Stories of our lives: "The Great Derangement" and "Splinterlands"

Ted Chiang’s "Story of Your Life," a short science fiction piece which I reviewed a few months ago, keeps infiltrating itself into my reading. Oddly, it reverberates most when I read nonfiction.

"Story of Your Life" is so fascinating due to its subtle manipulation of time. You may know it as the basis of the movie "Arrival," where, for one character, the future is part of the present. Nonfiction, though, often looks backwards (cultural history, natural history), using “time’s arrow” to explore the present.

But one of the most powerful non-fiction books I’ve read lately is Amitav Ghosh’s non-linear look into the future to question the present, called "The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable." The question Ghosh asks boils down to, “Why doesn’t the greatest issue of our time – climate change – show itself in more contemporary fiction?”

He starts with a historical overview: “The challenges climate change poses for the contemporary writer… derive from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.” Which is to say, modern fiction is molded and driven by burning carbon.

He goes on to argue that the insular modern novel has never been forced to confront what he calls “the centrality of the improbable.” Now, however, we live in an era defined by the improbable dynamics of climate change, which defy both literary fiction and common sense. We are thus confronted with the need to stretch our imaginations and writings to incorporate such improbability.

Ghosh stresses that unpredictable and terrible things don’t await in some vaguely defined future. As Bill McKibben made clear in his excellent book "Eaarth," that future is already happening.

To date, science fiction (or its youngest child, climate fiction), seems best at addressing science fact. Not too surprisingly, most of it is rather apocalyptic. It’s fairly common in “cli-fi” to read of massive storms and droughts raging over the earth while we puny humans cope as we can – roving bands of mercenaries fighting over resources and water, bioengineered animals helping us as fuel runs out and wide-spread plagues decimate populations, and global politics splintering into uncharted territories.

Many cli-fi stories seem to focus on a small group trying to make it in an unpredictable natural world. More than an upset natural order, an upset social and political order is the focus of an intense new book by John Feffer. "Splinterlands" showcases a world of crumbled geopolitics, seen through the eyes – and the virtual reality goggles – of a dying writer reaching out to his estranged family.

Feffer is director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, so he knows a bit about geopolitics. One of the startling things about "Splinterlands" is that it was written before the current administration came to power, and while we can’t know what might happen next, an awful lot of "Splinterlands" seems plausible. It’s as though Feffer has the gift of prescience Ted Chiang’s Louise has in "Story of Your Life."

2018 sees what the narrator of "Splinterlands" calls The Great Unraveling, as an increasingly globalized world breaks national boundaries apart and ushers in “market authoritarianism.” As Feffer describes it, “Commerce… merely rebranded nationalism as another marketable commodity,” and the “bloodlands of the twentieth century would give way to the splinterlands of the twenty-first.”

Soon after that, climate change rears its improbable head and an extreme weather event known as Hurricane Donald floods Washington, D.C., to such a devastating extent that the nation’s capital moves to Kansas City. From nearby Omaha, our dying narrator dons his VR goggles and surveys the world as he visits his family.

Feffer’s book seems to me to be the sort of writing Amitav Ghosh might be looking for. It’s not as outlandish as, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s "The Windup Girl" or "The Water Knife" (both of which I also really like), but "Splinterlands" could conceivably be the story of our lives.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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