This is not, you understand, a positive review. Frankly, I do not see how it can be. With a few exceptions—shortly to be talked about—this is the most turgid, overwritten, unfocused, and disappointing anthology I have read for quite some time. Ambitious? Yes, absolutely, and one of the small sparks of credit I can give here is for the ambition that pulled this all together, reaching for connections in fiction and art and architecture, in climate fiction and science fiction and in science. Unfortunately, in reaching for connection, this book has eschewed all sense of self-awareness.
The concept here is outstanding. A Year Without a Winter is a meteorological term referring to “the year when the coldest winters first became warmer than the warmest winters of the past” (p. 16). The relevance to current and future climate events is too obvious to state. What this book does, however, is to contrast this with the historical Year Without a Summer, when the 1815 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora caused deeply atypical climate conditions over the subsequent three years. Editor Dehlia Hannah comments that as “unseasonal frosts and precipitation swept across Europe, crops withered in the fields and food became scarce” (p. 11); but of course the effects were global and not confined to Europe. The focus here is European, however, because in this Year Without a Summer, Mary Shelley—together with her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori—converged at the Villa Diodati. Poor weather kept them indoors, and each of the residents was challenged to write a ghost story to pass the time. Famously, Frankenstein resulted.
This experiment is recreated here, albeit updated for time and geography as well as climate. Four authors—Tobias S. Buckell, Nancy Kress, Nnedi Okorafor, and Vandana Singh—are sequestered at the experimental settlement of Arcosanti (more on that later) and asked to produce a short story inspired by the title of this collection. These stories make up the central portion of the book, and are for the most part enjoyable. Buckell’s (“A World to Die For”) uses alternate universes to illustrate the different potential outcomes of climate change, each dependent on “how much greenhouse gas is dumped into the atmosphere” (p. 151). On the one hand, as a science fiction reader it seems a little obvious. Wearing my science communicator hat, though, it’s a genuinely successful piece of writing. Not everyone finds graphs and projections engaging or comprehensible—witness the many people who simply don’t understand the potential consequences of climate change—and illustrating outcome through stories is one way of reaching them.
The Kress story (“Cost of Doing Business”) is in some ways a lot more immediately engaging—a billionaire plans to mitigate the consequences of climate change by forcing economic change—but if you haven’t figured out the source of the disease by the same page on which it is first mentioned, then you are a lot less cynical than I. This revisioning of economic power is also present in Singh’s story, “Widdam,” in which giant machines break programming to stop their own environmentally destructive practices. This is a little unfocused for me, but there’s a truly lovely moment in this story concerning the Saint of the Waters. I won’t spoil it, but if ever this collection was to have been assigned an emotional core,this should have been it. Finally, Okorafor’s story, “Mother of Invention,” is the pick of the bunch. It’s outstanding, but is far more a domestic drama, complete with an AI house, than it is climate fiction. The consequences of changing climate are there in the background, with the increased pollen counts triggering potentially fatal allergies in the protagonist, but I can’t help but think that it deserved something more than background. Then again, Frankenstein had climate as its background but not at its centre, so perhaps Okorafor was sticking closely to the inspiration for the brief.
I liked the stories. I don’t think they’re particularly groundbreaking examples of climate fiction, and I don’t think they tap into the crucial presentness of climate today, but they’re worth reading. The problem with this collection is not with the fiction. It’s the nonfiction that drags it down.
A large part of that is that these pieces obscure just who this collection is for. The fiction is accessible enough for most readers. The nonfiction is not. Goodness knows I have bitched enough in the past about academic language and how it often—and all too smugly—excludes potential readers, and you would hope that a collection based around climate change would acknowledge how poor communication has muddied those waters for a lot of people; but awareness has clearly just not sunk in. Look at this piece of ridiculousness: “the self-aggrandizing challenge of accessing material networks in pursuit of expansive authorial distribution in space” (p. 282). The author is talking about flag planting. How do I know? Because, directly after this passage, “flag planting” is inserted in brackets, presumably because the author is aware they are being opaque but simply doesn’t give enough of a shit to be adequately clear in the first place. This is far from the only instance of this sort of thing in the anthology, and it’s in far too much of the nonfiction.
I ask you, then: who is this collection meant to be for? Fans of the four authors noted above might glance at it to read their favourite, but they’re hardly going to wade through the rest. I can only think, then, that the fiction has been added as a happy little bonus for the expected academic audience, so that they can feel successfully inclusive and genre-bending within the borders of their ivory tower, without actually considering that their desire for cross-communication might be more successful if they welcomed normal people into the conversation. Instead, those people are being waved away as mere artistic consumers, a somehow separate population who exist mostly to have their consumption observed and analysed. This is a mistake. Art of all kinds is a hugely useful communicative tool, especially in science, where it is used too rarely. Making art as difficult to understand as science is popularly perceived to be makes both disciplines increasingly inaccessible to everyone.
God knows that a couple of the people interviewed in this anthology do their damnedest to break through this smug veneer of observation. Humanitarian aid worker Pablo Suarez makes an extremely comprehensible argument for using art to “envision plausible futures” (p. 336) related to climate. (I suspect because his job requires him to communicate as clearly as possible. I only wish he’d written the introduction.) Similarly, “I realise that it’s a very First World luxury to be able to reflect on any of this,” says Hilairy Hartnett. “People are starving; they don’t have water; they’re fighting. […] Most of the people who are going to suffer at the hands of climate change are in no position to do anything about it, and they have very little say in how the future is going to evolve” (pp. 314-315). This from a bio-geochemist looking at potential geoengineering solutions to mitigate effects, but compelling as these might be, even if they are proved to be feasible,the effects of the solution may well be similarly unequal.
Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), talks of a 2011 retreat she attended where scientists discussed geoengineering solutions to climate change. One participant is frankly appalled. “Let’s put aside the science and talk about ethics,” he says. “I come from Africa and I don’t like what I’m seeing with precipitation” (p. 225). Not the current precipitation levels, which are troubling enough, but with the precipitation projections following the proposed injections of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Under that method, rainfall in Europe and North America appears “minimally changed” (p. 225). The effects on equatorial Africa, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Asia, are catastrophic. Klein is equally sceptical: “does anyone actually believe that geoengineering will be used to help Africa if that help could come only by putting North America at greater risk of extreme weather?” (p. 238) Because I don’t. Over her time at the retreat, Klein also notes that “I have been repeatedly struck by how the hard-won lessons about humility before nature that have reshaped modern science […] do not appear to have penetrated this particular bubble” (p. 231).
I’d say it’s not the only bubble this conclusion has failed to penetrate, but that would be neither fair nor accurate. Whatever other faults this book has, there is a strongly felt and deeply considered exploration of human entanglement with climate, and the necessary effectiveness of an interdisciplinary approach. People can learn about environmental problems in different ways, and if art or architecture helps to make the connections in the struggle against climate change then I for one am all for it. But, crucially, there seems to be confusion here between interdisciplinary and unfocused.
Let me give an example. The modern-day stand-in for the Villa Diodati, the location in which the four creative writers were sequestered while writing their stories for this volume, is the Arizona settlement of Arcosanti. Designed by the architect Paolo Soleri to illustrate where architecture meets ecology, it’s an experimental urban environment and, as such, a certain inspiration for speculative writers. It also has its own chapter in A Year Without a Winter. Much of this chapter, written by James Graham, concerns Soleri himself—the dictatorial attitude he would take towards his workers, the sexual abuse he inflicted on his daughter, his indifference to voting and elections. What has this to do with climate? I asked myself while reading, already weary with previous digressions. And Graham, relating a conversation he had with one of the residents of Arcosanti, is confronted with the same potential indifference. “Arcosanti is a place that attracts those who have the luxury to be surprised at the state of American politics—a luxury not afforded to many of those who live in the urban settings that Soleri sought to reinvent” (p. 112).
There it is again: consequence, and the ability to observe consequence in others, while avoiding most of it oneself. You know what this chapter could have done, to emphasise its relevance and to relate this experimental architecture away from Soleri and towards climate? It could have used the development of Arcosanti as a gateway to exploring other experimental architecture, and what other architects and urban planners are doing today to mitigate the effects of years without winter.
Instead, the book takes another path. It remains stubbornly observational, as if the effects and consequences of climate are an academic exercise. There are repeated observations of how the general public is disinclined to take climate seriously, references such as “the complacent attitude towards present-day global warming taken by many in the West” (p. 53) and the “cultural unconsciousness that refuses to acknowledge an environmental crisis that is unfolding right before our eyes” (p. 83). You know what I’m seeing less of? Artists wondering if the carbon footprint of planting a live cocoa tree in a glass terrarium on Antarctica is worth it. Editors wondering if a book concerned with climate should actually be printed on non-sustainable paper. (Columbia University has an impressive focus on sustainability, but I’m not seeing the FSC logo on this book, nor any indication on the CU Press website that they use sustainable paper.) Academics wondering if, in shaking their heads at established elitism, they are really setting up an even more exclusive circle of critique.
It’s the unawareness that most bothers me here. Yes, getting artists and scientists and thinkers to collaborate about Antarctica is a good thing. Yes, sometimes their ability to communicate is genuinely enhanced by being there. But acknowledge the privilege being present gives you! One of these gatherings is described as “the calculated performance of a leap beyond the luxury ghetto” (p. 300) of the contemporary art world, as exhibited at events such as the Venice Biennale, for instance.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but is there not something immensely privileged, immensely luxurious, inbeing able to go to Antarctica in the first place? Yes, the comment was made in the context of stepping into completely natural environments, but still. “Why don’t more researchers go to Tambora?” asks one of the researchers. God forbid, writing of the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, anyone produce arguments such as “Anne’s [...] sexual despair rings like climate denialism, the great corporate sophistry of our age” (p. 324) without travelling to a volcano halfway across the world to give weight to their words. (The chapter on Persuasion included here, by the way, relates back to the Year Without a Summer. What this says, again, about both the title and meandering nature of this collection I leave you to sort out for yourselves.)
There’s a tiny acknowledgement of this in a postcard reproduced towards the end of the book. The researchers, realising they’ve been sucking on palm oil candy while travelling through the ecological devastation those plantations produce, take approximately half a second to question themselves. “For all the jet fuel, plastic water bottles, trash fires and questionable labor conditions that it took just to get us here, what would be an elegant penance?” (p. 349), they ask. I won’t repeat my response when I first read this; it was unprintable. This is performative guilt, wanking out art and discussions about art and classifying the dissonance as a question of elegance. This isn’t a Year Without a Winter. It’s a book without a clue, one that reimagines the potential climate apocalypse—twelve years to limit climate catastrophe says the IPCC, remember, and the clock is ticking—as an opportunity for slickness and style, by people who will very likely be some of the most insulated from its effects.
In its delight at making connections between diverse events and creativities, this book entirely avoids the idea of consequence. Other people don’t understand climate change, it says. Not like us (who are actively contributing to global warming far more than many of those who don’t understand it). It’s not that we’re being hypocrites. It’s that we’re—I kid you not—making “the planet a nonhuman participant in our collective thought experiment,” where the “fourth wall of the narrative shattered, the contributors to this book became actors on its stage” (p. 22).
It’s not a stage. It’s not a thought experiment. Years without winter are more than an opportunity to observe and document the effects climate change has on other people. They are a clear and present danger to the ecology of this planet, so be interdisciplinary by all means, it is a necessary endeavour; but please, please, please, will you put down the fiddle, look yourself and your writing in the mirror, and fucking focus.
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