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How Eco-Fiction Became Realer Than Realism

Encompassing everything from the ecosystems novel to sci-fi, a growing body of literature is imagining and interrogating the past, present, and future of the planet's climate.

Iceberg in Newfoundland,natalielucier (CC BY 2.0)

The day the landrus arrives, the people do nothing. They have had days like this before, when unknown animals have appeared on the outskirts of the city. Some are species that have somehow returned from extinction; some are mutations that have found their way to the city from nuclear waste dumps. But all of them, in the words of the city’s people, are “kin.” Many years ago the people agreed by “collective decision” not to kill any kin whose intent seemed harmless, so while the landrus is flattening the people’s crops as it drags its walrus-like body from the creek to the fields, destroying crops and damning the people to a hungry winter, it is clear that the animal means no harm. So they watch it, they sketch it, and they have meetings about it, but they don’t run it out of town, they don’t detain it, and they don’t hunt it.

Soon it becomes clear that all the flattening of the fields is for the purpose of nesting. The lone landrus is readying a breeding ground. A hundred pregnant landruses are coming, but to reach the breeding ground, they will need the people’s help to cross a stretch of impassable, jagged asphalt. Debate intensifies and camps begin to form: help the landruses across, leave them to their fate, or drive them out. But it’s no matter, because while the adults are meeting, their children have taken action. They have built a snow bridge to help the landruses, even if this means the people may ultimately be displaced from the city.

This is the arc of Phoebe Wagner’s short story “Children of Asphalt,” which appeared in the 2021 anthology Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures. As a work of solarpunk fiction, the story takes place in a world where cooperation and mutual aid have replaced the ruthless self-interest of capitalism, and where the decisive binary, and hierarchy, between humans and the nonhuman world has dissolved. Wagner’s story is an especially ingenious example of solarpunk in the way it plays with readers’ expectations: Were this a work of realism, the landrus would be dead, or dissected, or bred, or kept in a zoo, or otherwise monetized. (When I taught this story in my Climate Fiction class, one student was certain that an entrepreneur would make landrus-skin hats.) But the people do none of this, and when the adults come close, the children keep them in check. With each expectation that the story brings up in the reader, only then to thwart, Wagner clarifies the difference between a solarpunk future and our capitalistic present.

In her new collection of essays Death by Landscape, the novelist and essayist Elvia Wilk dedicates an essay to the politics of solarpunk fiction. While solarpunk is “built on a clear-eyed understanding of the dystopian present,” particularly the uneven distribution of climate dystopia according to class, nationality, and race, it is nonetheless “curiously optimistic” about our planetary future. It offers a picture of an ecologically enmeshed and abundant future where radical egalitarianism extends within and beyond the human species. As any of the various solarpunk manifestos floating around online will tell you, the only thing solarpunk fiction cannot be is dystopian. These manifestos also make the case that while solarpunk is currently being visualized in fictions like Wagner’s short story, its makers are invested in practical and immediate solutions to the climate crisis. The stories may be speculative, but the worlds they build are being presented as plausible. To Wilk, the purpose and promise of solarpunk is to “close the plausibility gap” between our dystopian present and a non-dystopian future—between landrus-skin hats and children being willing to give over the city—by “expanding the aesthetic imaginary.”

Solarpunk fiction is among a constellation of literary works that attract Wilk’s attention for their expanded imaginaries about life during and after the climate crisis. Wilk’s starting point is that the climate crisis has laid bare certain ecological facts: the interdependence of all species, the porousness of bodies, the false separation between humanity and the rest of the nonhuman world, and the false exaltation of human modes of knowing. Wilk’s interest is in works of literature and art that take these ecological facts as their narrative conceits. Her book catalogs an important, growing body of literature that would not traditionally appear under the banner of “nature writing” or “environmental literature” but that is fundamentally ecological in what it allows for in its fictional universes: the blurring, rotting, merging, and grafting that characterize life from an ecological perspective.

There are, then, stories of women who are transformed into plants (Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape”), and stories of plants that have consciousness (Jonathan Sarno’s film The Plants Are Watching), stories of people decaying into compost (Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot), and stories of people giving themselves over to black holes (Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table). These types of stories are “weird” in the way Mark Fisher, one of Wilk’s main interlocutors, defines the term: as that which “lies beyond standard perception, cognition, and experience.” But they are neither weird nor false from an ecological viewpoint. They are speculative fictions that are in some ways—at least in this “ecological fact” kind of way—realer than realism.

Wilk declines to discuss her literary archive in terms of genre, but it is nonetheless the case that each essay focuses on (let’s call it) a cache of texts that share basic narrative conceits reflective of an ecological principle. Rough groupings emerge. The first essay in the collection, for example, is devoted to what she calls the “ecosystems novel.” The name is a riff on the so-called systems novel, wherein a hero figure finds himself tangled up in larger sociopolitical, economic, or technological systems. The systems novels of Pynchon, DeLillo, and the like may undo what Amitov Ghosh calls the “individual moral adventure story” by enmeshing their protagonists in larger systems, but according to Wilk they still uphold the distinction between the human realm and the ecological realm. And rather than challenging the binary between figure and ground—the binary that Wilk finds especially untenable in the era of climate crisis—systems novels ultimately reinforce this (ecologically false) distinction. “In books about systems, men tend to emerge from the background rather than merge into it,” Wilk writes.

The ecosystems novel, on the contrary, would not “focus on the story of a person against the backdrop of the world,” Wilks explains. Rather, it would take as its conceit that “the human is not a self-contained element but completely inseparable from all other organisms, both on micro and macro levels,” and it would endeavor to tell a story reflective of this truth. In addition to the woman-turned-plant stories that open the essay, Wilk lists Richard Powers’s 2018 The Overstory, Helen Philips’s 2019 The Need, and Tricia Sullivan’s 2016 Occupy Me as examples of narratives that portray “ecological dependencies” and “insist that figure and ground are not distinct from each other.” Wilk’s own novel, Oval, published in 2019, makes a similar attempt to blur these boundaries, with its ecovillage set atop a human-made mountainside that has a mind and body of its own. Wilk’s discussion of the limitations of the systems novel suggests that the ecosystems novel, in its foregrounding of all creatures’ original enmeshment, may better capture “what it means to be a person in an age of drastic ecosystemic decline—of planetary extinction.”

Wilk also examines narratives sometimes labeled as the New Weird, an area of science fiction in which the otherworldly impulses of writers like Lovecraft are updated in such a way that the weird occurrence is treated not as “freaky or frightening” but simply as evidence that our everyday experience of consciousness is constricted and flattened out—until, quite suddenly, it isn’t. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation serves as an example. Yet Wilk’s essay makes the striking observation that perhaps the New Weird isn’t so new after all: Wilk splices her discussion of Annihilation together with readings of works of Christian mysticism from the medieval period in which their women authors access the higher reaches of human consciousness and divine love through acts of extreme self-negation. It is through this pairing of the contemporary and the medieval that Wilk is not only able to characterize ways of knowing that fall outside of the bounds of our shallow and constrained view of rationality but also to begin to sketch out a longer history of these alternative epistemologies.

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In my estimation, Wilk does not do enough with this insight that the “new” awareness of ecological facts, such as interdependence, porousness, lack of bodily integrity and control, and the limits of human consciousness, represents less a discovery of these principles and more a mainstreaming of them. Certainly, there have always been people whose lived experiences and literary works have not allowed these ecological facts to fade from view, and it seems that privilege must be in play where these principles are allowed largely to be forgotten.

The appearance of medieval mystics in an essay about the New Weird raises the idea of a much longer history of the ecological insights that Wilk tracks across contemporary fiction, and it raises the prospect of an altogether different kind of cultural history—one of writers and artists who were working with the ecological viewpoint long before the climate crisis made it much harder for some people to deny.

Yet Wilk’s account does make it feel as though we are seeing a groundswell of contemporary literature that is working from an ecological metaphysics. Wilk writes that these works challenge traditional Western literary forms, particularly in their effort to do away with the singular human figure set against a static and meaningless backdrop. In a way, these narrative strategies seem perfectly aligned with the ecological and metaphysical revelations of the Anthropocene. But there’s also a way in which they seem misaligned with the historical revelations of it—namely, that a subset of humans has driven the planet to the brink of catastrophe because for centuries it has been able to deny or avoid ecological facts.

In some climate circles, there’s been a move away from talking about “humanity” as responsible for the climate crisis, and a move toward talking about capitalism, or even specific corporations and individuals, as culprits. The critic Kate Aronoff, for example, prompts us to name names: “We” didn’t cause climate disruption; ExxonMobil did. In these types of, albeit nonfictional, narratives, the push is precisely to rescue the “figure-ground” narrative form from the historically false way of telling the story as if vast numbers of undifferentiated humans played equal roles in the drama.

The narratives Wilk discusses capture and manifest something about ecology that is lost in the “individual moral adventure” story, but we should not lose sight of the fact that enough wealth and power can produce lives capable of at least partially eliding some of the constraints of an interconnected world. If one way of describing the climate crisis is as the place where ecological fact and historical fact come into conflict and rub each other to the bone, then it seems that, if there is any use value left in the “figure-ground” narrative structure, it is to zero in on exactly how some individuals have moved through history not as heroes of the culture but as climate villains.

There are several essays in Death by Landscape in which the figure of Wilk is brought into focus. “Extinction Burst,” for example, describes Wilk’s experience with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a treatment for PTSD that regards traumatic stress as a physiological phenomenon and uses eye movement to move traumatic memories from one hemisphere of the brain to the other. “Ask Before You Bite” follows Wilk as she participates in a night of live action role-play (LARP) and uncovers the deeper purpose of progressive LARP-ing communities to create a world in which the rules of engagement, particularly around consent, are explicitly named and proactively installed, the effect of which is, for Wilk, to maximize freedom while minimizing harm. There are lessons in these essays about creating new types of narratives for the era of climate crisis that loosely link them to the others in the collection; but what lasts are these little brutal gems of images, the Wilk whose involuntary trauma-response to stress is to fall suddenly asleep, the Wilk who receives a consensual slap by a stranger at a Nordic LARP-ing quest. In these essays, it is the lucidly observed idiosyncrasies of everyday life, so profoundly strange, that expand our sense of the beautiful and the possible, no landrus required.

Lynne Feeley's work has appeared in the L.A. Review of Books, Boston Review, and Lapham’s Quarterly, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Princeton.

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