Editor's note: Also includes climate grief.
Last summer, a pair of mourning doves made a nest in the tree outside my office window. I watched them gather sticks to build with, noticed how they traded nest duty every morning and afternoon, made bets with my husband about when the eggs would hatch, when the two nestlings would attempt to fly.
At a time when it seemed like the world was on the verge of falling apart, and when several communities I was part of were self-imploding due to profound unkindness, watching the gentle cooperation of the doves felt like something close to hope.
Then one morning I came downstairs and looked out the window to see the nest destroyed, one of the parent doves on its back in the grass below, red staining the pale gray feathers of its chest. Both chicks lay lifeless nearby.
My husband found me, quite literally, collapsed in grief on the living room floor.
I’d seen an orange cat lurking around the yard a few days before. I’d scared it off, and inspected the tree, speculating that the branches supporting the flimsy nest were too thin for the cat to climb to. I considered installing a motion-activated water sprayer to keep the cat away, but figured our dogs would end up the most likely to activate it and get sprayed, or even the fledglings I was trying to protect. So, I did nothing except hope it would be okay. And it wasn’t.
I’m no stranger to the brutality of nature, and I’ve watched plenty of other creatures being killed in our quasi-rewilded urban yard: lizards eaten by roadrunners, sparrows attacked by hawks. But the destruction of this nest wasn’t a necessity of nature. This was done by a housecat: a creature that retains a killer instinct but has no need to eat what it kills. A creature who was brought into this urban ecosystem by humans, and who hunts for sport, like humans do.
I felt angry and hopeless about the unnecessary deaths of the doves, but there was no restitution or revenge to be had. Because I live in a city where a neighborhood is purely a bunch of isolated houses and not a connected community, I don’t even know which of my neighbors the cat belongs to. All I could do was clean up the bloody feathers, and grieve.
Not long after the incident with the doves, I read a novella called The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade. In the opening pages we meet a character called the Sea Witch, a former marine biologist driven to madness by the death of the Great Barrier Reef. Like many other characters in the story, the Sea Witch has succumbed to Grief, an all-consuming melancholia—driven by environmental degradation—that leads to strange behaviors and eventually death by suicide. Once an ecologist working to save ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef from climate disaster, the Sea Witch evolves into an almost inhuman creature who lives in a saltwater pool, collecting plastic and obsessively tearing pages out of scientific journals.
Through extreme and somewhat fantastical examples, Cade gives language to the very real phenomenon of climate grief. She didn’t even have to make up a fanciful new term, simply gave a common word a capital letter, transforming it into an emotion unique to our era. “It’s the guilt that makes it so devastating,” Cade writes. The guilt of our own complicity in ecological destruction is what adds that extra “g,” elevating lower-case grief into upper-case Grief.
There is a question repeated throughout The Impossible Resurrection of Grief: “Can you watch something die and let it die?” I felt this keenly in relation to the doves. I had foreseen the risk, but done nothing to prevent it. I had hoped they’d be okay, but taken no action to work toward the outcome I hoped for. Hope without action behind it is only a recipe for deeper heartache. I had watched them die, and let them die.
Cade’s novella helped me to distinguish the particular type of grief I felt for the doves, and to understand why it was so different from what I’d felt after the recent passing of my grandmother, or during the dissolution of a community I had once considered a safe space. How this grief was much more akin to the desperate and powerless anger I feel about the news of yet another Gulf oil spill, or the image of a forest now reduced to a field of stumps. How, if these had been the last pair of doves of their species, I may well have fallen into a madness very like the Sea Witch.
While the characterization of Grief in The Impossible Resurrection of Grief was unique, several other elements of the novella reminded me of another story I’d read, “The Birdsong Fossil” by D. K. Mok. (Full disclosure: I was on the editorial masthead of Multispecies Cities, the anthology in which Mok’s novelette was originally published.) The stories are so similar, in fact, that they’re almost certainly responding to the same body of research, and the same conversations around the ethics of de-extinction efforts and soft robotics. But their approach to the topics is markedly different.
Both stories feature the resurrection of a thylacine—the “Tasmanian Tiger” that was deliberately hunted to extinction by humans in the 1930s. And both stories feature robotic versions of more recently extinct animals, released into the wild.
In Cade’s novella, both of these technologies are a source of horror. They appear in the text as manifestations of Grief’s madness, the uncanny recreations of the animal ghosts of the sixth mass extinction. The wide jaws of the resurrected thylacine threaten to swallow the protagonist whole as they stalk her through dark hallways, and the sharp beaks of the robotic rock wrens become weapons to kill the rats who hunted their living counterparts.
In “The Birdsong Fossil,” the resurrection of the thylacine is hailed as a great scientific achievement, rather than part of a secret conspiracy as Cade portrays. Even so, the protagonist is critical of the cloning, warning that the animals brought back from extinction would be “Shells of flesh with only a smear of their original nature.” Inspired by the story of some captivity-raised whooping cranes who failed to care for their chicks in the wild, Mok’s protagonist, Yuzuki, is working to develop robotic versions of endangered animals that will retain not only the behavioral characteristics of the animals, but “the story, the memories, the context” that make them what they are. It is the lack of this behavioral context that Yuzuki believes could make the thylacines just as horrific and uncanny as they are portrayed in Cade’s novella.
By the end of Mok’s novelette, the two technologies are working together, with biological being raised by robotic parent animals. When the characters witness a robotic elephant in the wild, the encounter is treated as wondrous: a triumph of human ingenuity and a step toward the restoration of nature. The parallel scene in The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, meanwhile, has the characters encountering the robotic versions of the recently extinct rock wren in the wild and deeply feeling their fakeness, their wrongness. The characters watch the robotic birds slaughtering rats with their poisoned beaks, a representation of the same violence and disconnect from nature that created the conditions for their extinction in the first place.
While horror explicitly underlies every scene of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, the potential for horror constantly underlies “The Birdsong Fossil,” as Mok’s scientist characters are working against a backdrop of both ecological and societal collapse. It is that horror that Yuzuki is actively pushing against, remaining hopeful against all odds. She suffers grief at several points in the story, but she never succumbs to Grief. Unlike the characters in Cade’s novella, Yuzuki is not focused on a single doomed species, but on many species, and their interconnectedness. The pursuit of her research drives her; the action of trying to help a helpless situation is what keeps her hope alive.
I will say it again: Hope without action behind it is only a recipe for deeper heartache. For the guilt that leads to Grief. But hope and action working in tandem? That may very well be the combination we need, to save the world.
The world isn’t saved, per se, in “The Birdsong Fossil,” but the story definitely ends on a note of renewal and rebirth, showing that a new world will thrive from the ashes of the old one. Mok’s new world is a hybrid of biological and mechanical, a melding of technology and nature into something wondrous, rather than horrifying. It is an approach that is all too rare in science fiction, a vision of a future that does not simply replicate the horrors of the past.
If you’ve ever heard me speak on a podcast or a panel, or if you’ve read any of the solarpunk anthologies I’ve edited or stories I’ve written, you’ll know that I tend to champion that rare optimistic outlook. But both approaches are necessary, especially in climate fiction. Science fiction is not an instruction manual; stories portray a prism of reactions and interactions. The horror of Cade’s approach helps me process the grief I feel about the horrors of my own backyard, and the larger, ever-looming horrors of climate change. The hope of Mok’s approach helps me to not succumb entirely to that Grief, to remember that beauty can be found even amidst destruction.
It is easier to imagine the darker path. It is useful to explore that path and its implications, to steer away from dangerous potential, to experience your own dark emotions reflected back at you from the page. It is also useful to explore the brighter side, to remember that the sun moves in cycles and the darkness never lasts, to explore the possibility that innovation and change do not always have to be approached with fear. Science fiction stories do not define the path forward so much as they clarify the path inward—how we choose to process the strange and novel, how our worldview broadens or constricts in response to new information.
I seek out fiction about alternative worlds as a way to understand what happens in this world. Because I see existence as a system of patterns and metaphors, and it is sometimes easier to codify and make sense of those when they play out on an interplanetary scale or among non-human characters. I seek out climate fiction in particular in an attempt to grapple with a planet-wide crisis that feels too big for me to even comprehend. To scale it down to a personal level, so I can recognize what these changes mean to the people, animals, and ecosystems who are most affected by them. So I can see the situation fresh through the eyes of someone else, whether a scientist or a Sea Witch.
“Does anyone actually want to read that?” someone asked me once with disdain at a (pre-pandemic) con panel, after I’d described what climate fiction was. “Maybe not,” I said with a shrug, knowing full well that a growing body of readers is looking for exactly that. But I get their point. When the news is full of natural disasters and dire predictions, picking up a book about the same topics isn’t going to provide the type of escapism that some readers crave from speculative fiction.
Climate fiction can be a limiting label, something sought out mostly by a self-selecting crowd of readers who are already actively grappling with these ecological issues. It can help that type of reader refine what we know and how we feel, and it can introduce readers to issues and implications we may not have been familiar with before. However, those who have already chosen to ignore or deny the real-world issues may not be swayed in quite the way that climate fiction authors likely hope their readers will be.
Still, the next decade is likely to make climate issues impossible to ignore any longer, and climate fiction—whether it is labeled so or not—will be there to help people process the changes as we navigate the world of the Anthropocene, with horror, and, perhaps, with hope.