[Spoilers ahead for Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Disney’s Frozen]
Zadie Smith’s recent essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” expresses mourning for the little things that are lost to climate change. “What ‘used to be’ is painful to remember,” she writes:
Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot. A bit of sun on Pancake Day; a little more for the Grand National. Chilly April showers, Wimbledon warmth. July weddings that could trust in fine weather. The distinct possibility of a Glastonbury sunburn.
It’s October, and still not cool enough to open the windows here in Tampa, so I know where she’s coming from. I remember trick-or-treating on cool Halloween nights and wearing sweaters on Christmas Day, things that rarely happen anymore here. But even as Smith indulges in this climate nostalgia, she also punctures it. Elegy may be the most common form for our emotions about climate change, but it’s not necessarily the right form: “Sometimes the global, repetitive nature of this elegy is so exhaustively sad—and so divorced from any attempts at meaningful action—that you can’t fail to detect in the elegists a fatalist liberal consciousness that has, when you get right down to it, as much of a perverse desire for the apocalypse as the evangelicals we supposedly scorn.”
Elegy has a certain fatalism about it that tends to excuse mourners from any meaningful action, as Smith points out. I’m reminded of white nineteenth-century writers lamenting the dying out of Native Americans as if it were a foregone conclusion instead of a political and military choice. From The Last of the Mohicans to The Song of Hiawatha, American literature romanticized and mourned the Indians even as their government waged war on them. There’s an ugly side to elegy, a way that it papers over our complicity in the crimes committed. Like literary naturalism, elegy assumes that history happens to us, not the other way around.
What other forms might climate change fiction take? Apocalypse is one popular option. From the critically panned 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow (pretty sure I’m the only person who liked this movie) to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, creative writers tend to see doomsday when they look ahead. Yet Smith argues that apocalypse is not the right form either if we want our stories to make a difference; she imagines telling a future granddaughter that “the apocalyptic scenarios did not help—the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse.” Surely the popularity of zombie fiction is a testament to this simultaneous horror of and attraction to a secular apocalypse.
I think Oryx and Crake is the most incisive literary exploration of this dual attraction and horror. Oryx and Crake traces the end of civilization as we know it, at the hands of a troubled genius known as Crake. Crake, best friend of the protagonist Jimmy, works for a genetic engineering corporation and creates a new species of humans who are healthier, more peaceful, and more sustainable than us. Yet he is secretly working on another project: a pill that will distribute a deadly virus throughout the world. Even as we watch in dread while Crake’s plot to unleash a pandemic and give Earth a clean slate unfolds, Atwood primes us to sympathize with him. Maybe it really would be better if we were replaced by a species like the Children of Crake, we think. Maybe our corrupt, polluting, exploitative civilization really is too far gone to be recuperated. The novel only works if we understand why Crake does what he does. To accelerate the damage does, in a perverse way, make sense.
While Oryx and Crake envisions an acceleration of climate change, capitalism, and ecological destruction leading up to a final global pandemic that virtually extinguishes human civilization, David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks predicts a more gradual decay known as the Endarkenment. The Bone Clocks is, like Mitchell’s hit novel Cloud Atlas, a sprawling six-part epic. Its five narrators weave a story that begins in suburban England in 1984, traverses the globe from Switzerland to Iraq to Australia to Iceland, and ends in rural Ireland in 2043, at the beginning of the Endarkenment. Fuel is scarce, electricity intermittent, and medicine difficult to come by in Endarkenment Ireland. Armed gangs battle each other for control of scant resources while villagers watch in terror. Amidst the turmoil, an insidious brand of religious fundamentalism takes hold of local government. “Father Brady spoke next, saying that God would let the Cordon fall because we’d put our faith in false idols… Muriel Boyce was shrieking at them that they’d burn, burn, burn because whoever thought a pack o’ sheep farmers with rusty rifles could stop the Book of Revelation coming true was a damned eejit who’d soon be a dead damned eejit,” one character reports.
Mitchell portrays the turn to fundamentalist fatalism as a natural but flawed way for some people to deal with the uncertainty and danger of the Endarkenment. His protagonist, Holly Sykes, remains above the fray, mostly declining to engage with her intolerant fundamentalist neighbors. Yet, as reviewer James Wood points out, The Bone Clocks is at heart a “theological novel.” For all the human characters, with all of their human drama, are, as the novel gradually reveals, puppets in a larger, cosmological battle between two warring squads of immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites. These immortals have fleeting moments of access to a “Script,” which allows them to see glimpses of the future. There is a kind of theological fatalism at work here; as Wood argues, “the human protagonists are slowly imprisoned, deprived of their freedom as fictional actors… Mitchell’s cosmology rigs things.” From this point of view, Muriel Boyce and Father Brady are wrong not because they see the Endarkenment as the unfolding of a predestined armageddon, but merely because they picked the wrong eschatological vision, Christianity instead of Horology.
The final section of The Bone Clocks, which takes place in the early years of the Endarkenment, comes after the final fated showdown between the Horologists and the Anchorites. This prompts the question of why it is there at all; why not end with the epic showdown of angels and demons? I think this structure suggests that, like the wars of the immortals, climate change and social decay are themselves part of the Script, fated to happen. “Books’ll be back,” one Horologist tells Holly Sykes. “Wait till the power grids start failing in the late 2030s and the datavats get erased. It’s not far away. The future looks a lot like the past.” Holly asks if this is an “official prophecy,” and is told, “It’s the inevitable result… of population growth and lies about oil reserves.” Divine prophecy and ordinary prediction become the same thing here: a statement of the inevitable. This is yet another version of the fatalistic streak that runs through climate change elegy.
The Bone Clocks presents climate change as Greek tragedy. What about climate change as Shakespearean comedy? I think this is what last year’s Disney film Frozen does, with a surprising amount of success. Frozen is notable, of course, for not adhering to the conventions of Disney princess film or Shakespearean comedy in one important way: it ends not with a marriage, but with the reconciliation of sisters. Nevertheless, Frozen is one of the rare examples of climate change fiction with a happy ending—one that seems facile at first glance but, on further reflection, might be exactly the kind of climate change story we need.
A rewriting of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, Frozen tells the story of two princess sisters, Elsa and Anna. Elsa is gifted with magic powers that allow her to produce snow and ice, but she has difficulty controlling these powers and her parents, the king and queen of Arendelle, consider them a curse. Elsa becomes a recluse, avoiding human contact, while her younger sister Anna remains in the dark about Elsa’s gift. On the day of Elsa’s coronation as queen, she and Anna get into an argument and, distressed, Elsa loses control of her powers. She flees from the city and builds herself a new palace made of ice, but, unbeknownst to her, her outburst has plunged Arendelle into an ice age.
Anna searches for her sister to apologize, confident that Elsa will reverse the winter and restore summer to Arendelle. When she finds Elsa, she explains that Arendelle is suffering in this unforeseen winter. The problem is more intractable than she realizes, however, because Elsa does not know how to restore the lost summer. The moment of horror when Elsa realizes that she has sent her kingdom into an ice age and she has no idea how to fix it is one of the most poignant, and symbolic, moments of the film. It implicates all of us as viewers; we too are responsible for climate change, and we don’t know how to fix it.
The solution to the eternal winter is as magical as its genesis: Anna’s love for Elsa saves them both, unfreezing their hearts and unlocking Elsa’s power to thaw the kingdom. Such an ending might seem a typical bit of Disney-style sophistry and sentimentality; all it takes to stop climate change is love! And of course, it is that. But it’s something more, too. Many of our best literary minds see climate change as a foreordained series of catastrophes that unfold as we watch helplessly. It’s easier to imagine the end of civilization than the voluntary end of excessive emissions. The climate change comedy, on the other hand, puts back in our hands the responsibility for, and the capacity to address, the problem. Like Elsa’s ability to melt the ice, we discover that it’s been inside us all along. And I think it’s the climate change comedy that can, to borrow Zadie Smith’s words, help turn our minds “from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?” We can leave behind the forms of eschatology, literary naturalism, and elegy, with their resignation and fatalism, and turn instead to the forms of political action.