The Puzzle of Eco-Fiction

The Puzzle of Eco-Fiction

George R. Stewart’s Storm gives us an ideal model for how to approach the narrative challenges of a story about climate catastrophe.

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One of the foremost difficulties in confronting the dire reality of climate change remains that of conceptualizing climate itself, of thinking climatologically. This mode of comprehension requires radical reorientations of scale, positioning discrete occurrences as part of immensely larger patterns across vast swaths of time and space. It requires one to look beyond the boundaries of national borders and isolated events. Climatological thinking necessitates a vantage that must at least aspire toward both totality and synthesis without losing sight of the fine-grained details of the local and the particular. To take this mode of thought and translate it into narrative form is key to communicating what is happening on our ever-warming planet. Weaving together the fragmented intricacies of the individual, human experience of climate without losing sight of its vastness is a tall order, but a profoundly necessary one: Telling a story of climate change requires a narrative ambition of planetary scope.

To find a model for what this task may look like, we need look no further than one of the inaugural works of eco-fiction, George R. Stewart’s pioneering 1941 novel Storm. Stewart’s oeuvre is a heterogeneous collection of all but forgotten works across an astonishingly wide array of genres. A polymath English professor at the University of California–Berkeley, Stewart wrote works of literary criticism, speculative anthropology, history, and toponomy (the study of place names) in addition to his novelistic output. His wide-ranging interests, from the Donner Party to the American highway, the deep past to environmental disaster, are on full display throughout Storm. A best seller upon its release, the novel’s primary innovation of making a meteorological phenomenon into its central character led to the practice of naming tropical storms, and its groundbreaking formal conceit still makes for a stunning encounter with environmental writing 80 years after its initial release.

Storm opens upon a vision of “the great sphere of the earth” as seen from space before descending to two events that will become intertwined: a drought developing in Northern California and a collision of arctic and tropical air off the coast of Japan. The former leads to shifts in the agricultural futures markets, an uptick in the purchases of cattle feed, and a suicide, while the latter develops into a storm that the junior meteorologist at the San Francisco weather bureau will nickname Maria. Each chapter of the novel encompasses one day in the life of Maria, and Stewart fills each passage with an interlocking set of parts that will all inevitably be affected by the storm’s landfall.

The narrative’s camera eye sits at a far remove from its large cast of human characters, choosing to forgo psychological depth for a focus on the immense breadth of Maria’s impact. Stewart writes that most people “did not realize that the wind which blew upon [their] cheek was part of a planetary system,” and thus the novel attempts to tie together this collection of discrete experiences and make them appear whole. Yet Storm exceeds even the mesoscale of the weather, oscillating between narrative descriptions of geological time and ancient human life and the everyday goings-on of present-day commercial and domestic processes. The novel’s greatest success lies in the entropy of its narrative forces, its dramatic tensions arising from sources as varied as a careless gunshot that will hit a switch box and lead to a flooded underpass to a cedar tree beginning to sprout in 1579 that will eventually lead to a broken telephone line whose temporary disconnection will impact multiple lives. “The more you thought about which caused what,” the junior meteorologist’s boss muses to himself, “the more you felt cause and effect to be nothing except words—convenient to use at times, but not really meaning much.” On a scale this far removed, Maria is only one natural force encountering countless others, an average storm made extraordinary by Stewart’s insistence that we see it as more than a localized disruption: “Even aside from its cosmic effects the storm had thus vitally affected, in one way or another, the life of every human being in the region. It had accomplished all this without being itself catastrophic or even unusual.”

Storm, however, is as much a novel about infrastructure as it is about climate. Its focus continually revolves around the built world and the Sisyphean tasks of beating back the elements and maintaining normalcy. The novel demonstrates both the effects of human works upon the natural world and the limits of our autonomy against it. The coming storm cannot be held off, only prepared for and responded to by snowplow drivers, linemen, dam operators, railroad managers, and airport service officers. Even with all the incessant hand-wringing and anxious preparation, spontaneous accidents still occur and lives are still lost due to the ever-proliferating emergence of new variables impossible to have anticipated. “In the main, swayed by immediate need and convenience,” Stewart writes, “[humanity] remains through the long course of time careless of the struggle, planless.” This novel refuses any easy optimism at every point, highlighting instead just how precarious human existence looks from this wide angle. Storm throughout evinces eschatological undertones, convinced of the omnipresent imminence of ecological disaster and our inability or unwillingness to see it coming.

Storm was the first in a series of ecological works that Stewart would write, and the others possess a similar prescience. His 1948 novel, Fire, takes up the multitudinous effects of a Northern California wildfire, and his most famous novel, 1949’s postapocalyptic Earth Abides, focuses on the vain attempts to rebuild 20th-century civilization in the wake of an incredibly deadly pandemic. The giga-fires that now burn across the West present a danger orders of magnitude greater than what Fire imagines, just as the current megadrought across the West is different in kind from the California drought of Storm. One of the horrors of our era is the degree to which weather events are now so often both catastrophic and increasingly routine.

Thanks to climate change, all of the falling dominos so deftly portrayed by Stewart now have heightened knock-on effects, even as the managers of capital steadfastly refuse to take any step that may slow the accumulation of profit. But it is Stewart’s ability to enshrine our interconnectedness to our planet’s primordial past, to humanity’s past, and above all to everyone currently breathing our collective atmospheric commons that makes Storm such a vital and necessary read in our present moment. There is no escape from a world on fire, and the only means of addressing our shared crisis is to disavow the naive belief that some future deus ex machina will exert control over the climate and restore order. Stewart’s work demonstrates how such hubris is doomed to fail. Instead, we must recognize the sheer degree to which we are all held in thrall by the conditions of our natural world, that “drought or flood, cold winds and ice, heat, blown dust, shift of the storm track—in the end they overcome even the imperturbable machines.” To halt climate change requires the collective assertion that our atmosphere belongs to all of us, and its continued destruction foretells our own. Those who wish to tell this story must attend not only to the magnitude of the emergency but also to our own capacity to make the future unfold otherwise.

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