Size / / /
Beacons cover

In his introduction to Beacons: stories for our not so distant future, editor Gregory Norminton sets out his purpose—"statistics cannot motivate us as stories can"—before making two statements about climate change fiction with which I might quibble. The first: "global warming is a predicament, not a story. Narrative only comes into our response to that predicament." That should read, "human story" and "human narrative," I think, since climate change certainly is a process, and a process is by definition storyable; it's just happening on a scale that's difficult for us, as humans, to relate to. This is more than just pedantry because it ensures it is possible to imagine fictive responses to climate change that aren't straitjacketed by local perception, that can stretch beyond the scale of a human life, either in time or in space. (It's difficult to compress either of these dimensions into a short story, admittedly, but mistaken to eliminate the possibility entirely.) The second statement is all too familiar: "It is important to note that this book is not polemical; nor is it a policy document or a lifestyle guide." This is the reader-reassuring disclaimer found attached to stories that deal with climate change so often that, even if sincerely meant, it reads like rote. Is it true?

Reading Joanne Harris's opener, for instance, you might be tempted to agree that Norminton's apparent fear of any narrative that dares to present readers with a point of view is well-founded (while wondering what story he would consider "polemical," if this doesn't count), because "A is for Acid Rain, B is for Bee" collapses in a fit of moralizing in its final page, ingenuously giving its reminiscing elder narrator such ponderous lines as, "And yet I can’t help thinking. Maybe the earth is allergic to us." (The italics make it art.) To argue that this is the story's prime flaw, however, would require not noticing that it's a depressingly rickety construction right from the start, its attempt to ground the future in personal testimony undermined by superficial extrapolation filled with faceless government dictat ("You never went out on rainy days. Health and Safety wouldn't let you"). Harris's problem is not that she is writing polemic; it's that she's writing bad polemic.

Contrast this with the much better, or at least impressively self-insulating, James Miller's "What is left to see?" from later in the collection. We open in 2037, with a transcript of an American teenager's "daylog": Me5elle is recounting a trip taken with her nostalgic father to drowned Miami. The family is from Idaho, and religious, and wealthy enough to afford such indulgence. The social media slanguage is, inevitably, as much about the present as the future, and some of it is literary mugging ("#waxpoetical"), but there are no clumsy breaks for explanation, and Me5elle's voice starts to feel convincing. Then, abruptly, the stream cuts off. Suddenly we're in Athens "just after now," and our viewpoint character is Abu-Bakr, a migrant/refugee. Me5elle's lifelog turns out to be an extract from the work of a young wealthy traveling aspiring American writer, Jennifer. This is a brilliant move: instantly Miller's tale becomes, rather than a questionable extrapolation of the present, precisely about the way SF estranges the present, because Jennifer's concern—though real—is unmistakably that of the privileged, while Abu-Bakr's reality is already uncomfortably close to the "sun shanties" she imagines. The rest of the narrative is about Abu-Bakr and Jennifer failing to connect. The last few pages are a misstep—a further extract from Me5elle's lifelog makes explicit what was more effective when implicit—but we are nonetheless forced to ask how art, and speculative art in particular, can or should proceed with this material. Like Harris, Miller is writing a polemic, but his target is a real aspect of our current response, and he strikes it full-on.

On the other hand, some of the contributors to Beacons seem terribly afraid of expressing any sort of opinion. David Constantine's "Leaving Frideswide," for instance, is written in strokes so fine and mannered that were it not in this anthology it might be hard to spot it as a climate change tale—as though it is somehow vulgar to state the facts of the world plainly. As it is we get the gist from a few passing references to extreme weather and abandoned suburbs. The narrative itself is indeed about a leaving. Frideswide is a community, on an ex-farm or manor of some kind—a place that survives—and we open with Beth receiving a letter from the government, as represented by Tom, a man she loves, informing them that their applied-for removal is imminent. In fact—implausibly—they need to be ready tomorrow. So Beth wanders through Frideswide; nobody quite seems to be able to decide whether this news is good or bad; there are some long, elegant, precise sentences; and there is a crippling disingenuousness that means Beth somehow avoids specifying the nature of the catastrophe. Is this realism? If it is, it's a kind that doesn't help us very much.

Most of the other tales in Beacons exist between the extremes of self-conscious Miller and self-effacing Constantine. A good number are conventional SF-by-mimesis, sincere if mostly ineffective attempts to imagine Me5elle or her contemporaries. (There are, tellingly, few attempts to imagine Abu-Bakr.) At the jargon-heavy end of this pack we find A. L. Kennedy's "Meat," which has an interesting kernel at its core about food and consumption, but is also a badly judged mass of Capitalised Nouns and schematic history, and not quite narrow enough in focus for that to not matter. We also find Liz Jensen's "Mother Moon's Job," which also probably over-jargonises ("units" instead of "families," etc.), but outlines a quite complex set of relations between ecological crisis, reproductive rights, and capitalist ideology. If anything it's overstuffed at this length, and could stand to be expanded. Tom Bullough's "The Red Waste" is the obligatory post-catastrophe-life-will-be-medieval riff, with only a token nod to the context shaping this regression, in the form of a sacrifice to the weather gods. I doubt the future will recapitulate the past so neatly. Holly Howitt's "The Weatherman" starts promisingly—the narrator gets a job at a weather station; his wife is pregnant; they could be a normal couple in the future—but has to escalate its stakes with unconvincing conspiracy, and ends with a grand old narrative cheat. Lawrence Norfolk's "Earthship" adds just a few theory touches to its tale of hippies destined to be leaders after the catastrophe ("as though characters were real people and not rhetorical positions"). I liked the voice, though, confiding and regular, and I liked the choices about what we are shown and not; but Norfolk can't quite overcome the clichés surrounding his story's environmental messiahs.

By far the best of the straight SF tales, and probably my favorite piece in the collection, is Rodge Glass's "We're All Gonna Have the Blues." It's cast in a great, raw voice, an environmental lobbyist boozing in a jazz bar in near-future Krakow, fighting disillusion, reflecting on his job, which is to escort the drunken, depressive, and lecherous erstwhile figurehead of "the movement" to meetings and then work in the shadows to try to convince all parties that the time has come for action. But the story's trump card is its sense of the tragic day-to-day-ness of politics, its bitter recognition of the twinned impossibility and necessity of grappling with a crisis that has no clearly defined edges, that inspires apocalyptic imagination but seems to be always dragged down by a merely dreary reality: every day just slightly worse.

Then there are the normal lives, disrupted by climate events or ideas. Maria McCann's "Holiday to Iceland" is a contemporary piece investigating the psychology of a sustainable lifestyle. Lisa, raised in postwar privation, wants her daughter Clementine to have it all; Gareth, after "training at work," suddenly takes climate change to heart. Holiday visits to sister Karen in Rome are out; house swaps are in. Lisa seeks a way to negotiate, to ameliorate the impact on their lifestyle, not quite sure whether she believes herself, not sure whether Gareth understands, emotionally, what he's asking. It can't help feeling earnest, but McCann manages to find a tentative and well-judged sense of acceptance in her conclusion. In Clare Dudman's "Like Canute" the carefully understated climate epiphany comes to Sophie, an editor, when she reads a submitted manuscript. When she is fired, she heads for a commune in the North; she finds a life, and learns other work, and demonstrates that her old skills can be adapted (she writes a manual). So Dudman writes to affirm human agency, and resourcefulness, and plain usefulness, in the face of crisis, and does so in a way that is clever, ambitious, and often vividly connected to the environment—but her title indicates that Sophie is an outlier, that this is in fact a limited and personal response at best. It's the extreme fictive version of the first statement of Norminton's I took exception to in my introduction: the local is the only thing possible, the global is beyond our consideration. That (and, to be fair, the scary climate refugee bogeyman that turns up halfway through, dark cliché of Abu-Bakr) prevent me embracing Dudman's story whole-heartedly.

In similar vein are Jem Poster's "Visitation" and Janice Galloway's "Fittest." In Poster's story we meet an aging widow for whom the catastrophe will always be remote; in Galloway's, the nameless narrator abandons their home in a drought summer and flees North, followed by fragments of news. Both protagonists have a rather Ostrich-like cast to them. Adam Thorpe's "Take Notice" does better work with another aging protagonist, but a more privileged one, an ex-Prime Minister. Now he is retired, his wife is dead, his daughter is dead, it is after the revolution, he is barely remembered. He buys a vintage car; it is destroyed by arson; he is burgled. In the gaps—and even explicitly in the last few sentences, but we don't mind because of the detailed normality of his present—we see the difference he might have made.

Lastly, in this taxonomy of tales, there are the games: the spoonfuls of sugar. Alasdair Gray recounts a conversation between God and his son in their laboratory. Half scolding facts about environmental negligence, half delightful invention of triangular planets (engineered for a more just and sustainable world, you see), it's an uneven whole. Adam Marek's "The Great Consumer" rounds up a whole bunch of Hollywood time travelers for some witty and reality-bending set-pieces; but the ending disavows any responsibility for opinions we might have gleaned from their antics. Toby Litt's "The Gloop" is more a literary conceit than a speculative one—a single-paragraph stream-of-consciousness about a narrator dissolving into some sort of biosingularity—and doesn't quite fit into a climate anthology, but is enjoyable while it lasts. (He wrote "The Bug," a similarly stylized piece about disease, a couple of years ago; if he does more, it will be interesting to see them gathered together.)

Still, I'd write off this last cluster almost entirely were it not for the return of Editor Norminton himself. His "Almost Visible Cities" is, as you'd expect from the title, a Calvino riff, and its wryness is even enjoyable enough for me to forgive the sin of editorial self-inclusion. Norminton's cities are, inevitably, a tour of real and speculative responses to climate change. One is an anagrammatically veiled version of Dubai; one a sprawling megacity; one a hypercapitalist zion; one demonstrates Marxist ecology, one deep ecology, one technocratic ecology. So Norminton sidesteps the challenges of climate narrative by sidestepping narrative entirely, and sidesteps the "challenge" of polemic by offering more than one vision. It's not the collection's last story, but in some ways it should have been, because the balance—the tension—that its vignettes create is the reason to read this interesting but uneven collection, writ small. Beacons is not, in the demographics of its authors and protagonists, the most diverse or inclusive anthology you might pick up, and not often aware of its limitations in that area. But it is relatively varied in its literary strategies, and those stylistic contrasts make the book as a whole rewarding to ponder.

Niall Harrison (niall.harrison@gmail.com) has reviewed for publications including Foundation and The Los Angeles Review of Books.



Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
No comments yet. Be the first!

 

%d bloggers like this: