As part of its ongoing “Original Stories” series, Amazon has assembled a collection of climate-change fiction, or cli-fi, bringing a literary biodiversity to bear on the defining crisis of the era. This online compilation of seven short stories, called “Warmer”—containing work from a Pulitzer Prize winner (Jane Smiley) and two National Book Award finalists (Lauren Groff and Jess Walter), among others—offers ways of thinking about something we desperately do not want to think about: the incipient death of the planet.
There is something counterintuitive about cli-fi, about the fictional representation of scientifically substantiated predictions that too many people discount as fictions. The genre, elsewhere exemplified by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” brings disaster forcefully to life. But it is a shadowy mirror. Literature has always been a humanist endeavor: it intrinsically and helplessly affirms the value of the species; its intimations of meaning energize and comfort. But what if there is scant succor to be had, and our true natures are not noble but necrotic, pestilential? We have un-earthed ourselves. Yet we claim the right to gaze at our irresponsibility and greed through fiction’s tonic filter. The stories in “Warmer,” which possess the urgency of a last resort and the sorrow of an elegy, inhabit this contradiction. They both confront and gently transfigure the incomprehensible realities of climate change.
The collection starts in the near future and marches forward chronologically. The first two entries, “The Way the World Ends,” by Walter, and “Boca Raton,” by Groff, sketch our “before” or “before-ish” purgatory: weather systems in rebellion—a “swirling, greasy snow” in central Mississippi, rashes of hurricanes—but their effects pale in comparison to what characters dread is to come. (Catastrophes hinted at in some of the stories serve as backdrops for subsequent ones, as if to fold “now,” “soon,” and “after” into one continuous descent: an unhurried extinction-in-progress.) In Walter’s contribution, a hydrogeologist in her late thirties contemplates the idiocy of freezing her eggs when “one hundred percent of legitimate climate scientists believe the world to be on the verge of irreversible collapse.” In Groff’s story, a mother berates herself for having a daughter—a “terrible mistake she had made out of loneliness. The sheer selfish stupidity of bringing a child into the beginning of the end of the world as humans know it.” Both authors summon a sense of frustration and crashing despair, and an anguished appreciation for the beauty of life as it is, which proves inseparable from the beauty of the lie that that life will stretch on forever. One must give up on such beauty—one must not have children—and yet the tranquilizing pleasure of the world forbids it. After a storm, a student in Walter’s story notices “the clarity and richness, the way the air is imbued with moisture and the colors—the sky a soft white-blue, like a thing forgiven.”
Groff’s and Walter’s pieces are present-day snapshots; the next several tales in “Warmer” plunge the reader into “during” and “after”—climate change has further distorted society, and the collection’s aura of literary realism veers toward the speculative. Here, work from Jesse Kellerman, Edan Lepucki, and Sonya Larson conjures the oppressiveness of the heat, the desperate thrill of opening a freezer at the store. (“It used to get chilly right before dawn, Daddy told me. . . . Shiver was a word you could use.”) There are economies in which water is replacing cash; the lone, brilliant apparition of a tree; school classrooms where teachers of an older generation pine for what they lost, preaching activism and environmental responsibility to dirt-poor students. The stories think through details. (What would the billionaires do? Start a space colony.) And they feel through specific emotional textures, asking us to empathize with the generations we are now cursing through inaction. (In an Op-Ed for the Times, Michelle Alexander wondered whether Americans would approach the climate crisis differently if they believed in reincarnation.) Several authors foresee deep demographic rifts; hardened young people regard adults with contempt, confusion, and bitterness. (This is presaged in Groff’s tale, when a toddler stands “in the middle of the room, sucking her finger and glaring at her mother with her dark eyes.”) The ranks of those who can live comfortably are profoundly thinned. On Larson’s Long Island, the prospect of owning a fur coat seems laughable: Where would the animal come from? Where would the money come from? Where would the cold weather come from?
Kellerman’s entry, “Controller,” takes the form of an experiment, with climate as the independent variable. The same story unfolds three times, on the same January day, but at different temperatures. The subtle gradient alters details, down to whether a dog is alive or dead, and determines the pitch of the characters’ rages and resentments. (“The air had changed, no longer a palliative billow but deafening and full of wrath. . . . He might yet bend her to his will.”) The mechanics of the piece gesture at one reason that climate change can prove so tricky a literary topic. We metaphorize nature endlessly, converting its phenomena into reflections of ourselves. This process feels as unconscious as translating oxygen into carbon dioxide; it is difficult to pry out the autonomous meaning of the sky and the ground, to fight environmental battles on their own terms. For Groff (whose ocean, an alien wakefulness “chewing darkly on the sand,” should defy human comprehension, and yet is readily understood as avarice or mortality), our epistemic failures echo a failure to act, to respond. They have the weight of a spiritual failure. “She knew that she could not save her daughter, that there would be no saving,” Groff writes, borrowing the language of doomsday cults. “She would be left behind among the disappointed.”
Taken together, the stories in “Warmer” raise the question of whether a poetics of climate change exists. As with gun violence, the crisis demands a form of literary expression that lifts it out of the realm of intellectual knowing and lodges it deep in readers’ bodies. Novels about mass shootings often incorporate black humor, the dispersal of meaning through repetition, and a flat or deadened tone. The works in this collection feel less consistent in mood or manner, but they are similarly occupied by a shared set of challenges: the bigness, the unknowability, of the looming transformations, and how surreal it all seems, and how the author or reader might chart a path between hope and hopelessness. (“It’s one thing to hear adults say there’s no Santa,” a college kid thinks, in Walter’s story. “But to hear there’s no Future?”) Walter offers encouragement in the form of a student who suggests that “you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.” Groff seems to counter that all we can do is still not enough. As a whole, the collection clears a space between these two poles, in which the meaning of “enough” deforms like melting ice. Perhaps, after the elephants and the whales all die, it is enough to forestall the drowning of Hong Kong. Perhaps it is enough to see snow. “Enough,” as the stories progress, keeps contracting: into the ability to walk outside; into a bowl of mint-chip ice cream; into “oil floating on top” of a polluted lake, forming “little rainbows, swirling away in delicate circles.”
The irrepressibility of this “enough” is not surprising. Literature has long celebrated the flare of beauty in impoverished circumstances; it consoles us with echoes of our own resilience. Even Groff’s story cannot walk away from art. Rather, it achieves a wild, morose fineness, like an El Greco painting. To read “Warmer” is to remember that many people are kind and caring, and to see the last gasps of our life on Earth infused with tragic meaning. But one wonders whether fiction is capable of telling a different story, one in which an intelligent pandemic ravages a planet and destroys itself in the process. Such a tale—non-hominal, untellable—is an asymptote, but Jane Smiley’s “The Hillside” may inch closest. Smiley’s protagonist, a horse, befriends one of the last surviving humans in a lush equinocracy bounded by wasteland. The teen-age human is interesting and mischievous. She appears to plan ahead and to feel affection, but, during the winter, she disappears, and is found in springtime with her throat torn out. “The grass was thin but green,” Smiley writes, “and a few herbs were emerging here and there.” High Note, the horse, is preparing to have a foal. The human is lying at the base of a hill. “High Note stared at her and walked away.”