The Novel after Nature, Nature after the Novel: Richard Jefferies’s Anthropocene Romance
The history of the novel must be re-thought in light of the emergence of the Anthropocene. The period associated with the “rise of the novel” in the eighteenth and nineteenth century dovetails with the emergence of industrial capitalism, the shift to fossil fuels, and European imperialism, all of which are now recognized as key elements in the scaling-up of human activity to planetary scale. It also aligns with the emergence of modern geology and the stratigraphic method currently being used to date the Anthropocene as a formal epoch on the geologic time scale (GTS). Thus, if the Anthropocene presents the work of the novel “after nature” it also represents the state of nature “after” the novel. This convergence suggests that the rise of the novel may also mark the birth of the Anthropocene. It also raises troubling questions about whether such coincidence may in fact reveal complicity. To what degree is the novel itself bound up in the forces responsible for drawing the Holocene to a close? What does it mean to re-visit the history of the novel as an “end-Holocene” genre, and what would that designation suggest about the genre’s viability in the epoch to come? This article takes up these questions through a reading of Richard Jefferies’s After London, or Wild England (1885) as a formative instance of “cli fi” that explicitly disavows the designation of “novel” in favor of “romance.” In the process, it argues for a more historically expansive conception of cli fi, and points to potential intersections between ecocriticism, textual studies, and book history.
It is “in no sense a novel,” Richard Jefferies wrote in an 1884 letter describing the recently completed After London, or Wild England (1885) to publisher C. J. Longman, “more like a romance, but a romance of a real character....You will, I think, do me the justice to say that it is original” (qtd. in Thomas 63). The book so described is indeed “original” in both senses, inventive and strange, as befits its status as a formative work in a new genre: climate fiction. “Cli fi” is usually dated to the mid-twentieth century. Tracing it to Jefferies back-dates it by half a century and, more importantly, refigures its relationship to both literary and scientific history. Rather than following on scientific articulation of climate change in the mid-twentieth century, the genre so conceived precedes scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change and the global modeling technologies that make it visible. This difference is significant because it highlights the work of fiction not as the opposite of fact, but rather as the simulation of hypothetical possibility within the actual world, akin to the computer models that simulate possible futures based on historical data. Finally, Jefferies’s rejection of the novel in favor of romance, the genre against which it is customarily distinguished, provides an occasion for re-thinking the history of the novel in light of the Anthropocene and the prospects for its survival in the new epoch to come.
After London is a quest narrative, following a young nobleman seeking his fortune in order to win the hand of the beautiful Aurora. Hence, Jefferies’s claim to originality can hardly rest on this plot. Instead, Jefferies’s inventiveness is displayed in conjuring a richly imagined post-apocalyptic world following on the demise of modern society. While visions of the apocalypse are longstanding, Jefferies’s is distinct in its explicitly ecological tenor. After London is a natural history of the future, and demands to be read as such. The book opens with an extended natural history in which cultivated land is reclaimed by the [End Page 108] wild, and it culminates in a surreal toxic wasteland that was once London. William Morris loved After London, and he built upon it in his own News From Nowhere (1890). Jefferies also influenced later speculative authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and J. G. Ballard, whose Drowned World (1962) is often cited as the first example of cli fi. Jefferies was one of Rachel Carson’s favorite authors, and though she particularly admired his nature essays, After London may well have helped inspire the “Fable for Tomorrow” that opens Silent Spring (1962). Jefferies is thus an important (if often neglected) figure in both environmental writing and speculative fiction, the two traditions that come together in cli fi. However, my goal in this essay is less to affix a point of origin for cli fi than it is to use After London to think through the ways in which this new genre both arises out of, and departs from, the history of the novel.
While the emergence of cli fi has received insightful critical treatment, its status as a subgenre of the contemporary novel remains largely unquestioned. For example, in search of the “novels of the Anthropocene,” Kate Marshall turns to a set of twenty-first-century American fictions in which she diagnoses a preoccupation with self-reflexive geological inscription, or “self-positioning as temporal artifacts” oriented toward “the geologic contemporary, its forms of art in the present tense, and its geologically inscribed histories of the future” (524). As Marshall argues, “the self-described contemporaneity of these novels lies in their status as new novels of a newly self-aware geological epoch” (524). In her account, then, self-reflexive treatment of geological contemporaneity becomes the formal hallmark of the Anthropocene novel, a hallmark that aligns with the Anthropocene discussion itself and thus emerges primarily as a feature of twenty-first-century literature. Most critics seem to agree. Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions (2015), a survey of climate fiction, situates its subject within a literary history stretching back to the Deluge, but nonetheless treats as axiomatic that cli fi itself is an invention of the late-twentieth century, following on the popular acknowledgment of global warming in the wake of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989). Amitav Ghosh takes a more critical stance, tracing a history of the novel form, especially its relationship to probability theory and individualism, that renders modern fiction complicit in the “unthinkability” of climate change. Nonetheless, Ghosh too views the Anthropocene as a problem of “most significantly, the present” and argues for realism in its depiction as the surest way of rendering that presentness palpable, rejecting “cli fi” as overly speculative (72). These accounts thus share several assumptions: first, that the novel can (and should) address climate change; second, that what makes climate fiction distinctive is its thematic dramatization of climatic disruption and/or geological inscription resulting from human action; and third, that novelistic treatment of climate change (or the Anthropocene more broadly) will perforce follow scientific articulation of the concept, becoming legible if and when novelists explicitly attempt to incorporate human disruption of the Earth system into their work. [End Page 109] Following Jefferies, I want to suggest that the relationship between the novel and the Anthropocene is at once much deeper, and more troubling, than these assumptions let on. I will argue that the novel form is at once the product of and a participant in the social, historical, economic, and ecological forces responsible for bringing the Holocene to an end, framing the novel itself as signature of the end-Holocene event, and thus arguing for a more expansive conception of fiction over and against the novel as such, in order to meet the demands of Anthropocene storytelling.
The Rise of the Novel and the Emergence of the Anthropocene
The “rise of the novel” dovetails with industrialization, and thus the advent of human geological agency responsible for bringing the Holocene to an end, an alignment that I argue is not simply coincidental, but constitutive. The Anthropocene, in other words, is the state of nature “after” the novel. At the same time, the Anthropocene marks a shift in the conditions of possibility for the novel (and, indeed, for human civilization). While the novel may be able to survive in this weird new world that it has helped to create, that survival is not assured and thus cannot be assumed. As Jeremy Davies explains, “human civilization has existed only in the Holocene so far, and no one knows what will happen to it once that setting is replaced by another” (145). The same might be said of the novel. Thus, the predicament of the novel in the Anthropocene is the double bind invoked in my title. The Anthropocene marks the state of nature “after” the age of the novel, and thus establishes the conditions under which the novel must adapt to a world “after nature,” where “nature” is understood to reflect the bio-geo-physical conditions of the Holocene. The problem of the “novel after nature” is also the problem of “nature after the novel.” To this predicament, we must also add another: the fact that the category of fiction as we know it is co-constitutive with the realist novel. Catherine Gallagher explains, “the historical connection between the terms novel and fiction is intimate; they were mutually constitutive” (337). This, in turn, highlights why the emergence of a new genre, cli fi, would correspond to the emergence of new conditions of possibility, with anthropogenic climate change, and the new geological epoch defined by them, the Anthropocene. To paraphrase Gallagher, the question becomes not why the Anthropocene has produced climate fiction, but why climate fiction?1
The alignment between the novel and the Anthropocene is most obvious when the Anthropocene is dated to industrialization and the shift to fossil fuels in the eighteenth century, first with the Newcomen steam engine in 1712, followed by James Watt’s double-acting engines at the end of the century and their adoption as “prime mover” of industrial capitalism by the 1830s (Malm 28–31). After all, that period aligns with the “rise of the novel” described by Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, Catherine Gallagher, and many others. However, the literary history of the Anthropocene contains many other uncanny [End Page 110] convergences. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s “Orbis Hypothesis” dating the Anthropocene to 1610 and the genocidal conquest of the Americas (175) coincides with the year in which Shakespeare wrote his play of New World storms, The Tempest (Mentz 48). It also falls directly between the publication of the two volumes of Don Quixote, often cited as the first modern novel, which appeared in 1605 and 1615, respectively. The recent announcement by the Anthropocene Working Group nominating the “Great Acceleration” in the mid-twentieth century as the beginning of the epoch locates the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), or “golden spike,” at precisely the point when the novel is arguably eclipsed by other media as the dominant storytelling mode of the capitalist world system. The mid-twentieth century is the golden age of the silver screen; the first video games were created in the late 1940s. While novels of course continue to be written, and to enjoy relatively uncontested cultural prestige, the argument that the novel remains the constitutive genre of (post)modern subjectivity becomes, at best, harder to sustain as the genre’s reading publics have been eclipsed by those of cinema, television, and other media. Furthermore, the equation of serious “literary” fiction with the realist novel becomes particularly hard to sustain from the mid-twentieth century on, whether due to the celebration of high modernism, the rise of science fiction, or the postcolonial turn toward magical and speculative realisms. My point in describing the Anthropocene as the period “after” the novel, then, is not to restrict the designation of “novel” to realism or some canonical ideal, but rather to explore the ways in which literary history changes when viewed in conjunction with the geohistorical shift that we now know as the Anthropocene. In this context, taking a narrower definition of “novel” than has become fashionable in recent years may help crystalize the implications of this particular art form having arisen in conjunction with the processes of industrialization, urbanization, empire, and capitalism that have brought the Anthropocene into being.
My goal in this essay is to think about how the modes of storytelling that have risen to prominence (or been disavowed) within the period of the Anthropocene’s emergence might bear the traces of their entanglement with this distinct moment of rupture in Earth’s history. Secondarily, I want to explore how the limits of what can be narrated within a given genre might index the ecological conditions of that genre’s production and, conversely, how new (or at any rate different) modes of storytelling might afford alternate models of social, ecological, and historical affiliation. The core problem with treating cli fi as a subgenre of contemporary literature is that it frames climate change not merely as a tale of unintended consequences, but unforeseen, even unknowable consequences. By contrast, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz describe the history of the Anthropocene not as “one of a frenetic modernism that transforms the world while ignorant of nature, but rather of the scientific and political production of a modernizing unconscious” (199). After all, [End Page 111] ecological calamity is in fact one of our oldest and most persistent stories, recurring across genres and centuries from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Moby-Dick. Attending to the modernizing unconscious adjusts our perspective on the past, calling our attention to the myriad roads not taken and reminding us of the radical contingency of history. Nascent insights, mistakes, disavowals, suppressions, and alternative epistemologies all become potential sites of resistance, unsettling the ostensible inevitability of ecological collapse. Doing so also reorients our relation to the future, unsettling the perceived inevitability of impending calamity with the reminder that things can (and indeed almost inevitably will) be different. This last point is particularly important given the inherently open-ended quality of the Anthropocene. As Davies reminds us, no matter which date is ultimately chosen for the GSSP, or “golden spike,” that point will not define the “Anthropocene epoch as a whole but only the very earliest fraction of this unit of time,” which is to say the “end-Holocene event—an event that is still playing out” (85, 95). With this in mind, my goal in this essay is to highlight the predictive (if not prophetic) quality of fiction as simulation, the capacity for storytelling to model an inherently unpredictable world and the entanglement of those models with the world they bring into being. Hence, rather than choosing between 1610, 1784, or 1945, I find it more productive to view them all within a single period in both senses of the term: an age of historical coherence and a mark of punctuation, the end-Holocene Event. In this respect, I agree wholeheartedly with Marshall’s focus on “geological contemporaneity” but contend that “contemporaneity” itself needs to be approached in geologic terms, rendering the Victorians and Elizabethans (and perhaps even Ancient Assyrians) our contemporaries. Treating this expansive contemporary moment not as a new geological epoch, but rather as a boundary event between epochs—a double meaning that reflects the original meaning of the word “epoch” as a “fixed point in the reckoning of time” (OED)—not only affirms the fact that we are living through the dissolution of a world but also forces us to reconsider our conceptions of genres as technologies modeling the conditions of possibility in the world.
This correspondence, in turn, suggests that the relationship between literary genre and the Earth system is not simply a feature of cli fi per se, but rather suggests that all genres can be reconsidered in light of the climatic conditions that make them possible. In a related argument, Tobias Menely traces the decline of the georgic, “the paradigmatic verse mode of the pre-industrial energy regime,” at the end of the eighteenth century, showing how Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head dramatizes a “pre-thermodynamic energy imaginary organized around the climate, the role of solar energy in the biosphere, the hydrosphere, and the economy” (313). In so doing, he opens an unfamiliar vantage point on our own predicament: “What we remember by seeing the Anthropocene from the perspective of the late Holocene is that the geophysical conditions of society, on this sun-drenched, storm-pounded, climatologically variable planet, [End Page 112] have been not transcended but intensified by the coal-‘polluted...atmosphere’” (313). Whereas Franco Moretti has encouraged us to view genres within an evolutionary frame that would explain their survival in terms of adaptive fit with historical conditions, Menely expands that perspective from biology to geohistory, asking what happens if we “reperiodize literary history in relation to, and as expressive of, epochal change at the scale of the Earth System?” (307). Understanding the novel’s status as a Holocene genre is a vital task in evaluating its capacity to model an Anthropocene future. If the novel must now confront the reality of a world after the Holocene stability in which it was conceived, that state of affairs also raises the prospect of a world in which nature (or, if you prefer, the processes of biological evolution and geomorphological change) continue long “after” the novel.
Accounts of the novel going back to Ian Watt have emphasized that the novel is the genre of individuation and the cultivation of the modern subject. As Watt explains, “the novel is surely distinguished from other genres and from previous forms of fiction by the amount of attention it habitually accords both to the individuation of its characters and to the detailed presentation of their environment” (17–18). One could be forgiven for forgetting about Watt’s emphasis on “environment,” since he devotes the rest of the book to the first part of this formulation, individuation. Nonetheless, Watt is clear that such individualization cannot proceed without an attention to the surroundings in which it takes place, which is to say the “environment” conceived to encompass both natural scenery and (more often) the domestic interior. The environment’s primary importance, for Watt, is its stability. You cannot privilege plot as a sequence of causally connected events unfolding in real time unless the environment in which those events unfold remains fixed, thus establishing the conditions of possibility upon which the causal connection between them depends. What Watt calls “environment,” then, is essential to the rise of the novel precisely because it does not change, providing a backdrop against which humans, either as individuals or societies, do. However, instead of an environment unaffected by history, the realist novel rose to prominence in a world of rapid industrialization, urbanization, enclosure, deforestation, acceleration, and globalization. Hence, the stable “environment” that Watt holds as essential to the novel depends as much on a form of inattention as it does on actual attention, producing an imagined environment that is stable or, perhaps more accurately, an environment of imagined stability in the midst of transformation. In this framework, the novel helps its readers assume a stable environment that will support and constrain their actions in a reliable manner in the midst of a world where the actual historical and ecological conditions of possibility were open to radical change. As Ghosh argues in one of the most sustained and thoughtful accounts of the novel in an age of climate change, “it was exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the [End Page 113] human” (66). In this regard, the realist novel can be viewed as an instrument in the production of the modernizing unconscious.
Something similar is true of geology during the same period. In a key passage in his Principles of Geology (1830–33), Charles Lyell explains previous geologists’ errors in conceiving of the extreme age of the Earth, through an analogy to social history, arguing that if events that took two thousand years were viewed as having occurred in a century “such a portion of history would immediately assume the air of a romance; the events would seem devoid of credibility and inconsistent with the present course of human affairs” (29). He goes on to suggest that if five thousand years of volcanic eruptions, sedimentation, flooding, earthquakes, and sea-level change were to occur in a year, we could scarcely avoid the “conclusion that some great crisis of nature was at hand” (30). Lyell is thus explicit about linking our perception of the conditions of possibility not only to pacing and duration, but also to genre; realism depends on the slow accumulation of events through forces currently in operation whereas romance collapses timescales and in so doing encourages us to “form most exalted ideas of the activity of the agents, and the suddenness of the revolutions” (30). But what happens when we find ourselves in an age of geological acceleration, when climatic changes that should take millennia occur over centuries instead? In encountering the Anthropocene, we are prompted to perceive that “a great crisis of nature is at hand” and perhaps also to form an “exalted” view of the activity of the agents, whether through their sheer scale or superhuman impact of technologies from the internal combustion engine to the nuclear bomb. In this resurgence of supernatural agency, then, we find ourselves returning to the genre against which the realist novel has long been defined, the romance.
The opposition between realism and romance as a feature of both literature and science in turn provides an occasion for thinking about the “fi” in cli fi, and how the category of fiction indebted to the realist novel may (or may not) remain essential to the work of this new genre committed to imagining an Anthropocene future. Noah Heringman argues that the emergence of the Anthropocene has precipitated a turn to “scientific romance” in popular science writing because romance provides “the improbable figures necessary to situate human actors in deep time” (61–62). In Heringman’s account, however, “the scientific romance as initiated by [Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de] Buffon and revived in the Anthropocene is fundamentally a narrative nonfiction form” (62). This emphasis on romance in nonfiction would seem to put it directly at odds with the emergence of cli fi as, explicitly, a form of fiction. However, it also aligns with Walter Besant’s reflection on Richard Jefferies. In his book-length “eulogy” to Jefferies, Besant explains that his books “are not novels,” that he “was never a novelist” and “could never be one” (162, 150). In fact, Besant only grudgingly allows that “perhaps ‘After London’ may also be accounted a work of fiction” (147). That these statements all appear in a work [End Page 114] intended as thoroughgoing praise of its author after his death only emphasizes how much of an anomaly Jefferies’s work appeared within the history of the novel, of which Besant was an influential theorist. It also suggests the degree to which Anthropocene romance troubles the category of fiction itself.
Understanding cli fi as a form of romance thus means revisiting (and considering the limits of) a definition of fiction invented by the realist novel. As Gallagher explains, the “founding claim” of the novel form was “a nonreferentiality that could be seen as a greater referentiality” in which the “human referent of the text was a generalization about and not an extratextual, embodied instance” (342). The characters in a novel are not “real” people who exist in the world, but rather imaginary examples of kinds of people who exist in the actual world (which Henry Fielding called “species”). Characters, in other words, are not people but abstractions standing in for classes, aggregates, or categories (Gallagher 343–44). This, in turn, enabled the novel itself to become a “seemingly free space in which to temporarily indulge in imaginative play” and indulge in speculation over how those categorical beings and abstract entities might interact (347). In Gallagher’s account, this speculation correlates to other forms of speculative investment, ranging from paper currency, bonds, and the stock market to scientific experimentation and religious tolerance—in short, modernity itself—all of which require “the kind of cognitive provisionality one practices in reading fiction, a competence in investing contingent and temporary credit” (347). The novel, in other words, becomes a space of simulation, in which hypothetically possible outcomes can be tested (and contained) under safe conditions. This simulating or experimental function is integral to cli fi as a genre whose task amounts to simulating multiple possible futures.
The very idea of climate itself shares key elements with the notion of character outlined above. As an abstraction comprised of distinct weather events plotted over time, climate is—like literary character—a “generalization about” and not an “embodied instance” of conditions in the actual, extratextual world. Climate (unlike the weather) can no more be experienced firsthand than Tom Jones can be met in person. Cli fi thus depends directly upon a notion of fictionality that is historically coterminous with the novel. However, that very correlation also points to the key arena in which cli fi extends beyond, or perhaps more accurately inverts, the single greatest unspoken assumption of the novel form: its anthropocentrism. Indeed, Fielding’s use of the term “species” only underscores the genre’s fundamental omission: the characters in novels manifestly do not illustrate “species” in the biological sense because they almost invariably all belong to the same one: Homo sapiens. The project of cli fi, then, forces us to think about how to extend the kind of fiction-as-simulation invented by the realist novel beyond the human, inverting the assumed relationship in which fictional narrative is produced by nominally-human agents rather than the environment, or setting, with which those agents interact. [End Page 115]
Realism’s dependence on, and construction of, the environment as an inherently stable category is arguably what makes it useful for thinking about the modes of being that have led us into the Anthropocene. However, that very fact may also limit its usefulness in finding our way out again. This, in turn, marks the most obvious difference between Amitav Ghosh’s argument in The Great Derangement and my own. For Ghosh, “serious fiction” remains the province of the realist novel. He is skeptical of cli fi precisely because of its fixation on the future, and especially of science fiction and fantasy since the Anthropocene “is precisely not an imagined ‘other’ world apart from ours; nor is it located in another ‘time’ or another ‘dimension’” (72–73). He mounts a similar objection to magical realism because treating the “improbable occurrences” of the Anthropocene as “magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time” (27). While these points are well taken, they minimize the degree to which “serious fiction” has long been shot through with the speculative and fantastical, especially when confronting events or phenomena that disrupt the order of nature.
In The Sky of Our Manufacture (2016), I attempted to show how the novel can be read as a “climate model” dramatizing the entanglement of human and natural systems such that metaphors like “cultural climate” or “literary atmosphere” cease to be purely metaphorical and instead index a newly literal truth. However, registering that entanglement usually requires breaking the laws of realism that the stable environment served to maintain, thus creating the conditions of possibility for Dickens’s spontaneous combustions, Dracula’s undead predations, and the age- and sex-defying life of Woolf’s Orlando. Reading the novel as a climate model means reading for atmosphere and setting instead of plot and character, thus (as my students tend to remind me) inverting the practice of most readers of narrative fiction, whose interest is drawn to the characters themselves rather than the settings in which they appear. Thus, the fact that most readers find literary atmosphere largely uninterpretable (William Empson remarked that the critic can do little beyond “stating that it is there” ) is indicative of the way the modernizing unconscious teaches us to minimize the agency of the atmosphere, even while that atmosphere itself becomes the repository for emissions that give it an ever more potent, undead agency. The more the atmosphere is ignored, the more relevant, powerful, and dangerous it becomes, thus enacting a version of the modernizing unconscious at the formal level.
Read as a climate model, the realist novel offers a useful vehicle for thinking about how literary genre has contributed to the modes of being linked to the emergence of the Anthropocene in the years between the Industrial Revolution and the Great Acceleration, which is also the period during which the novel achieved its greatest influence. However, that usefulness depends on making visible the novel’s Earthliness, its embedding within the Earth [End Page 116] system, by reinternalizing those aspects of itself—ranging from setting and atmosphere as formal properties to the ecology of book production—that the genre itself largely disavows. At the same time (and more troublingly), that very usefulness ought perhaps to give us pause in assuming the novel’s suitability to an Anthropocene future and the new modes of being that it will demand. If the novel is particularly useful in modeling the end-Holocene event that it has aided and abetted, it may be a far less adept model for ecological dwelling in the Anthropocene for that very reason.
This is why I find Jefferies’s rejection of the novel in favor of a “romance of a real character” to be so intriguing: it suggests a means of conceptualizing the project of cli fi as at once a departure from modern fiction and an extension of far older means of storytelling. In this regard, it is worth noting that Jefferies was not alone in using “romance” to categorize a form of speculative nonfiction at the fin de siècle: H. G. Wells described his books as “scientific romances” and Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884) published the year before After London is subtitled “A Romance of Many Dimensions.” Narrated by A. Square, Abbott’s book recounts a world that exists in only two dimensions and is essentially an extended thought experiment, at once entirely outside observable experience and yet mathematically verifiable and hence “true.” I would like to suggest that Jefferies does something similar, using a non-realist mode to present a thought experiment whose applicability to the “real” world nonetheless remains its most salient characteristic. In order to grasp how that experiment works, it is necessary to consider After London’s worldbuilding in some detail.
The Relapse into Barbarism
Part 1 of After London, “The Relapse into Barbarism,” offers up five full chapters without a human character. This fact alone marks a sharp departure from the anthropocentrism of the novel, which usually derives its primary interest from character development and produces its plots through character interaction. Instead, Jefferies’s narrative is recounted in ecological time, spanning the decades and centuries after an unknown calamity brings about the end of civilization, and offering a rich description of the reclamation of cultivated land by the wild. Gradually, the “great forest” overtakes all cultivated land, a process meticulously described in ways that Jefferies, a nature writer who began his career as an agricultural journalist and made his name with books such as An Amateur Poacher (1878), The Gamekeeper at Home (1879), and Nature Near London (1883), was particularly well positioned to explore. The hardihood of those plants accustomed to disrupted soil, or able to survive in the toxic environs of the metropolis, populate and transform this natural history of the future. Every change is recorded and explained, as when ditches become filled with leaves “so that the water which should have run off down them stagnated, and presently spread out into the hollow places and by the [End Page 117] corners of what had once been fields, forming marshes where the horsetails, flags, and sedges hid the water” (4). This imagined ecological reclamation extends from the fields and forests to waterways:
As no care was taken with the brooks, the hatches upon them gradually rotted, and the force of the winter rains carried away the weak timbers, flooding the lower grounds, which became swamps of larger size. The dams, too, were drilled by water-rats, and the streams percolating through, slowly increased the size of these tunnels till the structure burst, and the current swept on and added to the floods below.(4–5)
By contrast to a stable or unchanging environment simply awaiting human “improvement,” as in the estates of Jane Austen, After London opens with Earth systems at work, Darwin’s “tangled bank” in constant motion. As in Lyellian geology, human impact is temporary and eventually swept away. However, such reclamation is not reversion. Instead, it is decidedly post-industrial wilderness that reclaims England. Even where no visible trace of industrial civilization remains, Jefferies’s world is patently not as it would have been had that civilization never existed. In this regard, Jefferies’s speculative natural history reflects a condition I call abnatural, in which natural processes continue under unnatural circumstances resulting from human intervention.2
The human is present in these opening chapters only as palpable absence, shifting the locus of agency and presenting humanity as one species among many. It is thus impossible to read After London according to the conventions by which narrative interest derives solely from human characters, demanding instead a reading practice associated with natural history, descriptive science, or travel writing. When Jefferies turns from the forests and waterways to animals, he recounts the fate of cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and dogs: all of which die in great numbers while evolving into newly-wild species, a process that Jefferies notes (showing clear debts to both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace) is more pronounced on islands. The systematic description of this process is notable in part because of its inversion of Darwin’s central analogy between “artificial selection” via domestic breeding and “natural selection.” For Darwin, artificial selection becomes the paradigm by which natural selection can be understood. While this is well known, it is less often remarked that Darwin’s reliance on artificial selection means that his account of the operation of nature—that is to say, biological evolution—is a paradigm modeled on human intervention in nature. The theory of natural selection itself is thus predicated on abnatural ecology, providing further evidence that our understanding of Earth systems is inextricable from our intervention in those systems. Jefferies makes this explicit, in effect completing Darwin’s analogy by tracing the processes whereby animals brought about via artificial selection are subjected to further variation through natural selection. The result is hardly surprising: “the poodle is extinct, the Maltese terrier, the Pomeranian, the [End Page 118] Italian greyhound, and, it is believed, great numbers of crosses and mongrels have utterly disappeared” (9). However, new varieties, and even species, descended from domesticated animals have survived. Similarly, we are told that many of the foreign or introduced species, such as lions, tigers, and “monstrous serpents” died off, though some “aquatic birds...which frequent the lakes, are thought to have originally derived from those which were formerly kept as curiosities” (18–19). Of the numerous species introduced to Britain during the age of ecological globalization (i.e., empire), only one has made itself at home: “the beaver, whose dams are now occasionally found upon the streams” (18). Though it is a sole example, the beaver’s inclusion is telling because it underscores the degree to which “Wild England” is a “novel ecosystem” rather than simply a reversion to the old.3 Once endemic to the British Isles, beavers had gone extinct long before Jefferies’s day and thus this population must be descended from American introductions. Furthermore, one could hardly make a more indicative choice: the beaver, as an animal that architecturally transforms its ecosystem, troubles any notion that technology is purely human and thus the notion that an organism or species can be divided from its environment.
The cataclysm that ended modern civilization is unknown. A great lake, produced by sedimentary damming of the Thames and Severn, covers much of southern England. The Scots, Irish, and Welsh remain in greater numbers and strength, and wage periodic raids upon the remaining English, though the narrator suggests that one can hardly blame them since “the ancients from whom we are descended held them in subjection many hundred years, and took from them all their liberties” (35). Here too the conditions of the future world are presented as the aftereffects of history. Society has reverted to a feudal system of landed aristocrats, paradoxically distinguished by their literacy and distaste for learning, who owe dubious loyalty to a king who has little more power than they do. This social structure proves vital to the book’s nominal plot, which will follow young Felix Aquila, the second son of a baron shunned by his peers because of his penchant for mechanical experimentation, on a quest to seek his fortune in order to claim the hand of Aurora, daughter of a more powerful neighboring nobleman. I will return to this plot below, but first I want to emphasize the way that Jefferies charts social and technological history in the same terms and processes through which he has narrated ongoing biological evolution.
Jefferies’s narrator, who is never positively identified, speaks in the voice of a future historian, often taking issue with one “Silvester,” whose account he disputes at multiple points. However, the narrator also notes his own limitations, because “when I pass from trees and animals to men...nothing is certain and everything is confused” (19). This confusion is due to the near total destruction of records in “the conflagrations which consumed the towns” and numerous discrepancies between the accounts following on the “wars and [End Page 119] hatreds which sprang up and divided the people, so that one would not listen to what the others wished to say, and the truth was lost” (19). Indeed, the narrator notes, “it may be that even when they were proceeding, the causes of the changes were not understood” (19–20). John Plotz notes that this marks a departure from novelistic treatments of “scalar disruption” in which “the presumption had been that the human-scaled lent itself most readily to comprehensive storytelling” while natural history exceeded the novelist’s grasp because, for Jefferies, “plants and animals viewed species by species are legible, but human travails, unfolded person by person, are trouble” (43). Here, the scale of individual action privileged by the novel is obscured while the long timescales and species-actors of ecology come into focus. By privileging the thick description and species interaction of natural history over and against the character-driven plots familiar to readers of the novel, Jefferies implies that his narrative is one that the novelist’s voice cannot capture.
After having thus qualified the limits on his knowledge, our historian turns to the unknown ecological calamity that brought modern civilization to an end. One account suggests that “the first beginning of the change was because the sea silted up the entrances to the ancient ports, and stopped the vast commerce that was carried on” (20). He also notes that “the level of the sea has sunk in some places” and “become higher in others” but refrains from attempting to speak to causes of such shifts because “the judicious historian will simply state the facts” (20). Other suggested possibilities include a sudden drop in food supply (Jefferies began his career as an agricultural journalist), and shifts in Earth’s magnetic fields due to “the passage of an enormous dark body through space” (20). Meanwhile theologians of the narrator’s day have “pointed out that the wickedness of those times surpassed understanding, and that a change and sweeping away of the human evil that had accumulated was necessary, and was effected by supernatural means” (21). Whatever the cause, “when the event took place, the immense crowds collected in cities were most affected, and that the richer and upper classes made use of their money to escape,” while the poor were left behind (21). Indeed, one of the numerous fronts on which Jefferies seemingly anticipates subsequent postapocalyptic narratives is his attention to inequality as a structuring principle of the imagined future world.
The final annihilation of modern technology comes about not because of the initial cataclysm, but because of the economic and educational disparities that marked the modern age:
most of those who were left in the country were ignorant, rude, and unlettered. They had seen the iron chariots, but did not understand the method of their construction, and could not hand down the knowledge they did not themselves possess. The magic wires of intelligence passed through their villages, but they did not know how to work them.(24) [End Page 120]
Modern technology has vanished into the very gulf it precipitated by dividing the wealthy urbanites from the rural poor. While Jefferies’s narrator knows, by rumor, that such wonders as the telegraph, hot air balloon, and railroad once existed, he has no basis even to speculate on how they may have worked because even the “metal-work or wheels or bars of iron” that “might have given us a clue, were all broken up and melted down for use in other ways when metal became scarce” (23). The result is that “the Romans and the Greeks are more familiar to us than the men who rode in iron chariots and mounted to the skies” (24). Jefferies thus carves modernity out of the narrative, defining the industrialized world in exception to the long history of the species, an aberration that has come to an end.
Whatever its initial causes, the “change” that has overtaken the land not only wiped out modern society, but buried it almost entirely. Jefferies explains, “the mighty buildings of olden days” have been “utterly buried” beyond the reach of treasure hunters or archaeologists, to the point that “in our time the very foundations are deep beneath the earth, and not to be got at for the water that oozes into the shafts that they have tried to sink through the sand and mud banks” (6). As Jefferies’s audience would have known, pumping water from mine shafts was the task for which the Newcomen steam engine was developed in 1712. Thus, the only way of excavating modern society would be through the use of the now-lost technology that made it possible. This technological reflexivity not only marks Jefferies’s embeddedness within the world of Victorian modernity that has ceased to exist in After London, but also underlines the importance of the “after.” This is neither the world as it would have been had the industrial revolution never taken place, nor a cyclical return to an earlier stage of the world’s history, but rather a world that is permanently marked—and even defined—by having come after industrial modernity. This becomes most evident in its depiction of the toxic wasteland that was once London.
Toward the end of the book, having sailed across the great lake, Sir Felix finds himself sailing into a mist-shrouded region where the water turns black and stains his canoe. He reaches overboard only to discover that its stench “clung to his hand...to his great disgust. It was like nothing he had ever smelt before, and not in the least like the vapour of marshes” (257). Landing amidst blackened, “stratified” rock, into which his feet sink despite the appearance of solidity, Felix finds himself in a landscape of death: “the desolation of the dark and barren ground repelled him; there was not a tree, bush, or living creature; not so much as a buzzing fly” (259). As he progresses, he is faced with a skeleton, only to realize that “it was merely the impression of one, the actual bones had long since disappeared. The ribs, the skull, and limbs were drawn on the black ground in white lines as if it had been done with a broad piece of chalk” (262). The inhabitants of London have become fossilized remains, imprints of form whose very bones have dissolved in the acidic [End Page 121] landscape they have wrought. Felix continues to explore, discovering “the remnants of buildings,” which crumble to the touch: “whether the walls had been of bricks or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt” (264). The hallucinatory quality of this scene is accentuated by the noxious atmosphere, such that he becomes “slowly stupefied by the poisonous vapour he had inhaled” so that he only gradually comes to realize his position: “the deserted and utterly extinct city of London lay under his feet” (265–66). That “deserted and utterly extinct city” is at once a space of death and of toxic life that lives on as a storied landscape: “that dreadful place, of which he had heard many a tradition” (266). Felix recalls stories of “places where the earth was on fire and belched forth sulphurous fumes, supposed to be from the combustion of the enormous stores of strange and unknown chemicals collected by the wonderful people of those times” (266). Perhaps the most striking legend tells of a giant,
punished for some crime by being buried to the chest in the earth; fire incessantly consumed his head and played about it, yet it was not destroyed. The learned thought, if such a thing really existed, that it must be the upper part of an ancient bronze statue, kept bright by the action of acid in the atmosphere, and shining with reflected light.(266)
Felix never finds the giant, but its mythic presence underscores the scene’s Promethean character: combustive hubris rewarded with eternal punishment.
This hallucinatory wasteland is easily the most striking, vivid, and influential scene in the entire book, anticipating (and probably directly influencing) many subsequent visions of apocalypse, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mordor to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. However, for all of its surrealism, this scene also demands to be read alongside After London’s extended account of the forest’s return. Speculative as it may be, After London retains a naturalist’s commitment to accurate description throughout, a commitment that is integral to the project of cli fi.4 While there is of course nothing preventing extended description or scene-setting in a novel, Jefferies’s emphasis on ecological world-building over plot marks a significant departure in that its plot serves largely as a device stringing these speculative scenes together. Thus, whereas many novel readers skip descriptive passages while reading for plot, After London invites us to do the opposite. Felix’s motivations fade in importance by comparison with the scene itself, shifting the locus of narrative interest from character to environment even more radically than in the works of fellow naturalists like Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola. With this in mind, After London’s greatest insight for subsequent climate fiction may be the fact that, as Jefferies himself argued, it isn’t a novel. It can’t be a novel because it depicts a world in which the novel itself has gone extinct, one more technology of the ancients (that is, moderns) that remains only as a distant memory like the telegraph network or the railroad. [End Page 122]
After London and the Extinction of Genre
On its own, After London’s account of the rewilding of England would make it an interesting experiment in speculative natural history, akin to works like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007) and Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth After Us (2008), both of which conjure imagined future worlds with meticulous (if hypothetical) accuracy and attention to detail. These works indulge in fictive scenarios (Zalasiewicz imagines alien stratigraphers arriving on Earth one hundred million years in the future) without including either the characters or plot that would make them recognizable as novels. Hence, they too trouble the alignment between cli fi and the novel, if it is understood as a fictive form predicated on the interaction of individualized characters. However, Jefferies’s disavowal of the novel form is not limited to form or style, but rather includes an explicit account of the extinction of genre.
Books have become scarce: “modern books...being left in decaying houses at the mercy of the weather, rotted, or were destroyed by the frequent grass fires” while “those that had been preserved by the ancients in museums escaped for a while” only to be “dragged forth by the servants for the greater convenience in starting fires” (60). The literary implications of this state of affairs become clear when Felix attends a party at Aurora’s father’s castle and she has arranged for “a drama from Sophocles” to be staged to entertain the guests (146). “There were not many dramatists from whom to choose, for so many English writers, once famous, had dropped out of knowledge and disappeared” (146). However, the Greek and Roman classics survived: “copied in manuscripts by thoughtful men from the old printed books before they mouldered away, and their manuscripts being copied again, these works were handed down” (147). This, in turn, leads to an account of modern literature’s demise:
The books which came into existence with printing had never been copied by the pen, and had consequently nearly disappeared. Extremely long and diffuse, it was found, too, that so many of them were but enlargements of ideas or sentiments which had been expressed in a few words by the classics. It is so much easier to copy an epigram of two lines than a printed book of hundreds of pages, and hence it was that Sophocles has survived while much more recent writers had been lost.(147)
There are multiple nineteenth-century correlates to this dismissal of “modern” literature, which accords with both a patrician taste for “the classics” (Pater, Wilde) and Victorian medievalism (Ruskin, Morris). However, what is particularly interesting about Jefferies’s version is his attention to the process of transmission and reproduction that is essential to literary survival. Indeed, Jefferies himself read the classics only in English translation (Salt 6). Hence, this cannot be an argument for purity or even preservation in its strict sense. Instead, Jefferies suggests that literature survives only when it adapts, an [End Page 123] aesthetic equivalent to biological evolution in which survival depends on transmissibility and reproducibility across multiple media, languages, and contexts. Only those works that precede print, even if they had subsequently been printed, prove adaptable to the post-print world. Furthermore, it is not simply the actual physical books but rather their literary style that renders them copyable, memorable, repeatable, and thus preservable. Greek drama fits the bill; the novel assuredly does not. In this regard, Walter Benjamin’s privileging of “story” as an organic, living form akin to the seeds preserved in Egyptian tombs, over and against the sterility of the information-transmitting modern novel, could hardly find a more exemplary illustration (90). As a genre predicated on industrial production, one whose “rise” goes hand in hand with the emergence of industrial modernity, both in terms of the physical production of books (steam printing, the cheapening of paper, etc.) and the rise of a literate, middle-class reading public, the novel simply cannot survive—and indeed has no relevance—in the world of Jefferies’s tale. Just as the Pomeranian and Italian greyhound have gone the way of the dodo while the railroad, hot air balloon, and telegraph have become the stuff of legend, the entirety of modern literature has disappeared.
There can be little doubt what genre is referenced in the “extremely long and diffuse” books that have proven unfit for a post-print world. Whether the novel per se, or the voluminous writings of Victorian travelers and memoirists, the era in which Jefferies lived was not characterized by brevity in prose. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the Victorian books of Jefferies’s world would have been the first to decay. Not only would they not have been “preserved in museums,” but the turn to wood-pulp paper and the acids used in its production, coupled with their cheap bindings, made them uniquely fragile, literally consumed by the toxic chemicals used in their material composition. Indeed, Jefferies’s narrative sounds uncannily like the predicament of many nineteenth-century materials currently decaying in early twenty-first-century libraries. Whereas medieval manuscripts, early modern folios, and indeed most texts produced prior to 1800 are constructed of durable materials (and usually stored in library special collections), the voluminous nineteenth-century holdings often sit unprotected in the stacks, their pages crumbling to dust (Stauffer 2012). The Victorian era was indeed an age of ephemera.
The alignment between industrial modernity and the novel would not have come as a surprise to Jefferies’s readers. The decline of print fits within the broad suspicion of print as a “synecdoche for capitalism” that Elizabeth Carolyn Miller identifies in late-Victorian culture, while Aurora’s turn to drama and performance echoes Miller’s account of socialist theatre as an alternative to the market-based print culture exemplified in the novel (2). Jefferies thus fits within what Miller calls the “anti-novel turn” at the fin de siècle, but he is distinguished within it both by the explicitly ecological tenor of his writing [End Page 124] and by his reflexive embedding of genre within the material conditions of book production (and/or destruction). As repository of potentially-useful paper, the novel’s position echoes the precarious existence of animals whose skins, blubber, muscles, or fur can be readily repurposed to serve human ends. In After London, the book has become an endangered species.
These convergences with industrial culture were not restricted to the book as physical object, but also extended to the novel as literary form. As Leah Price explains, Victorian novelists like George Eliot were highly skeptical of books’ materiality, preferring to conceive of novel-reading as an attempt to read beyond the book-in-hand, to commune with a spirit (5). While this sense of readerly immersion has become a familiar ideal (of getting “lost” in a text), it depends on a dematerialization of the physical object that is also profoundly anti-ecological insofar as it offers a version of the dematerialization inherent in Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Indeed, Nicholas Dames argues that the Victorians viewed the novel as “a training ground for industrialized consciousness, not a refuge from it” (7). And what good is a training ground for industrial consciousness in a post-industrial world?
In each of these cases, then, the novel in After London comes to a recognizably Victorian demise. That fact alone offers a telling insight for contemporary debates around cli fi because the late-nineteenth century is also the period during which the novel was securing its status as high art. When contemporary critics turn to the novel to account for climate change they do so in part because the novel has come to represent the high-water mark of literary authority, and thus these critics import (intentionally or not) a set of aesthetic criteria further perfected in the mid-twentieth century with the institutionalization of the novel as a subject of study in English literature classrooms, emphasizing formal unity and (most important for the present discussion) isolation from the world in which the text was produced.5 This is the primary blind spot in Ghosh’s otherwise-insightful argument, which critiques the novel’s inability to deal with climate change while also importing the aesthetic categories produced by that very tradition, thus needlessly banishing non-realist modes of writing from the “mansion” of “serious fiction” to those “generic outhouses” of the Gothic, science fiction, fantasy, and, you guessed it, romance (24). However, in the late-nineteenth century, the novel’s position in that mansion was far more tenuous than this account would suggest, while the definition of “novel” itself was much more amorphous. After all, Victorian readers were accustomed to reading novels piecemeal, often out of order, interspersed with advertisements, while according the highest literary value to poetry and, especially, the classics. Thus, to a late-Victorian reader, the question of whether the novel might be an apt form through which to imagine a post-industrial, post-capitalist world would have readily appeared anything but a foregone conclusion. Instead, it would have appeared thoroughly entwined with and dependent upon industrial modernity itself. [End Page 125]
In this regard, it is telling that Jefferies is hardly alone among cli fi authors in depicting (or at least acknowledging) the novel’s failure in the post-apocalyptic world. Margaret Atwood’s “Snowman” is a storyteller who never writes down his tales because “any reader he could imagine was in the past” (41). Octavia Butler’s Lauren Olamina conceives her Earthseed religion through poetry, while the books in which she appears are presented as “parables.” Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven follows a travelling symphony and Shakespeare troop, draws its title from a graphic novel that features prominently in its plot, and shows a world in which tabloids and celebrity gossip remain as part of the historical archive, while non-graphic novels like Mandel’s own remain curiously absent.6 None of these works explicitly announces that the end of civilization also marks the end of the novel, but it would also have been easy for them to include novels amongst the remnants of modernity. Jimmy-the-Snowman could have stuffed a duffle bag with paperbacks, but his memories are peppered with advice from the twentieth-century self-help books on which he wrote his senior thesis. Lauren Olamina mentions having inherited a shelf of old science fiction novels from her grandmother (and notes that they anticipate elements of her dystopian world), but we hear much more about the works of natural history and travel guides that she consults for tips on edible plants. Surely there would have been a Hudson News full of thrillers, along with whatever Austen, Dickens, or Hardy had most recently been filmed (and perhaps even a prescient work of science fiction or two), in the airport where Station Eleven’s survivors hole up and create the “Museum of Civilization,” but they end up reading old emails and corporate personnel evaluations instead. This pattern suggests that cli fi is characterized by reflexive negation, in which the book becomes an account of its own undoing, narrating the annihilation of its own conditions of possibility such that the novel itself becomes a conspicuous—perhaps even constitutive—absence.
To be clear, I do not think that we should stop reading (or writing) novels (or, at any rate, long, immersive works of fiction). Nor do I think that the ecological calamities of the Anthropocene can be laid at the feet of a literary form. However, I do think that most critical reflections on cli fi do not go nearly far enough toward acknowledging the novel’s complicity with the emergence of the Anthropocene or, in turn, the scope of the innovation marked by the emergence of a literary genre that seeks to model the future of the Earth system. Those of us who value novels must be willing to at least consider the possibility that the form itself—and its contributions to our understanding of human consciousness—may be an obstacle to the new publics, polities, and subjects capable of addressing the climatic and ecological crises whose emergence are congruent with its rise. In this respect, the very thing that makes the novel useful as an archive through which to understand the modernizing unconscious may mean that it is precisely the wrong form in which to tell the stories of Anthropocene resistance. At the very least, it suggests that adapting [End Page 126] the novel to the Anthropocene will demand alternative models for what we think about, value, and emphasize when we read novels, de-privileging character and plot and paying renewed attention to setting, atmosphere, and description. It also depends on a much more expansive category for the work of “fiction” or “story” as opposed to the novel per se, one that would include not only works like The Earth After Us but also the multi-volume works of epic fantasy and science fiction inaugurated by J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (tellingly published at the beginning of the Great Acceleration) and continued in works such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, whose expansiveness troubles the formal cohesion of the novel as policed by Henry James.
The Anthropocene demands new—or perhaps old—forms, a prospect that After London dramatizes at the level of both form and content. The novel has gone extinct not only because the technological apparatus necessary to produce long books no longer exists, or even because most of the population is illiterate, but because the modes of thinking and subjectivity cultivated by the novel are no longer relevant. In explaining Aurora’s taste for Sophocles, Jefferies states:
In some indefinable manner the spirit of the ancient Greeks seemed to her in accord with the times, for men had, or appeared to have, so little control over their own lives that they might well imagine themselves overruled by destiny. Communication between one place and another was difficult, the division of society into castes, and the iron tyranny of arms prevented the individual from making any progress in lifting himself out of the groove in which he was born, except by the rarest opportunity, unless specifically favored by fortune. As men were born so they lived; they could not advance, and when this is the case the idea of Fate is always predominant. The workings of destiny, the Irresistible overpowering both the good and the evil-disposed, such as were traced in the Greek drama, were paralleled in the lives of many a miserable slave at that day....It was Fate; it was Sophocles.(147–48)
The conditions of life are conditions of genre. With this explanation in mind, some of the oddities of Jefferies’s narrative—including its archaic quest-structure and the relative absence of interiority or dialogue—become a form of narrative reflexivity. After London can’t be a novel because the necessary conditions for the genre are no more. Rather than papering over that contradiction, Jefferies encodes it into the book’s form, which arguably has more in common with The Epic of Gilgamesh than it does with Middlemarch, much the way its characters claim closer kinship to the “Greeks and Romans” than to “the men who rode in the iron chariots and mounted to the skies” (24). At the same time, this cannot mark a strict return.
Like the processes of reforestation and adaptation at work throughout the world of After London, the book’s account of literary and social history must proceed from the remains of the past. My invocation of Gilgamesh is anything but random: George Smith’s translation of the ancient Assyrian epic had made headlines a decade before After London appeared, underlining the longevity of [End Page 127] the narrative imagination. As Vybarr Cregan-Reid explains, the “discovery” of Gilgamesh marked “a moment of absolute proliferation of speculation about the past, our place in it, or indeed how our identity derives from it” (205). The formal similarities between After London and the innumerable quest narratives populating epic and romance over several thousand years would appear to confirm Plotz’s contention that “[l]ife after London—floral, faunal, and human—is not so different from life before London: the names have changed, but the ethology and the power dynamics remain the same” (35). However, this is only true insofar as “London” itself is understood to be a state of exception. Industrial modernity is presented as an aberration in natural history, much the way that Eric Gidal suggests the Anthropocene disrupts the stratigraphic record: “we are...or rather will one day become, an unconformity” (184).
This, in turn, helps underscore the importance of the “after” in the book’s title: even if the narrative seems to present a return to the Middle Ages, that does not mean that the subsequent history leading to industrial modernity will enfold in the same way a second time. Indeed, the radical contingency of natural history suggests that it most certainly would not, a point that Jefferies himself intimates in his autobiography The Story of My Heart when he describes the “obviously anti-human character” of the “designless, formless chaos of chance-directed matter, without idea or human plan” manifest in so simple a creature as a toad that “squats there embodied in the pathway” (53). Jefferies’s insistence that “a great part, perhaps the whole, of nature and of the universe is distinctly anti-human” not only in its indifference to human life but in its resistance to human comprehension precludes the possibility of history proceeding according to an inherently anthropocentric narrative arc (52). In such a context, the appeal of Jefferies’s speculative natural history (like that of cli fi more broadly) lies in staging a form of narrative anticipation—of storytelling as a way of simulating, however imperfectly, an inherently unpredictable future.
Contingency Ever After: Future Narratives and Anthropocene Storytelling
After London’s future is history; its narrator, a historian. The tale is not only recounted in the past tense, but makes clear that some unspecified portion of time (anything from years to centuries) has passed since the events in question took place. Detailing Felix’s exploration of the Lake, he explains, “we did not know of this current till Felix Aquila observed and recorded it” (177). Such observations reveal the vital difference between the world in which Jefferies’s historian writes and the one he describes. The actual narrative present, the world in which the narrator actually lives, remains in an unexplained, never-identified, and largely unnarrated, future. While most accounts of future worlds quietly resort to the past tense for syntactical ease without particularly calling attention to the fact, Jefferies gives his future historian just enough embodied presence—most notably in his debates with “Silvester”—to make that un-narrated future world a palpable reality within the book. After [End Page 128] London’s thoroughly inconclusive ending, which shows Felix setting off into the forest to collect Aurora and return with her to the as-yet-unbuilt castle from which he will attempt to found a proto-democratic alternative society amongst shepherds, only underscores its openness to an indeterminate future. This indeterminacy affects our perception of the entire narrative. The reader is clearly not expected to embrace the workings of “Fate” or its iniquities. On the contrary, both Felix and the narrator (and, by extension, the reader) are appalled by the wanton violence, enslavement, summary executions, and sheer idiocy that he witnesses on his journey. This is underscored by the fact that, from the vantage point of the narration, all the events depicted lie in the past, such that the entire book is in fact all prelude to an un-narrated future world in which “that time” is not only Jefferies’s future but also the narrator’s past.
After London is an origin story. Though the specific occasion of the tale’s narration is ambiguous, Felix’s journey and eventual return to collect Aurora and take her to the fortress where he will marshal the tribes of shepherds against a tyrannical prince is presumably all prelude to the new society they will build together: the “new dawn” encoded in his beloved’s name with precisely the kind of symbolic overdetermination rejected by the realist novel (see Gallagher 341). However, the actual construction of that new society lies beyond the end of the narrative, thus remaining in a form of suspended possibility. While profoundly unsatisfying as an “ending,” insofar as it gives the narrative little closure, this conclusion (or rather lack of one) nonetheless allows After London to operate as a form of what Christophe Bode and Rainer Dietrich call “future narrative,” preserving an open space of indeterminate possibility, other examples of which include sandbox video games, choose-your-own adventure tales, and climate models. We do not know what the conditions of society are in the book’s narrative present, the point at which the narrator is in fact writing his history, thus preserving that future’s open-ended contingency.
It is in that open space of indeterminate possibility that we now live. As Jedediah Purdy argues, “no one really knows what a democracy on the scale of Anthropocene challenges...would look like. To write of a ‘we,’ a polity that could inhabit and constitute such a democracy, in the absence of the institutions and shared identities that would make it real, is to write fiction, imaginative literature” (268). That imaginative literature, in turn, takes on the speculative, even prophetic, work of imagining alternate possibilities not only for individual characters, but for the entire worlds conjured within its pages. Stephanie LeMenager’s “struggle for genre” is also a struggle for community, an attempt to bring these new polities and shared identities into being. If Nancy Armstrong is right that “the history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are, quite literally, one and the same” (3), then the novel may not be very much help in that task, except by showing us precisely which stories not to tell. Alternatively, if it is to be useful, we will need to re-think how it works and what it does. One possibility lies in the value of estrangement, the [End Page 129] encounter with historical alterity such that the forms of interiority, character development, and individual fulfillment become not ends in and of themselves, but limits—dramatizations of what it must have been like to imagine oneself as a liberal individual rather than an emergent collective. By this measure, the novel might become useful not so much for what it renders thinkable as for what it renders unthinkable, for its work in helping to form, and thus—when read retrospectively—to perform the modernizing unconscious. On the other hand, LeMenager points out that because the “novelistic mode offers a method for making social worlds by modeling individual consciousness in relation with imaginary but possible worlds,” even the novel’s focus on individual attachment can become one of the ways in which cli fi both “summons and chafes against” the “everyday Anthropocene” ultimately “making climate change publics savvy enough to imagine both thriving and surviving with global climate change” (223). At the same time, LeMenager’s account of cli fi also includes memoir, much the way Noah Heringman views “scientific romance” as a “nonfiction form.” This blurring of the borders of fiction—itself a category coproduced by the novel, as Gallagher has shown—recurs often in the environmental imagination. Not quite prediction and not quite fiction, imaginative projections like Rachel Carson’s “Fable for Tomorrow” are integral to the long-term perspective of ecological thought. They also return to the most fundamental role played by all stories in modeling, thus anticipating, the radically-contingent, perpetually-unprecedented quality of the future. Like climate models tested against their ability to predict climates of the past, historical artifacts, read retrospectively, may be the best means of anticipating alternative futures because they estrange the fixity of our own present, reminding us that the Anthropocene might not have come to pass.
Such speculation also raises the question of what modes of storytelling might replace the novel in the Anthropocene imagination. In a recent issue of PMLA, LeMenager and Jeffery Jerome Cohen make a provocative case for the ecological digital humanities, arguing:
Networked technologies enable environmental scholars and eco-theorists to think outside human speed and scale. Created by and for humans, narrative—the natural habitat of most literary scholarship—has a difficult time capturing the nonhuman world, an entangled domain that is always too slow, too swift, too vast, or too small for immediate apprehension.(341)
Video games, climate models, and other computer simulations unquestionably offer vital perspectives on the Anthropocene; without them, we would not be able to see climate change in action. Bode and Dietrich also suggest that video games and computer models are conducive to future narratives in ways that the bound book can never match. On the other hand, the renewed attention to textual studies, book history, and philology as arenas of study also perform a similar multi-temporal encoding, highlighting the indeterminate, continually changing [End Page 130] position of a literary artifact as it traverses time and space. If the history of the book, including an ecological account of its production (the paper, the ink, the glue), is linked to a history of the form, coupled to an account of the internal world created by the work, the external world it depicts, and to its reception and subsequent meanings (i.e., the interpretations that become possible with the passage of time), then there are a great many temporal dimensions—as well as species and substances—bound up in the production of any given reading encounter, no matter the medium. After all, it is precisely Jefferies’s awareness of the nonhuman (which he would have called outre-human) world that informs After London’s strange, almost anti-narrative form. My point is thus not to suggest an either/or distinction between new media and old, or to disparage the kinds of storytelling and modeling enabled by digital technologies like video games and virtual reality, especially in cultivating modes of distributed cognition or experimenting with innovative responses through simulation. At the same time, Jefferies’s account of the demise of the novel strikes a note of warning: these technologies render narrative more dependent than ever on the vast technological apparatus of industrial capitalism and its networks of extraction. Their considerable world-building capacities are also unmaking the world as the devices that enable them depend on rare earth minerals and vast amounts of energy (see Parikka). Any consideration of Anthropocene genres must account for the material entanglements that Jefferies dramatizes so vividly, in which a “genre” becomes not simply a set of relations between the social and the literary but also the technologies and ecologies that make forms possible. This principle is vividly illustrated by the video game Never Alone, designed in collaboration with Iñupiat (Alaskan Native) storytellers.
As its title implies, Never Alone rejects neoliberal individualism, forcing players to inhabit—imaginatively, emotionally, and strategically—a multi-species, multi-player collective, switching perspectives between a young girl and fox (who later becomes a spirit), while also struggling against (and sometimes using) the Arctic wind (Haraway 86–89). Throughout gameplay, optional links to interviews, images, and stories about Iñupiat history, language, and culture provide interludes through which the gameworld becomes an increasingly storied landscape. In the process, they offer a reminder of Never Alone’s real relevance for Anthropocene storytelling: the fact that, while no less dependent on computers, energy grids, and the other technological apparatus of industrial modernity than any other video game, it—like the plays of Sophocles—is also imaginable without them. A player who had encountered its stories flickering on a screen might conceivably recount them as they were originally told—around a campfire, sheltered in a subterranean qargis (community house), or performed under the stars. [End Page 131]
Jesse Oak Taylor is associate professor of English at the University of Washington. He is the author of The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction From Dickens to Woolf (2016), and co-editor (with Tobias Menely) of Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017).
1. Gallagher asks: “what was it about the first capitalist nation that propagated not just realist fiction but realist fiction?” (345).
3. This point marks the key divergence between my reading and both John Plotz’s and Gillian Beer’s. Plotz views Jefferies’s future world in terms of a “plotted determinism in the affairs of humans and other animals” (35), whereas Beer sees it as a narrative of extinction and “a natural order simplified,” in which “instead of creating abundance, the resurgence of nature has obliterated life” (133–34). While I agree that Jefferies’s future ecology is hardly an exemplar of biodiversity, I see that more as evidence of ecological reclamation still underway in the aftermath of a civilization that has devastated the natural world.
4. Plotz (2015) describes After London as a work of “speculative naturalism,” a term he uses to position Jefferies between realism and modernism in fiction, whereas I am suggesting that the term actually positions Jefferies within a subsequent nature writing tradition that incorporates speculative elements, such as the “Fable for Tomorrow” that opens Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It is worth recalling, in this context, that Jefferies was one of Carson’s favorite authors (Souder 89, 156).
5. This point about the institutionalization of the novel is indebted to Rachel Buurma’s lecture “The Preparation of the Victorian Novel and the Preparation of the Topic Model,” delivered at the University of Washington in Seattle on April 27, 2017.
6. Admittedly, the character who writes “Station Eleven” does insist on “the difference between serious graphic novels and Sunday-morning cartoons” (87).