Kübra Baysal, ed., Apocalyptic Visions in the Anthropocene and the Rise of Climate Fiction (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2021), 264 pp.
Given the pandemic and its focalizing effect on medical humanities and narratives of contagion, one could almost be forgiven that the other, the bigger crisis and its narratives have moved to the sidelines in the perception of the general public. The field of literary scholarship will only see the uptick in writing on pandemic fiction in a few months, but that actually means that current publications on contemporary fiction—at least a year or two in the making—can still focus on the bleak outlook on the ongoing climate catastrophe. In their scope for apocalyptic visions, the horrific hyperobjects of the anthropocene and manmade climate change seem to warrant as much attention as the pandemic has drawn in the preceding months. So, a volume such as Apocalyptic Visions in the Anthropocene and the Rise of Climate Fiction is more than timely and claims a well-deserved place in the growing field of literary ecocriticism that accompanies the chorus of activist voices on the street in commenting on our climatic end-times.
To that end, the editor has gathered fifteen essays which address “the vital role the climate change phenomenon and climate change fiction itself play in contemporary literature and art as the reflection of life” (xi). Regarding the second aspect of the book’s title, she further claims that climate fiction aims at “raising awareness while harbouring hope through associable stories” by depicting “dystopian and pre-/postapocalyptic worlds of the past, present, or future stricken by a myriad of climate change calamities” (x-xi). Here, in the rather short introduction to the volume, though, we can already see some of the issues that hamper the grand scope of the endeavor. Firstly, the volume tries to but ultimately fails to connect the three main buzzwords of the title, explaining what climate fiction is (using the contested abbreviation of “cli-fi”) and how it relates to the anthropocene. In this connection, a shorter historical trajectory is open that allows for the retroactive inclusion of texts from the 1970s onward. What is missing from this history and the theoretical underpinnings is an exploration of the relation of fiction dealing with issues of environmental degradation and climate change to the dystopian and (post)apocalyptic traditions, which gets a mere paragraph in the introduction and feels tacked on. Talking about climate change is so horrid, it cannot be anything but dystopian, the volume seems to suggest in wedging the terminology together. But how then does that figure with the “harbored hope” that was mentioned?
The problem is, it is not only the introduction that feels off-balance and somewhat stitched together—the whole volume does. For one, there is the issue of scope that is thrown into disarray by including two chapters on texts from the nineteenth century, one on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and one on Richard Jefferies’s After London, while the remaining texts are “contemporary” in that they stick to (retroactively included) climate fiction from the 1970s onward, with the bulk on post-2000 texts. Even more unbalanced, though, is the inclusion of one chapter on paintings—an interpretative account by the artist herself—that sticks out among the fourteen other chapters all focusing on close-readings of one or two selected prose texts. Interestingly, out of those fourteen, there are two chapters devoted to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, an odd choice for the focus, given that Le Guin’s text is neither clearly positioned as climate fiction (published before the mainstream awareness of climate change) nor as apocalyptic (rather, most scholarship sees it as a critical utopia). Since there is no structure, either implicit or explicit, to guide the reader through the collection, the essays seem haphazardly thrown together without a thought as to what the volume as a whole might convey in its selection and pairing of texts.
In terms of the actual scholarship of the essays, the volume also remains a mixed bag, which might have needed sorting by a stronger editorial hand. Onur Ekler’s chapter on Thoreau, for example, has very florid prose and dwells too much on a definition of the anthropocene that then gets left by the side for a short reading of Walden without ever connecting it to an explicit thesis. The lack of clearly articulated arguments towards a specific claim is an issue in more than just this one essay though. Seher Öszert, for example, gives a good and thorough reading of how nature is represented in The Dispossed, without ever tying it back to what that reading does in terms of ecocritical thinking. Really problematic is Sukanya B. Senapati’s reading of Paolo Bacigalupi through actor-network-theory, which anecdotally uses a wild variety of primary texts—from King Lear to Life of Pi—to gloss over the fact that the author has not used any relevant secondary material or even tried to tie this key YA novel series on climate change into relevant discourses of ecocriticism, dystopian worldbuilding, or new materialism. Another essay, Pinar Süt Güngör’s reading of The Dispossessed, does not fit into the volume at all, not even attempting to connect to climate change, but instead focusing on the philosophical side of the book and its apocalyptic potential. Niğmet Çetiner’s chapter similarly does not focus on the ecocritical aspects of climate fiction but instead looks at posthuman figures of the cyborg in Maggie Gee’s The Ice People and Ridley Scott’s TV series Raised by Wolves, though here the argument is sound and worth reading.
And that is the upside of the volume, that some of the close readings are well worth-while and that the scholarship is sound and will add to the growing body of work on climate change (or the anthropocene or the apocalypse). Emily Arvay’s reading of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Anastasia Logotheti’s insights into On Chesil Beach and Solar by Ian McEwan, or Andrew Erickson’s interpretation of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones are all important essays and represent the academic standard of what this volume should have delivered. It will be harder for them to shine, given their positioning in a collected volume that is not up to par. What remains of this volume then, is the recommendation to seek out whichever chapter you might need that deals with that specific text you are looking for. The topic, for sure, will warrant more scholarly work.
Lars Schmeink (Hamburg)