Johns Hopkins University Press

This paper examines a set of recent novels in which the problem of climate change is explicitly linked to global war and the security state. The next theater of war after or alongside the war on terror, they suggest, may well be an environment grown unpredictable because of human intervention. Drawing on Robert Marzec’s work on “environmentality,” it describes how novels like Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising (2012), Mark de Silva’s Square Wave (2016), and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) represent the future, past, and present of a world shaped by an “ecosecurity imaginary.” Additionally, the analysis links these narratives to scenario planning, nuclear dread, and slow violence to suggest, first, that we should expand a limited category like ‘cli-fi’ to include less obvious examples and, second, that we should consider fiction’s complicity with as well as critique of this militarized environmentalism. What is more, the analysis reveals the strong ties between this new, “hot war” and the Cold War, and identifies a shared suspicion of geo-engineering projects among contemporary writers.

Across a broad range of contemporary writings, the problem of global warming is explicitly connected to the problem of global war. In his pamphlet An American Utopia (2016), for instance, the world-renowned Marxist critic Fredric Jameson considers the present erosion of basic public services, the prospect of structural unemployment, and the loss of faith in traditional politics before concluding that the best way forward for American society is “the conscription of the entire population into some glorified National Guard” (29). This remarkable plea fits into a broader diagnosis in which “today, all politics is about real estate” (19)—that is, land and resources—and in which the best if not the most realistic strategy is argued to be “the wholesale seizure of all energy sources, the appropriation of the oil wells and the coal mines and the destitution of the immense transnational companies that control them,” especially, he adds, “in the era of climate change now upon us” (15). If we want to safeguard our collective future, in other words, we need to confront climate change and the best strategy to do so is to join a new “universal army” (25).

Ecology and security are also linked in the work of Roy Scranton. As he recalls at the start of his short book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the destruction visited on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reminded him of the time he drove into Baghdad in 2003 as a private in the US Army. The point of this parallel is not only that the chaotic aftermath of the Iraq invasion and the preparations for Katrina reveal “the same failure of planning and the same tide of anarchy” (14). Nor is it simply that bombs and storms burn away differences between cities (Baghdad and New Orleans) to reveal the same post-apocalyptic landscape. For his experiences as a soldier in the “damaged world” of Iraq also yield a crucial insight about life in the so-called Anthropocene (14). Our only hope for the future is to accept the end of our destructive way of life, in Scranton’s view, and all of us, even ordinary civilians, should therefore embrace a lesson at the heart of classic meditations [End Page 43] on war, namely that soldiers can only survive in the war zone, paradoxically, if they accept the “inevitability” of their own deaths (22). As noted by one of the main characters of Scranton’s related novel War Porn (2016), a soldier who used to be a “poet” (118), this insight plays a central role in the spiritual guidebook of the samurai, for instance, the so-called Hagakure: “[i]f by setting one’s heart right every morning, one is able to live as though already dead, [the samurai] gains freedom in the way” (80). Once again, if we want to safeguard our future, we need to confront climate change, and the best strategy to do that is to become soldiers and to adopt their stoic embrace of finitude—even when we are poets.

A final preliminary example is Claire Vaye Watkins’s “cli-fi” novel Gold Fame Citrus (2015), as one of its central characters has been to the so-called “forever war,” and readers are asked to sympathize with his perspective in a world characterized by rising temperatures, dwindling aquifers, and growing numbers of climate refugees. Ray’s interactions with his friend Luz reveal important flaws, but his mindset as a former “medic, sort of” is nevertheless attuned to their precarious life in a failing state (58), as is shown by his “patrol[s],” “procurement mission[s],” and many practical “lists” (55, 19, 18). Like Jameson and Scranton, to be clear, Watkins does not celebrate the army. Apart from the fact that Ray suffers from PTSD, a central plotline involves the threat that the army is about to take drastic action to stop the relentless march of an enormous, expanding dune sea in California, bombing it with nuclear devices akin to those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (208)—the added advantage of “Operation Glassjaw” being that it will turn the Southwest into an urgently needed repository for growing amounts of nuclear waste. This scenario is not as fanciful as it sounds, moreover, if one considers the real-life Yucca Mountain controversy or breathtaking plans from the past, like the proposal from the 1950s to create “a second Panama canal with the help of 300 nuclear explosions” or the idea from the 1960s to construct “a freeway across the Bristol Mountains in the Mojave Desert by exploding twenty-two nuclear devices” (Bonneuil and Fressoz 131, 132).

In juxtaposing these three examples of twenty-first-century writing, my point is not that they present the same views on the army or the environment (they do not) but that many contemporary authors explicitly link climate change and the war machine. If it is true that “the majority of novels about climate change include at least one scientist” (31), as Adam Trexler has argued in his overview of climate fiction, it is also true that many of them feature at least one soldier. Apart from Watkins’s Ray, readers may encounter the protagonist of Berit Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet (2015), a former sniper; the many military characters of China Miéville’s climate-change stories “Polynia,” “Covehithe,” and “Keep” (2015); or the mercenary from Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012), a “witness to the bloodiest wars forged by man’s satanic imagination” (135). Yet another example is the protagonist of [End Page 44] Nick Harkaway’s tragicomic novel Tigerman (2014), a sergeant who had been deployed in Afghanistan after “September 11th” (23) but is now stationed on a tropical island awaiting a sterilizing bombing campaign that aims to stop extreme chemical pollution from spreading into the oceans and making the entire planet “unfit for human life” (the notorious Bhopal disaster writ large) (28). In the minds of many, such stories indicate, the next theater of war after 9/11 may well be a global environment grown insecure through human intervention. Alongside the war on terror, we now find a war on nature.

If we wanted to describe this development in a way that stresses continuity too, we might label fiction dealing with this shift in geopolitical priorities “12/11 fiction”—alluding to the date in 1997 when the largely ineffective Kyoto protocol was adopted. Grouping these novels also enables us to develop the debate on the merits and limits of the 9/11 novel. As Richard Gray has argued, many early 9/11 novels end up “domesticat[ing]” the underlying geopolitical issues, as “cataclysmic public events are measured purely…in terms of their impact on the emotional entanglements of their protagonists…, reducing a turning point in national and international history to little more than a stage in a sentimental education” (134). Rather than domesticating external threats, Gray reflects, writers should embrace “a strategy of deterritorialisation [that] present[s] America as a transcultural space” (141). According to Gray, this means that literature should pay more attention to new immigrant experiences in the US, even though Michael Rothberg notes that another valuable strategy would be to leave “national-domestic space behind for riskier ‘foreign’ encounters” linked to “‘foreign’ wars” (157, 158). A closer look at recent US fiction reveals many such “geopolitical novels,” Caren Irr has shown, in which “public political questions” are explored in the context of “the global, rather than the domestic, scene” (6). Bearing in mind my earlier observations, I would add that a third way in which fiction after 9/11 can replace domesticating with deterritorializing strategies is by examining the convergence of ecological and military concerns in the US as well as abroad. At least some of these geopolitical novels might more accurately be labelled “geoenvironmental” novels or, as I suggested earlier, “12/11 fiction.” In the examples I mentioned before as well as in many others, contemporary literature indicates that climate change does not only involve destabilizing shifts in scale and a renewed attention to pollution, species extinction, and energy transition but also the militarized management of unruly environments, and its problems—an ecology/security nexus hinted at (if not fully developed) in publications by literary scholars on the “ecology of the aftermath” (Nixon) as well as on Dave Eggers (Masterson) and Sherman Alexie (Fraser). The subject is also mentioned in the introduction to a recent special issue on war and environment (Stenning and Walton), even though the contribution that deals with climate change fails to discuss contemporary literature (Tait). Clearly, the topic of climate war fiction can be developed in more literary, historical, and theoretical detail. [End Page 45]

To do so, we should first consider recent attempts to describe the historical as well as philosophical ties between global war and global weather. In a fascinating chapter of The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016), environmental historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz demonstrate that climate change is structurally connected to modern warfare; “the Anthropocene is also (and perhaps above all) a Thanatocene” (124), they argue, given the environmental footprint of wars and peacetime armies (sheer power being more important in this context than energy efficiency), the intimate ties between the military and the scientific community (which not only led to destructive technologies but also to global monitoring programs that revealed the planet’s vulnerability), and the ways in which past and present military needs continue to shape our global economic life (with postwar “petrolization” [138] and “civil consumption” [146] rooted in the industrial infrastructure first developed in World War II). In a more philosophical vein, Robert Marzec’s Militarizing the Environment (2015) draws on Michel Foucault as well as Paul Virilio to trace the connection between climate change and the security state in a series of steps. He begins by observing that the US military acknowledges and prepares for climate change—a “threat multiplier” that dangerously exacerbates existing tensions, in its view—leading to a strange hybrid phenomenon Marzec calls “militarized environmentalism” (223). If this seems like progress, it implies that the environment is reconceptualized, first, as resources (oil, water, food, etc.) to be secured and, second, as “the ultimate enemy combatant” (155). For our access to these resources is becoming unreliable, and this unstable “entity breaking down” (209) hence turns into the “next significant threat to national and global security” (29), calling for a new military-scientific project, that of closely monitoring and even “waging (peacetime) war on the environment” (161). At the same time, the army positions itself as the only agent that can rise above partisan disputes, “break through this blockage and take direct action” (196, emphasis in original), as illustrated in its rhetoric of hard facts and plain language. As this self-image shows, the “green military” plans to devote its resources to adapting to the consequences of climate change (which are seen to be inevitable) rather than mitigating its underlying causes (which are not interrogated, let alone addressed). And these ideas about the planet and the army indicate, according to Marzec, that we are witnessing the rise of what he calls “environmentality,” “the name for a militarized mentality...that commandeers a consciousness to…replace a rich, complex, multinarrative environmental history with a single ecosecurity imaginary for the post-Cold War, post-9/11 occasion” (4). If the US was secured by the so-called SAGE system in the Cold War, an integrated network of radar arrays that monitored the entire nation’s airspace, “environmentality” effectively extrapolates this mindset to the entire planet, creating a network of scientists and soldiers that tracks and defends those resources vital to the species—or at least its most privileged members. They position themselves, in Bonneuil and Fressoz’s phrase, as “masters [End Page 46] of world resources” (248). This mindset has a long prehistory, as Marzec’s phrase “ecoimperial ontology” (223) indicates; in his sweeping analysis, the tensions between ecosecurity and sustainability, militarized entrepreneurs and cooperative nomads, the panoptic prospect view and the view from below, is rooted in the history of the enclosure movement and its colonial follow-up, in which common land and public resources are increasingly privatized and made more secure as well as become, tragically, ever-more unavailable to the community and accident-prone.

Although both studies pay little attention to literature, these insights shed a powerful light on the strand of recent fiction I mentioned earlier—despite the fact that the new US administration marks a shocking return to structural climate denial, raising pressing questions about the future state of environmentality and the Thanatocene. My subsequent analysis of novels about war in the age of climate change consists of three parts—all of which relate to the preceding historical and philosophical arguments. First I consider the future more closely by examining scenario planning and expected resource wars, juxtaposing Gwynne Dyer’s nonfiction work Climate Wars (2008) with an eco-thriller about the scramble for the Arctic, Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising (2012). I then consider the prehistory of planetary war, summarizing Paul Saint-Amour’s analysis of total war discourse before applying his insights to Mark de Silva’s novel of ideas Square Wave (2016). As the first two case studies show, Southeast Asia and the tensions on the Indian subcontinent especially figure prominently in discussions of climate-related war. This is not surprising, for, as Amitav Ghosh has argued, “the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming: its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it” (87)—although we should not overlook that in this context as well, as Julia Adeney Thomas stresses, “‘Asia’ refuses to resolve into one coherent figure” (938) (though important to discussions of environmental war, I am not able to explore the unique situation of Vietnam here, for example). The final section explores the crucial setting of Southeast Asia further while turning to the present and exploring what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” and Christian Parenti the “catastrophic convergence” in Mohsin Hamid’s postcolonial novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). After we have learned about future scenarios, enclosure movements, and militarized dread, I will show, even a novel that appears unrelated to climate war acquires a crucial environmental dimension. As I have argued elsewhere, in papers on Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (De Bruyn 2017) and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (De Bruyn 2016), future research on climate change literature should hence move beyond the potentially limiting label of “cli-fi.” For the problems of the Anthropocene are not restricted to future upheaval or a specific subgenre but bleed across periods, countries, and genres alike. A close look at the 12/11 novels by Buckell, De Silva, and Hamid also reveals a recurring interest in geo-engineering as well as the continuing legacy [End Page 47] of the Cold War. Even if they do not feature all-out conflict, we might therefore say that these stories about security on a warmer planet deal with the threat of a global conflict that I will call the Hot War.

War Forecasting

Although it repays closer scrutiny, Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising (2012) appears to be a fairly typical techno-thriller. In the world of the novel, the Arctic is all but ice-free and this creates new opportunities for commercial shipping and resource extraction, leading to the rise of so-called “Arctic Tiger” nations as well as the creation of the underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. Although countries and individuals seem to be transitioning towards cleaner energy, a powerful corporation called Gaia—which should remind us of GAFA (Google Amazon Facebook Apple), I would argue, as well as James Lovelock—wants to turn the clock back through a unilateral geo-engineering project: the launch of a cloud of tiny spheres that can form a giant mirror able to deflect excess sunlight back into the universe, but that is also able to create a powerful ray that evaporates everything in its path. Established powers aim to foil that pro-environment plan as they have already adapted to the new situation and are concerned about the mirror’s military capabilities (which threaten to upset the existing balance of powers), and although the protagonist initially succeeds in derailing their counter-attack, the mirror’s misuse ultimately convinces her that an international nuclear strike on the cloud is the right strategy. At the end, the mirror is destroyed, the Arctic stays ice-free, and the planet remains fundamentally altered—which is helpful, as it creates further opportunities for novelistic exploration, Arctic Rising being the first instalment in a series.

As this summary indicates, Buckell’s novel appears to focus on the Northern hemisphere and to reimagine the Arctic, a region that is often celebrated for its otherworldly beauty. In part, the novel participates in this tradition, as when it describes an oil refinery in terms that make it strangely appropriate to the alien landscape—as “an industrial, post-apocalyptic sprawl of brutal architecture made more forbidding by the gray low hills of the island and the Arctic tundra, lit by the perpetual gray day and the sudden lightning-like orange bursts of fire from the stack tops” (289). But a more striking feature of Buckell’s novel is its emphasis on the new, everyday goofiness of a formerly nonhuman world that is being integrated into an all-too-human world of market forces and resource extraction. Like people in the tropics, the novel asserts, the citizens of the North favor bright colors, so “[p]urple facades and pink pastels fought back against the constant Arctic gray and the blear of the perpetual sun” (90). After the ice has melted, the Arctic is no longer shockingly nonhuman but acquires an ordinary quality, as if it is no longer sublime but merely “strange,” to use the term proposed by Benjamin Morgan. The novel not only reimagines this region of strategic importance but also hints at a broader, planetary perspective. For [End Page 48] the impact of climate change is not limited to this fictional Arctic but can also be seen in the fate of Nigeria and the Caribbean islands, the home countries of the two main characters, one of whom is a female pilot for the UNPG (the novel also refuses to embrace stereotypical representations of the Arctic in terms of Western masculinist exploration). More important for my purposes is that the novel intermittently refers to another geopolitical event that may or may not be tied to climate change, a past terrorist attack on Karachi, in which a nuclear bomb of the Pakistani army was detonated in the capital (188). As the protagonist reflects,

she’d grown up watching the before and after images of crowded Pakistani markets and streets on Lagos cable channels turned into flattened wasteland.… The famous photo of a woman with a veil half-melted onto her face, waiting for medical help outside a UN tent. A second century had tasted the hell of a nuclear event. Who could imagine more?


This is the specter the protagonist initially attempts to avoid before being reassured, rather easily in my view, that “the fallout” of the mirror-shattering strike in the Arctic “will be minimal here on the ground” (526). According to its own criteria, then, the protagonist of Buckell’s novel uses a disquieting solution to geopolitical strife to counteract a disquieting solution to ecological upheaval. But the main point for now is that the novel’s entire fictional world experiences the impact of climate change, leading to new threats and opportunities, new winners and losers.

This is the world of scenario planning, a corporate and military practice that has received attention from many literary scholars, including Annie McClanahan, Matthew Eatough, Daniel Grausam, Lindsay Thomas, and R. John Williams—though only Thomas pays extended attention to climate change. In Eatough’s elegant description, the practice of proposing and comparing various “scenarios” in military and corporate think tanks is “a strategic planning method that purports to examine objects whose time scale extends far into the future: the economy, the environment, long-term evolutions in state policy” (589). This method is necessary for corporations as well as armies, as large-scale engineering projects require multigenerational commitments and you cannot do live-action exercises in nuclear war (at least, sane people wouldn’t want to). Addressing these problems, scenario planning is an exercise in storytelling on the part of policymakers: “participants craft a number of different future worlds that they then use to judge how they will act both in the present (to guide themselves toward a desired scenario) and in the future (when such scenarios may take place, whether they want them to or not)” (594). That such exercises are relevant for climate change and environmental war is shown by Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars (2008). This work of nonfiction recapitulates the main aspects of the climate problem, all of them familiar by now: we are simply emitting too much greenhouse gases; natural carbon sinks [End Page 49] extracting excess CO2 are proving less effective; the long half-life of these gases means we are locked into a process of climate change for the coming decades, irrespective of immediate action; politicians are dragging their feet and will be even more reluctant to cooperate once the full impact is felt on available stores of food, water, and energy; and geo-engineering responses are fraught with practical and conceptual difficulties but probably unavoidable. Crucial for my purposes is that this summary of climate science is interspersed with eight fictional but scientifically “plausible” scenarios, as Dyer puts it (xiii), outlining the expected state of various countries in the coming century and the resulting strategic challenges.

These scenarios show considerable overlap with the world of Arctic Rising; just consider the hypothesis that people will be moving toward “the shores of the Arctic Ocean” (251) or the expectation that Western powers will proclaim “that any country that attempts to intervene in the climate unilaterally will face an attack with nuclear weapons” (225). What is more, it imagines nuclear war in Northern India based on imbalances in the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, fatally exacerbated by climate change. The point is not that these scenarios are accurate predictions, even though it is distressing to read, in one passage, that millions of immigrants from the drought-ravaged Mediterranean region will force EU countries to abandon the principle of free movement in 2039 (186). Like a true scenario planner, Dyer underlines the fictional quality of these short stories, rejecting one sketch as “too melodramatic” (252) and concluding a hopeful narrative with a quintessentially literary ending, in which an anonymous editor notes that the preceding “curious document” was retrieved by divers from what used to be London, adding that “[o]ur knowledge of early 21st-century history is inevitably patchy, given the level of destruction that occurred in the latter part of the century, but it is unlikely that the events described in this document ever actually occurred” (163, italics in original). Nonetheless, these imaginative exercises reveal that the world of Arctic Rising fits within the parameters established by scenario planning and, more generally, that this is a crucial context for attempts to think about climate change and global war simultaneously.

Literary scholars working on this topic have identified some of the problems associated with scenario planning, like its disquieting ties to the nuclear arms race and neoliberal austerity programs, its tendency to turn possible paths into inevitable outcomes requiring preemptive responses, its systematic reduction of high-impact choices to binary, either/or decisions, and its assumption that all participants will ultimately behave in a rational, well-calculated manner. And predictably, literature is usually cast as a slower, embodied form of scenario thinking whose longevity and intimacy yield a more humane conception of the future. How does Arctic Rising and climate war fit into this argument? At the end of the novel, Tobias Buckell expresses his hope that an ice-free Arctic will still shock its future readers (it doesn’t) before thanking Paolo Bacigalupi, [End Page 50] acclaimed author of similar works of cli-fi, as well as a more surprising source of literary inspiration, the US military:

More big thanks go to the various branches of the military that release publicly funded studies and foresight materials online where greedy little authorial minds like mine can hunt them down for future idea mining. Most of the this book came from reading about what those dudes are worried about. The amount of time they spend worried about peak oil and how to run armies on solar power, you’d think the armed forces were a bunch of hippies who wanted to run their Humvees on fry oil. Certainly, one thing I came to find is that there is a massive disconnect between people who study the future, whether it be scientists...or military strategists...and politicians and talking heads who seem to think there aren’t some challenges around the corner.


In other words, the military (all those dudes and hippies) is an unexpected ally in thinking about climate wars, like Marzec says, and the narrative of Arctic Rising can be seen as an extension of the results of scenario planning.

If Buckell’s acknowledgment subtly suggests that novels are nevertheless not scenarios, that suggestion is amplified in the work itself, which explicitly mentions war games at various points in the story. When asked about the purpose of a nuclear device in the newly contested Arctic, for example, a shadowy figure retorts: “Use your God-given imagination, Ms. Duncan. I can think of fifteen worst-case scenarios where Canada’s enemies could creatively destroy everyone’s interests out here. You remember Karachi?” (257). The Gaia corporation practices scenario planning too, though the difference between armies and corporations seems moot: “We started Gaia in college making world-class simulation software for governmental agencies,” one of its two founders notes, continuing that “[w]e were gaming scenarios like what would happen if the oceans rose by so many inches, or what if the temperature rose by a certain percent....Our clients were mainly military; they had some of the best foresight studies regarding the loss of Arctic ice and global temperature change” (441). These simulations explain Gaia’s success, as they enable it to become “the largest energy and water company in the world” (443). But when one of the two founders (think Jeff Bezos with guns) finally snaps and opts for a military confrontation with the world’s powers, militarizing the mirror and using it to force geo-engineering on everyone, to the dismay of the novel’s protagonists, the reason for his behavior turns out to be scenario planning too. As the co-founder, another woman in a novel full of strong women, confesses:

I should have seen this coming. Ivan and I have been running…scenarios for so long. He’s focused on all the bad things that have happened, all the deaths from ecological collapse, for so long. All the failures of politicians to do anything....And now he has a tool that he thinks will let him achieve his life’s goals. Who could turn away from that?

(500–01) [End Page 51]

One of the lessons, then, is that “it’s one thing to run simulations” involving international war but “another to actually do these things” (489), acting as if people really are faceless actors in a game of cold calculation. Underlining this point, the commander of the coalition forces concedes that this crisis reveals all of their plans to be useless (see 523). In line with earlier analyses, then, we might conclude that this literary narrative underlines the limitations of official forms of scenario planning.

There are several complications, however. The first is that Buckell’s novel, despite its critique of scenario planning, assumes that at least certain players involved in the military standoff on the Arctic will weigh different options and make humane decisions that reject both the big picture environmentalism of Gaia as well as the cold statistics of utilitarian arguments—and that involve nuclear weapons. When someone proposes that we need to save “millions of lives” threatened by future climate change even if it means sacrificing “a handful of soldiers, people doing their jobs who know it’s risky” (510), the protagonist encourages us to disagree, providing arguments for the position that “geo-engineering sucks for solving these issues” (515). Even Arctic Rising’s extended, literary “scenario” hence suggests that military conflict and the use of force, by Gaia as well as the international coalition, is finally based on reason and arguments. As I mentioned, in fact, there is a remarkable volte-face in the novel’s latter half when the protagonist accepts a different set of arguments, in favor of destroying the mirror, and abandons the emotional quest to avenge her murdered co-pilot. Indeed, the revenge plot gradually disappears, and neither the co-pilot nor his wife are mentioned in the novel’s second half—as if to suggest that there is no room for emotion here.

Even more problematic is that this seemingly rational conflict involves the supposedly surgical application of nuclear weapons. This is a disquieting turn, as Buckell’s protagonists are hence willing to try every item in the military toolkit (in contrast to the main character of Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet, who finally refrains from using his military skills for environmental purposes and allows his high-powered rifle to sink in the ocean, “sailing back and forth like a black feather, before being swallowed up by the deep” [198]). Perhaps even more importantly, Arctic Rising ends up suggesting that the hypothetical threat of a meteorological weapon in the future justifies the existence of undeniably devastating nuclear weapons in the present. Indeed, as Jacob Hamblin has shown, the 1978 ENMOD treaty banning environmental modification for military purposes (violated in Buckell’s novel, you might say, by Gaia’s mirror) was partly designed by world powers to allow for business as usual in terms of nuclear deterrence. The fear of wildly impractical biological, chemical, and meteorological weapons has already been exploited in the past, in other words, to make people forget the existence of chillingly efficient nuclear bombs. On the altered planet of Buckell’s novel, similarly, not only the Arctic sublime but [End Page 52] the nuclear sublime as well appears to be muted, bomb as well as landscape becoming merely strange, frighteningly ordinary. Although it hints at the importance of international cooperation, it could hence be argued that Arctic Rising does too little to counteract militarized responses to climate change, which assume conflicts to be rational and nuclear arsenals to be indispensable (and the latter assumption effectively transforms this planetary challenge into a national concern, inhibiting rather than promoting international cooperation, as Joe Masco has argued).

Complicating matters further, the narrative implies that these rational calculations with planetary implications happen at truly dizzying speeds. In Lindsay Thomas’s analysis of preparedness and duration in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, she argues that emergency management doctrine reduces long-term processes like climate change to momentary events while promoting a feeling of “ready detachment” on the part of officials (161), combining continual alertness with cool neutrality. By contrast, Thomas continues, the Mars trilogy trains its readers to consider climate change as an ongoing process calling for “continual phenomenological engagement” (178). But that is not what happens in Buckell’s novel. Arctic Rising may be long but it does not draw out its fictional scenario or linger over descriptions of the landscape, rather choosing to stage almost comically fast, last-minute decisions, and hair-breadth escapes on the part of fit bodies running on adrenaline. Clearly, the effect here is closer to continual alertness. Time and again, things have to happen in mere minutes or even seconds (547), requiring stress as well as a “muscle language” that sits uneasy with the novel’s implicit belief in rational debate (393). Despite the fact that the novel criticizes its main villain for being “tired of the long fight” and wanting to get things done now (489), the same attitude is apparent in the book’s plot and pace. Bearing in mind Enda Duffy’s magisterial account of speed culture, the most striking thing about Buckell’s novel may hence be its impatience and its “adrenaline aesthetic”; in many respects it reinforces the idea that “[t]he best person [is] to be not the one who th[inks] out the choice rationally to make the best decision, or fe[els] its possible consequences most intensely with the most profound feeling, but the one who le[aves] the least possible time between seeing, choosing, and acting,” rejecting “slowing-down doubt” in favor of “physical-body-evidenced decisiveness” (Duffy 195). Despite its critique of scenario planning, it could hence be argued that Arctic Rising embraces some of its tenets too, encouraging its readers to think that nuclear weapons remain a necessary component of the army’s arsenal and that military conflicts revolve around arguments, even at high speed. Ultimately, its critical message is outpaced by its plot. In contrast to what other critics suggest, in short, not all forms of literature resist, or successfully resist, the military mindset of scenario planning and emergency management. [End Page 53]

Atmosphere of Anxiety

In turning to the second case study, Mark de Silva’s novel of ideas Square Wave (2016), we are not completely abandoning the world of scenarios. As Daniel Grausam has argued in an analysis of early postmodern literature, games of skill frequently functioned as reassuring metaphors in a postwar culture whose survival depended on ever-more complex simulations involving nuclear war. With this background in mind, he claims, postmodern fiction’s interest in rules, permutations, moves, and countermoves appears as a sharp critique of this potentially catastrophic culture of simulation rather than its allegedly elitist, narcissistic evasion. Although De Silva’s novel fits into a later context, it wears its postmodern influences on its sleeve, the work of Thomas Pynchon especially. What is more, it occasionally reiterates this earlier literature’s paranoid fascination with games, rules, and, however obliquely, geopolitical stalemate. When the protagonist visits a billiards hall attacked by terrorists or by a secret government group pretending to be terrorists (an elusive game, again, of moves and counter-moves), we find this description:

The cues were in three and four pieces, ragged spikes of maple shorn by an undetermined force. Several of the tables closest to Stagg were on their knees, half their legs having been blown off at the joints….Most [of the balls] were numbered, stripes and solids, meant for games of eight- and nine-ball. There was also a small share of unnumbered balls, continuous pinks, reds, blacks, greens….In the back of the hall…lay the remains of a table of great dimensions—for snooker, and billiards as well, judging by the white ball resting against its edge. The table had lost all its legs and lay flat on the ground.…The plane of the table was still flat and smooth…Stagg thought it looked as though it were meant for a different game entirely, perhaps one played with clubs instead of cues; or if not that, then a kind of billiards where players lie prone like snipers to shoot. The posture might not suit the billiards clientele. But then, he thought, they did enjoy the hunt traditionally.


Before returning to the hunt, we should unpack the other elements of this passage. First, it indicates that the strange conflict taking place in the fictional city of Halsley is mainly psychological, even if the anthropomorphizing opening emphasizes its violence through the description of dismembered billiards tables. It also reveals a fascination with games and their rules, mentioning eight-ball, nine-ball, snookers, and billiards, and lingering over the description of differently colored balls. Spelling out that such games are formally parallel to the paranoia-inducing conflict taking place in the city, the character finally imagines “a different game entirely,” which does not involve cues but clubs or even sniper rifles, turning this seemingly harmless game into a miniature version of a high-tech military conflict that spills out onto civilian spaces like the billiards hall. Indeed, the multifunctional table already invites a real-world reading of these games, as it has remarkably “great dimensions” and is now lying on the actual ground rather than [End Page 54] towering above the everyday fracas—while still inviting play on its “flat and smooth” surface. Though we should not overlook the difference between the historical moments alluded to in De Silva’s work and in early postmodern fiction, we can hence conclude that Square Wave not only shares its interest in experimental prose but also its attunement to a culture of war games and simulations.

One of the ways in which the novel moves beyond its predecessors lies in how it develops this concern about war. The story, involving simmering tensions in what the jacket calls “a factionalized America,” intersects with plotlines involving the colonial history of Sri Lanka as well as militarized weather experiments in India—an interest in history with an explicit environmental dimension, as the reference to the hunt (not to mention a “stag”) already indicated. If Arctic Rising develops its interest in environmentality and the Thanatocene by stressing future climate wars, in other words, Square Wave turns to its roots in colonial exploitation as well as to the more recent history of militarized science. Bearing in mind this brief characterization, De Silva’s work is clearly an example of how recent novels “begin with postmodernism,” as Adam Kelly puts it, before twisting its clichéd tropes and themes (the palimpsest, the simulacrum, the endless present, political paralysis, waning affect) in ways that underline the institutional life of writing (dealing with a novel-in-the-making and a semi-academic research institute, Square Wave reveals recent literature’s debt to what Mark McGurl has influentially called “the program era”) as well as, more important here, the recalcitrant materiality of history and reality.

Though I cannot do justice to its complexity here, the novel-in-the-making deals with the struggles of Dutch, English, and Portuguese soldier/merchants who want to acquire valuable resources and establish global trade in Sri Lanka, with one character starting a small business even while he is a captive (apparently, you should never waste an opportunity to turn a profit). At a certain point, this employee of the East India Company comes across a collection of maps, prime instruments of environmentality, and reflects on their “martial and commercial value” (196). One of these maps is buried in a jester’s face:

A hood…was pulled tight around the world-face. It merged with the jester’s suit, which was in the same colors, trimmed with gold piping, and decorated with medallions at the shoulder, as a ranking army officer’s might be.…The picture didn’t give away its tragic element easily, though Rutland’s heart sank infinitesimally the longer he stood over it, studying the geography of a clown’s face.


If Timothy Clark has pointed out that the frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651 edition) is an apt illustration of “Man” in the Anthropocene (15–16), this tragicomic map does much the same work—while pointing [End Page 55] towards environmentality and the Thanatocene, through the jester’s military accouterments. Although this colonial narrative deserves more attention, climate war plays a more explicit role in the storyline involving military weather experiments by scientists from India, a fictional reflection on the type of projects described by historians like Hamblin and banned by the ENMOD treaty.

These meteorological experiments have a humanitarian dimension too, De Silva’s novel indicates, but their description already implies that they construe the environment as an enemy combatant, monitoring, targeting, and attacking it, in the name of human gain if not (yet) explicit military purposes. As one character recalls, “My father would give the order, as if to a firing squad, and the clearest of skies would be filled with flames.…Even through earplugs… and even full well knowing the cannons were about to fire, they surprised you with their force” (226). Another passage features similar violence against the environment—here reduced to an unreliable resource machine—tying these military experiments to a more familiar conflict:

There was the time, too, they set the sea on fire. This was even before they torched the forests of Orissa…for a moment, under the midday sun, a translucent, rolling red overlay the aquamarine of shallow bay water.…They kept the burn alive by piping fuel in just beneath the surface of the water…. No correlation with rain emerged….The sight of the flaming pools would stay with Ravan, though. They reminded him of the burning oil wells of Iraq, from the second American war there, though the flames had less clear purpose then.


Not unlike Tigerman, this remarkably colorful passage (with its reds, aquamarines, flames) ties war to the environment and links manipulated weather to the global war on terror. There is an environmental cost to consider in these military experiments, the character reflects, thinking of the inevitable oil spill but also of the smoke, “possibly an aid to rain but certainly a pollutant” (76). As he rightly asks later: “Had we only done more damage to the climate was the question” (227–28). And if these experiments sound fantastical, De Silva points us toward historical examples, including “Project Gromet, back in the ‘60s, the first large-scale weather mod attempt in India” (224) and the “brute force techniques” of operation FIDO in the United Kingdom, a World War II operation that helped to keep the Royal Air Force airborne by trying to burn away persistent fog (228). When talking about “concussive strikes on moist air fronts,” in fact, the character asserts that these experiments followed in the footsteps of work done by scientists including none other, supposedly, than the father of Thomas Pynchon (225, 226). De Silva’s novel can thus be read as an updated postmodern novel of ideas, which replaces the German-made V2 missiles of Pynchon’s classic with Indian-made “weather rockets” (346) capable of creating and dispersing [End Page 56] much-needed rain clouds as well as devastating storms. Though it doesn’t succeed in every respect—like Jeanne-Marie Jackson, I would draw attention to “the almost too-obvious neglect of substantial female characters,” for instance—Square Wave wants to be Gravity’s Rainbow for the age of climate change.

For my present purposes, we should pay special attention to two aspects of De Silva’s multifaceted novel, namely its evocation of dread and of infrastructure. To grasp the first point, we should begin by considering Paul Saint-Amour’s account of total war discourse in the early twentieth century and the critical responses of writers including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. A compelling tour of the interwar period, Saint-Amour’s Tense Future (2015) traces the emergence of airpower, its unequal implementation in the colonies and the metropolitan center, and the ways in which the looming threat of aerial bombardment created a condition of dread that reverses a more familiar chronology by inflicting “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” on the civilian population (7–8). As Saint-Amour shows, this peculiar form of dread created anxiety over the continued existence of the archive and the future collapse of human culture, leading concerned writers to counteract total war discourse with non-totalizing forms of encyclopedic fiction like Ulysses (1922). This account of interwar culture fits into a much broader historical trajectory, moreover, seeing that this cultural condition prefigures the nuclear dread of the Cold War and, I would add, the similarly proleptic, anticipatory form of mourning typical of climate change fiction. Not unlike Grausam’s work on simulation, Saint-Amour’s account of dread hence deals with the cultural impact of the nuclear condition, and it is no coincidence, as I have already suggested, that the Cold War keeps resurfacing in attempts to think and write about global war and global warming (and note that the ties between climate change and nuclear culture are discussed further in a 2013 issue of diacritics edited by Karen Pinkus).

I will here single out one aspect of Saint-Amour’s analysis: the idea that one of the ways in which dread registers in fiction is via the creation of a particular type of suspense, in which we are constantly waiting for terror to strike. Comparing the earlier sensation fiction of Wilkie Collins to the modernist fiction of Virginia Woolf, Saint-Amour observes that both forms of writing create an “atmosphere of foreboding” (100). There is a crucial difference between Collins and Woolf, though. Sensation fiction is a “speed technology” (remember Duffy) in which the “reader of these texts experiences a quickening not just of pulse and respiration but also of hermeneutic pace” before arriving at a final resolution (101). This “terminal suspense” differs sharply from the “perpetual” suspense evoked by Woolf and her peers (99):

The modernisms…that descend from the work of Collins and others will be less exclusively reliant on the revelatory throb of plot because they recognize [End Page 57] structures of imminence that always exceed what plot can discharge. But what they put in place of the suspense plot also comes from sensation fiction: an energy-system based on the copresence of instantaneity and prolonged apprehensiveness.


Vulnerable citizens were constantly anticipating a devastating air strike and that unrelenting state of dread is similar to the peculiar type of suspense we find in certain literary texts, in which the thrilling but ultimately reassuring cliffhangers of suspense plots are replaced with a low-level but unending form of anxiety in which anticipation of massive trauma bleeds into quotidian life and its seemingly becalmed literary registration. In such a way, Saint-Amour concludes, modernist writing “registered the everyday’s unsafeness” (102). We still inhabit this condition, of course, seeing that we remain on the alert for terror to strike—listening for sirens, anticipating a terror attack, fearing the flash flood, the perfect storm. Even when environmental disasters strike, we may end up hearing “[a]ir-raid sirens…sirens that hadn’t been tested in a decade or more,” as we read in Don DeLillo’s classic White Noise (115). So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Woolf’s perpetual suspense returns in more recent fiction.

In fact, the distinction between Collins and Woolf is similar to the one between Buckell and De Silva—which makes sense, given the latter’s programmatic attack on “leisure fiction” and “unputdownable prose.” We can even reuse the precise words used by Saint-Amour. In the “speed technology” that is Arctic Rising the reader “experiences a quickening not just of pulse and respiration but also of hermeneutic pace,” and even though the planet’s problems are not completely over, there is in the end a clear resolution of the geoengineering crisis involving Gaia. By contrast, Square Wave is “less exclusively reliant on the revelatory throb of plot because [it] recognize[s] structures of imminence that always exceed what plot can discharge,” leading to a form of “perpetual” rather than “terminal” suspense, seeing that De Silva’s novel leaves many of its major plotlines unresolved (not to mention that it too can be seen as a non-totalizing form of encyclopedic writing). If there is a lot of build-up in the novel (involving the terrorist attacks and the looming election, for instance), there is not always a clear payoff, a final resolution. This is especially clear at the end, when one of the main characters takes a plane out of the city because a major, perhaps intentionally designed, storm threatens to wreak considerable havoc. But the novel ends before the hurricane arrives, keeping the reader trapped in limbo, uncertain as to the outcome (distinguishing the book’s conclusion from the similar endings of Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet and Ben Lerner’s 10:04). Indeed, it is no coincidence, I want to argue, that the book ends with a highly ambiguous sentence about a female passenger on the plane, who is writing but then stops: “[s]he paused…wondering, he supposed, how to continue, just as the finest point bloomed before them both” (374). Even if it [End Page 58] were clear that the storm arrives as expected, moreover, that would not be an unambiguous resolution. As one character puts it, this unprecedented hurricane would not be dangerous because of “its size or speed” but because it “could create a kind of…imbalance…in the atmosphere, one we haven’t quite seen before. It could last for days, even weeks after the storm’s officially dead” (368). Even after the storm, the storm would persist—as would the citizen’s suspense. The storm, that is, would be climate change writ small, a nonhuman form of “air power.”

If Square Wave and Arctic Rising differ in certain respects, there are similarities too. In both cases, their reflections on the army and the planet return to ideas from the Cold War and try to resist the ecosecurity mindset, by criticizing scenario planning or by evoking an unterminated form of suspense. Crucial for my purposes here, both novels are also critical of geo-engineering projects, however well-intentioned. The pro-planet mirror in Buckell’s novel turns out to be dangerous, and we hear more about the military than the humanitarian applications of the cloud seeding experiments in De Silva’s work. Like other stories about climate change, it could therefore be argued that they deal with public infrastructure large and small, as I have suggested elsewhere (De Bruyn 2017). As far as Square Wave is concerned, it does not only reflect on spectacular feats of geo-engineering but also on more mundane types of infrastructure. At a certain point, the writer-protagonist witnesses the effects of another terrorist attack, on a waste processing facility, and if the language here explicitly recycles clichés of postmodernist thought (deferred meaning, inaccessible origins), the book’s broader investigation of environmentality and militarized infrastructure indicates that this is only where its analysis begins:

The source of the foul water seemed to be only a few buildings down at the turn in the alley. The trouble would be over once he’d cleared it.…Things went the same way with this building, though, and the one at the turn after too. For a time the source seemed always deferred. Stagg’s incredulity grew with…each false origin, as the air grew fouler and the water flowed stronger and thicker with sediment.


If texts and their meanings cause us trouble, this late postmodernist novel indicates, so do terror and empire, and so do clean as well as foul water.

Slow-Motion War

As the previous sections have shown, environmental war fiction deals with the future as well as the past, encouraging us to reflect more closely on scenario planning and related, literary forms of critique as well as complicity in the first case, and inviting us to return to the long histories of ecoimperial thought and nuclear dread in the second. As with climate change, however, we should never forget that climate war is not just a thing of the future or the past but of the present too. If Dyer’s work of nonfiction deals with future eco-conflicts, [End Page 59] and Hamblin and Saint-Amour explore the prehistory of planetary war, present-day climate conflict is the topic of Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos (2011). Discussing systemic violence in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and Mexico, Parenti argues that we are witnessing a “catastrophic convergence,” in which the “current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence” (7, emphasis in original), unstable weather compounding long-standing problems resulting from Cold War proxy wars as well as neoliberal economic policies. Between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer we now find the “Tropic of Chaos,” he asserts, a geographic chain of failing states that find themselves on the frontlines of climate change, unarmed (9, emphasis in original). Nor should they expect much help in the future, Parenti adds, as the rich North is adopting the “politics of the armed lifeboat” in response to climate change, the same form of “green authoritarianism” discussed in more philosophical and historical detail by Robert Marzec (11). Deeply troubling on a moral and political level, Parenti’s account is also interesting because it enables us to see that climate war is not just present in stories about future resource conflicts (like Arctic Rising) or about the legacies of ecoimperial mindsets (like Square Wave) but also in narratives about ongoing conflicts and simmering tensions in the tropic of chaos—and the latter again indicate that the Hot War (or, more accurately, many “small” hot wars that are structurally similar) is related to its Cold predecessor. Including Parenti’s insights here is important because it enriches the cultural archive related to climate war and helps to expand the category of cli-fi beyond narratives that explicitly tackle climate change. Given the scale and urgency of the problem for people living in the tropic of chaos, in fact, it might be argued that every work of literature set in these countries deals with resource conflicts and climate change on some level. As the last but by no means least step in this analysis, we should hence consider the global South further—bearing in mind Rob Nixon’s related account of “slow violence” as well as David Farrier’s analysis of “hydropolitics” in literature.

As we have seen, fiction about climate war often mentions Southeast Asia and especially the “conflict system,” to use Parenti’s phrase, involving India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (52)—even cropping up in a novel dealing with the polar region like Arctic Rising. It is not hard to see why the Indian subcontinent attracts so much attention, seeing that it is expected to face severe water stress in the coming decades due to climate change, that this threatens to exacerbate imbalances in the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, and that the nuclear standoff between these countries adds considerable drama to the mix. Indeed, when novelists try to imagine the region’s future, as in Ian Macdonald’s River of Gods (2004), it is unsurprising to find that water scarcity and water war play a role in the narrative—even if alternative sources of energy and the threat of artificial intelligence turn out to be more central to this particular novel, arguably displacing a problem that has only grown more [End Page 60] pressing in the intervening years. But I would like to focus on the present here, and suggest that we should not just adopt a futuristic mode of reading when it comes to climate change and climate war, as critics have argued, in which we travel to a fictional future to witness the consequences of our present mistakes, but also a presentist one, in which we scrutinize a fictional present to identify early intimations of those disastrous futures. If thinking about climate change involves a comparison of present and future states, literary works can address the topic by emphasizing the future part of that comparison but also by hinting at the apocalypse-in-the-making now.

That such readings can be productive is shown by a closer look at my final case study, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and its representation of slow violence, the security state, and water scarcity (and note that the novel’s title, like that of Buckell’s work, already stresses shifting geopolitical conditions). Narrated in the second person and set in an unspecified country in Southeast Asia (two strategies that amplify the representative, generic quality of the story), Hamid’s novel is presented as a self-help book that imparts lessons to its readers while telling the life stories of a poor boy who gradually becomes a successful businessman and the “pretty girl” (the novel’s words) he encounters at various stages in his life. And at first sight, the novel does not appear to be relevant to my analysis, seeing that it does not discuss either war or weather at great length. Even a capacious view of cli-fi would have difficulty including this work. It cannot be denied, however, that the book frequently refers to “slow violence,” alerting the reader to the global poor’s uneven exposure to polluted water (7) and toxic fumes (29), for instance. As this implicit socioenvironmental critique is couched in a mock-serious story about a rule-bending protagonist, Hamid’s novel might even be described as an instance of the “environmental picaresque,” to use Rob Nixon’s phrase. Underlining the story’s ecological dimension, the story ultimately revolves around hydropolitics, seeing that the protagonist becomes a successful “water industrialist” in the context of a drought-stricken “rising Asia” (169). Nor is war as absent as it seems, for the novel frequently refers to fear of terrorism, a form of dread that leads to tight security measures, as the book indicates (104, 144, 183). That these references to the post-9/11 world are not incidental is suggested, further, by the fact that Hamid has authored a famous 9/11-novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). And if we examine these references to water and war more closely, we will find that the inhabitants of this fictional Southeast Asian world live in the shadow of a future war that is somehow taking place already, one that involves dread of the desert as well as the bomb. Like Arctic Rising and Square Wave, in other words, How to Get Filthy Rich is an example of 12/11 fiction, a geoenvironmental novel.

Let’s start with war before returning to water. One of the novel’s chapter headings, which double as lessons in the overarching self-help narrative, reads “patronize the artists of war” (157), and it is therefore not surprising that the [End Page 61] section in question often refers to the military. We might still not be prepared, however, for how strongly this military mindset penetrates the narrative. At one point in the chapter, the novel tracks the movements of its main characters—the businessman is attending his brother’s funeral across the country, while his elusive love interest is leaving the country on a jet plane—in a way that is similar to how a military surveillance system like SAGE, which I discussed earlier, monitors potential threats to a country’s airspace:

[The jetliner] is picked up by the radar of a warship in international waters, identified as a commercial flight posing no immediate threat, and then for the most part ignored, the naval vessel using its antennae to continue to sniff the pheromone-like emissions of electrons wafting from coastal military installations instead.…At roughly the same altitude, albeit far inland, an experimental unmanned aerial vehicle cruises in the opposite direction.… On the outskirts of the city over which this drone is today validating its performance parameters, a crowd is gathering at a graveyard. [One of the mourners] now commences to sob….He looks up to the heavens. The drone circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on.


The novel here adopts the perspective of a soldier following enemy movements across the landscape or, perhaps more accurately, given the eerily dispassionate tone, it adopts the point of view of the radar or the unblinking drone itself or, putting an even finer point on it, that of the overarching military surveillance system that integrates their data. This is the narrator as SAGE system. In adopting this airborne point of view, Hamid’s novel uses a strategy akin to Woolf’s use of the airplane in Mrs Dalloway, as analyzed by Saint-Amour: “[a]ffiliated with the airplane’s mobility and capacity for penetrating overview, the narrator admits the machine into her own airspace in order either to imitate it or to outperform it in the registers of…high-resolution seeing” (116). This chapter from Hamid’s novel features many similar passages, moreover, describing things “as seen through helipad security cameras” (173) and drawing attention to the pretty girl’s computer, which is infected by “a military program that allows the machine’s built-in camera and microphone to be activated and monitored remotely… transforming the laptop…into a covert surveillance device or, depending on the intent of the administrator…, into an originator of voyeuristic striptease and porn” (169). We might conclude that the UAV passage reveals a critical interest in “drone form,” to use Nathan Hensley’s intriguing phrase, or in the panoramic mindset of environmentality. But we can also ask ourselves how distinct the novel’s perspective is from this military point of view, as the narrator is apparently able to see, hear, and feel everything, outperforming the army’s aerial gaze in penetrating even those reaches inaccessible to military surveillance and ultimately satisfying similar voyeuristic desires on the part of its readers. As the discussion of Arctic Rising already indicated, it might [End Page 62] be harder than we imagine to disentangle the novel from the army, and to find a separate position—the moral “high ground”—from which to critique its epistemological and other forms of violence.

Turning to the environment, a closer look at How to Get Filthy Rich not only reveals traces of slow violence but also a systematic if largely implicit narrative about drought, water scarcity, and, ultimately, climate change. Already at the start, we hear that “[o]nly briefly, during the monsoon, does the [village] gully fill to anything near capacity, and that too is an occurrence less regular than in the past, dependent on increasingly fickle atmospheric currents” (6). The related problem of erosion is mentioned too: “The evening sky is orange, heavy with suspended dust from thousands upon thousands of construction sites, fertile soil gouged by shovels, dried by the sun, and scattered by the wind” (113) (and note that the large number of construction sites again stresses the representative quality of the one site the narrative zooms in on here). This environmental storyline is underlined at the end, when the protagonist seems to realize his own complicity in the problem of water scarcity:

You hear reports that the water table continues to drop, the thirst of many millions driving bore after steel bore deeper and deeper into the aquifer, to fill countless leaky pipes…, phenomena with which you are intimately familiar and from which you have profited, but which are now contributing in places to a noticeable…transformation of moist, fertile, hybrid mud into cracked, parched, pure land.


While some people are getting filthy rich, moist mud becomes parched land in a background that does not escape the narrator’s notice. It’s no coincidence, clearly, that this supposedly generic protagonist sells water.

Such observations confirm Michael Rubenstein’s recent argument that “the recurring settings, or environments, of Hamid’s novelistic worlds are consistently defined in and through water and power” (5). In my view, however, we should tie these concerns explicitly to global environmental change, and should qualify if not simply reject the claim that “Hamid does not pursue the sovereign, weaponized side of energy in his later novels; he is more concerned with the civic side of water and power” (3). If we examine How to Get Filthy Rich further, after all, Hamid’s novel not only alludes to war and water but ties the problem of water stress to the military’s heavy-handed management of this precious resource. At the zenith of his career, the businessman is asked to participate in a new housing project developed by “one of a comprehensive network of military-related corporations” (163) (as with the construction sites, the thirsty people, the leaky pipes, there are many of these corporations, this one being again but a representative example). As the retired brigadier overseeing the project explains, the plan is to develop elite housing in which residents will not only have their own electricity plant but have access to world-class water [End Page 63] as well; “when you turn the tap, you’ll be able to drink what comes out of it” (163), meaning that it will appear as though “you’ve entered another country” while still living in “a secure, walled-off, impeccably maintained, lit-up-at-night, noise-controlled, perfectly regulated version of here” (164). But that plan will be hard to pull off, the businessman reflects:

There are serious technical challenges, not least that the aquifer below the city is plummeting and becoming more contaminated every year, poisonous chemicals...seeping into it like adulterants into a heroin junkie’s collapsing vein. Powerful water extraction and purification equipment will be needed, plus…a plan to draw water from canals intended for agricultural use, fiercely contested water itself laden with pesticide and fertilizer runoff.


In its own way, then, I would submit that Hamid’s novel deals with environmentality and what Parenti calls the “politics of the armed lifeboat,” in which the well-off acquire and hoard dwindling resources with the help of the military and its commercial spin-offs. As with oil, using the remaining reserves is becoming ever-more difficult, and the water in question is dangerous because of pollution’s slow violence as well. We are all water junkies, though, and are unable to kick this particular addiction. What is more, I would argue that a phrase like “fiercely contested water” points us not just to existing clashes between “resource rebels” and “resource omnivores,” to use Nixon’s terms, or to entrepreneurs and inhabitants, in Marzec’s alternative terminology, but to the potential for military conflict in the future. If this water is already fiercely contested before this militarized intervention, which will cut off other people’s access, how could this violent seizure of resources not lead to further conflict? Indeed, it might be argued that such violence is already anticipated in some of the novel’s descriptions, which refer, for instance, to “the ever-dropping aquifer, punctured by thousands upon thousands of greedily sipping machine-powered steel straws” (155). The earth is gouged, punctured, violated by steel straws that are, in an anthropomorphic moment, turned into greedy humans, and many of them. As the novel indicates, the human story of rising Asia—a story that involves large numbers of humans, Hamid frequently suggests, as if heeding Amitav Ghosh’s call for more literary attention to “men in the aggregate” in the Anthropocene (78)—is shadowed by the nonhuman narrative of shrinking water, and by intimations of future resource conflicts, caused by a “catastrophic convergence” of the detrimental effects of past economic, environmental, and military policies.

As I have shown, we can delineate a set of recent novels in which the problem of climate change is explicitly linked to warfare and the ecosecurity mindset. Underlining the similarities as well as differences with other geopolitical novels, we might label these works 12/11 novels, and gathering these seemingly disparate narratives together has the advantage, for literary critics, of expanding our conception of climate fiction, which should allow room [End Page 64] for works dealing with war, and not just future wars but the long prehistories and ongoing versions of resource conflicts too. Indeed, one lesson may be that climate change has radically scrambled our temporal coordinates, confronting us with the fact that we are living in a long history and deep future already. Thinking about 12/11 fiction also forces us to pay closer attention to works about other regions, including the Arctic and the countries from the “tropic of chaos,” revealing yet another deterritorializing trend in recent US fiction and Anglophone literature more generally. For scholars in literary studies and beyond it is also interesting to see that these works frequently represent small as well as large forms of geo-engineering, and that they are often as critical of such activities as they are of more explicitly military projects. Buckell’s novel summarizes that attitude elegantly: “geo-engineering sucks for solving these issues.” We should also note, however, that these works occasionally remain tied to a militarized mindset, by celebrating the short-term reflexes of the soldier, describing the effective use of a nuclear device, or adopting the penetrating gaze of the army’s surveillance apparatus. What is more, it could be argued that a more positive representation of geo-engineering and public infrastructure is welcome at this stage, given the challenges we are facing—though we should obviously remain wary of those who try to position themselves as “masters of world resources.” In any case, more work can and should be done on the ways in which recent fiction connects climate change and global war, and maps past, present, and future casualties of the Hot War.

More attention can and should be paid to postcolonial concerns and gender issues, for instance. Considering the preceding argument, Mrinalini Chakravorty might object that climate war stories set in Southeast Asia threaten to perpetuate “the stereotype of collective death in the postcolony” (551), like other novels about postcolonial violence that, in “delineat[ing] entire nations of the global South as deathscapes...deploy a questionable stereotype that functions only through the homogenization of social actors and cultural spaces” (554). As she herself indicates, such representations have the advantage of encouraging a more collective, relational understanding of death and violence, however, and environmental war narratives spell out that such mass violence may now be spreading to the entire globe, invalidating the stereotype’s earlier effect of establishing a dubious difference between undifferentiated and insecure lives in postcolonial killing fields and individualized and secure lives in the affluent metropolis. In further articulating the postcolonial dimensions of climate war narratives, in other words, we should bear in mind that their real message might be less that “the continental space of Asia becomes a flattened crypt” and more that, in an age of anticipated climate war, every life becomes precarious, every country a potential deathscape (553). Turning to gender, Saint-Amour has noted that anxieties over the future often hint at a specific conception of history, “the ‘reproductive futurism’ that conscripts the child as mascot for a heteronormative politics of hope” (29). How does this play itself out in the novels [End Page 65] I mentioned, which include queer characters (Buckell, Ellingsen), childless couples (De Silva, Hamid), as well as adopted children (Watkins, Harkaway)? My account of militarized environmentalism could also be productively linked to Stacy Alaimo’s discussion of “carbon-heavy masculinity” (after all, what organization exceeds the carbon footprint of the US military?), not to mention extended by examining its ties to violence against women (as suggested in De Silva’s reflections on pornography or the disturbing ending of Scranton’s War Porn). Yet however necessary our critique of militarized thinking may be, we should not overlook the fact that individual soldiers are vulnerable too, as Rob Nixon has shown in his discussion of depleted uranium, and that this vulnerability plays a crucial role in recent novels about male soldiers by Harry Parker and Atticus Lish, for instance. In rethinking the planet, these twenty-first-century novels are not only reimagining war and the military, it seems, but gender and masculinity too. Even when he is armed, the “Man” of the Anthropocene can only dream of a secure future, nation, and identity.

Ben De Bruyn
Maastricht University
Ben De Bruyn

Ben De Bruyn is associate professor in comparative literature at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. He is the author of Wolfgang Iser. A Companion (De Gruyter, 2012) and co-editor of Literature Now (Edinburgh UP, 2016), and has published several articles on posthumanism and climate change in journals including Critique, Textual Practice, and Oxford Literary Review. He is currently finishing a book manuscript provisionally entitled The Novel and the Multispecies Soundscape.


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