśāstra. Of course, the Greeks believed their world was ever under threat from the moody Zeus just deciding to pack it all in, and the Norse have Ragnarök. 

So much of apocalyptic fiction has a foundation in religion because ancient civilizations maybe didn’t know how the world could end but they believed it could. Because they believed, they feared, and what is fiction if not a portrayal of societal anxieties? Moreover, “apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “revelation,” and isn’t knowledge the answer to fear of the unknown?

When writing The Great Derangement, I think Ghosh understood one of fiction’s purposes was to explore our collective worries, which was why he was so aghast at the lack of writers writing about a clear-and-present existential threat in the real world.

In 1816, Lord Byron wrote his poem, “Darkness.” It followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which belched so much sulfur into the atmosphere that it temporarily changed the Earth’s climate. 1816 became known as the year without summer, and suddenly, because the potential for the world’s end was on people’s minds, writers started writing about it.

Maybe there’s a connection between apocalyptic fiction and the mainstream that rests on reality. 

Then again, writers seem to always be doing this work, even during relatively good times.

It’s been almost two hundred years since Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man. Edgar Allan Poe, that stalwart hero of dark fantasy, wrote “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” in 1839, and Richard Jefferies wrote After London in 1885. Of course, then came H.G. Wells with The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898).

Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Cormac McCarthy, Colson Whitehead, Emily St. John Mandel, Justin Cronin…these are just the books I have within my field of view on my shelves. They account for generations of apocalyptic fiction that’s worth everyone’s time.

While reading Blake Crouch’s latest, Upgrade, it occurred to me it is, inherently, a climate change story. The whole book is about human-caused climate change and how to fix the problem—hint: the problem is us.

While catching up on a surprisingly good dramedy series, Resident Alien—starring Alan Tudyk, whom I’m convinced can play literally any role convincingly—I marveled at how humanity’s conflict with its own planet is the linchpin plot driver. 

Today, climate change is everywhere, in every story, it seems. Climate change is in the mainstream storytelling.

Folks want to call this cli-fi or environmental fiction, but it is, in fact, apocalyptic fiction—stories about people reckoning with the end of their world.

There are many books passing as cli-fi, or even just literary fiction, but they are, in fact, apocalyptic stories. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter follows a mother searching for safety and home in a flood-ravaged UK. Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling portrays communities in Northern Canada seeking stability in a world climate change is upheaving. Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy follows one woman on a journey to trace the final migration path of the last arctic terns as she grieves for losses both personal and global. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (long-listed for the Booker Prize) explores people as they seek to live in harmony with nature because they’ve come to admit they have to. The Overstory by Richard Powers (yes, the Pulitzer winner) tells a story of revelation through generational deaths of trees at the hands of humanity. These are just a fraction of the books passing as cli-fi and environmental fiction, but they are actually apocalyptic fiction.

We are living through a time in which, as Jonathan Dee suggested, we are waking—once again—to the reality that our world can end. This time, it’s at our own hands, and we are considering what that might mean. Despite generations of writers doing intriguing work in apocalyptic storytelling, mainstream and literary fiction writers are taking a more serious look at these questions.

It all feels like unification to me, a literary and cultural crossing we have to admit to each other. Climate change fiction is apocalyptic fiction, and apocalyptic fiction is serious and worthwhile.

Apocalyptic fiction is a very mature fiction genre, and now it should gain the legitimacy it deserves. If we can accept the bridge that connects these books, it means—with the clear, present, and undeniable threat climate change presents—apocalyptic fiction is entering a new era where apocalyptic elements pervade our fiction, reaching further from the “genre” shelf at your local indie bookstore and deeper into the mainstream.

It’s this alignment of fantasy and reality that’s pushing apocalyptic dreams into the collective consciousness, and I wonder if now Ghosh sees it: fiction writers addressing societal anxieties with their storytelling. I wonder if Ghosh recognizes it’s not a lack of literary gumption to address the end of the world so much as a general willingness to talk about it because the environment (both the Earth and the publishing industry) demands it.

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