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McSweeney's tackles climate change, what we'll be like in 2040

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/16/20 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Climate

Ten short stories that appear in McSweeney’s #58 “Cli-Fi” issue explore the physical and emotional landscapes of a not-too-distant 2040 A.D.

A sub-genre of science fiction focused on how to live with climate change, the stories are grounded with climate science supplied by Natural Resources Defense Council, which serve as a jumping off point for stories that search for answers to questions both ordinary and extraordinary, like, what happens when we become a literal force of nature.

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What makes this collection resonant are the human dramas. As McSweeney’s Editor, Claire Boyle notes, “they unknowingly wrote toward a common center. Because, ultimately, the planet’s ecosystems are profoundly interlocked — and we as citizens of it are, in turn, similarly fastened to each other.”

The nature of a slow-moving crisis like climate change is the fear that no one is taking it seriously until it’s too late. As Rachel Heng writes in the opening piece, The Rememberers: “Time seemed to be moving backward, and this did not feel like an entirely unhappy thing. We’d spent so long worrying about what would happen when the waters came that when they finally did, it was a relief to find ourselves still here.”

‘Here’ in this case is the island nation of Singapore where Heng imagines life hanging on inside the concrete bunker of an underground city. Still life goes on, even if it is a virtual reality memory project that makes your aging parent happiest.

Tommy Orange in New Jesus, follows a couple drifting apart in Oakland, which has normalized wading through streets ankle-deep in sea water. As neighbors slowly disappear — onto houseboats or into the hills in religious communes — numb acceptance gives way to explosive self-realization. “I don’t know what it was about the fact that the water was rising and I didn’t care that it was. I’d never felt such a sense of dread and possible freedom at the same time before.”

In Ghost Town, Kanishk Tharoor spins a tale of an aging, Indian couple who foolishly stay behind in a climate-ravaged village and are rewarded by an important visitor to their onion farm. Iceland’s Birna Ann Bjornsdottir offers a meditation on family — when parents become erratic in To Everything, Tern Tern Tern. In 1740, Croatian writer Asja Bakic places an unreliable narrator at the center of a time travel story. She’s a mess, railing against capitalism but also the fly in the ointment in a plot to alter history from behind the Iron Curtain.

A muscular resistance is at the center of the thriller, Drones Above The Coral Sand, by Claire G. Coleman who fashions an eco-warrior tripping through the heart of darkness in Australia.

The Night Drinker by Luis Alberto Urrea is a poetic and explosive bit of mythologizing about Mexico City as the emotional center of the world to which refugees from the North are fleeing. The old gods, and their volcanic fire, have been awakened. “We, among the last western degenerates of the gone world before the lava made its way from the outskirts,” his protagonist, a history professor, says in confronting an ally of a destroyer god. “Wise people heading north, all the pilgrims climbing into the ruins thinking they might escape. We were connoisseurs of the end of days.”

Brooklyn, New York resident and Ethiopian native Michael Awake in The Good Plan has many smooth turns of phrase in a nightmare story that revolves around a family caught in a post-apocalyptic caste system that arrises from a global pandemic. “At first, the Crisis had come with no name, taking our father and his fields and the livestock and the ancestors’ promises, making each new day seem longer than the one before.”

He Are The People by Elif Shafak is the shortest but perhaps the most poignant piece. It is the story of a young girl whose grandmother is preaching patience as their house is occupied by climate refugees in a Turkey ruled by a dictator calling himself WeAreThe People. Shafak holds forth on demagogues: “They spoke well enough, though, words dark and heavy as river stones. The most fanatical among them kept telling us that the end was nigh and what did we expect given that we had erred so badly for so long and now it was too late and we all had to repent, repent. I was not going to do that. My generation was not responsible for this mess. I just wanted to live a decent, normal life.”

2040 A.D. ends on an Ohio farm where two climate refugees are reunited and duke it out in a Gilead like setting of haves and have nots in Save Yourself by Abbey Mei Otis. The lucky ones are being rocketed off world to Mars.

I finished 2040 A.D. with a sense of dread, though, I’m reaching for the optimism expressed by NRDC Chief Program Officer, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz who wrote in the introduction: “In our darkest moments — when we’re reminded of how much damage we might still do if we don’t get a handle on our carbon emissions — the impulse to give up hope is an understandable one. But in the wake of so many setbacks and so much bad news, my climate-movement colleagues and I have witnessed something truly remarkable. Once the shock has worn off and people have a chance to absorb the prognosis, they haven’t given up. Instead, amazingly, they’ve stepped up.”

Thankfully, now we can include the ten writers from 2040 A.D. in that group.

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