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  • The End of the World as We Know It:Four Novels of Climate Change
  • Stephanie Carpenter (bio)
Clade by James Bradley. Titan Books, 2015, 297 pp., $14.95 (paper).
Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Graywolf Press, 2016, 164 pp., $16 (paper).
The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan. Hogarth, 2016, 272 pp., $16 (paper).
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, 2017, 267 pp., $28.99 (hardcover).

In his 2016 book-length essay, "The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable," Amitav Ghosh writes about the gradual erosion of humanity's respect for nature's power. He suggests,

human beings were generally catastrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of the earth's unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism—a regime of ideas that was supported by scientific theories … and also by a range of governmental practices that were informed by statistics and probability.

Assuring ourselves that change happens slowly and predictably, we grew increasingly confident over the past four centuries in our mastery of the nonhuman environment, lapsing into a "complacency that was almost madness." Ghosh cites as an example the fact that we began building metropolises in flood zones. [End Page 170]

Now, as this and other technological assertions falter in the face of "unprecedented" weather events, Ghosh says, "we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors." Unforeseen meterological, geological, and animal behaviors remind us that we are not the only active agents on this planet. Such forces constitute what Ghosh calls an "environmental uncanny": "the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms."

The four novels considered here explore the uncanniness, the familiar strangeness, in human beings' relationships to unstable natural environments. The novels have in common moments of wonder, as characters enmeshed in unfolding crises of the near future encounter never- before-seen phenomena, the results of natural systems tampered with and distorted by humans—or, in the case of Beast, as they re acquaint themselves with the mystery of the natural world. Families in these books tend to be small and scattered; the only child is prevalent here. The fact that none of these books' characters reproduce at the replacement rate gives the impression that humans are ceding ground. In the end times of the Anthropocene, these narratives depict the nonhuman environment not as inert victim but as transforming force, which humans can no longer make the mistake of pretending to control.


James Bradley's Clade takes place primarily around the author's own home of Sydney, Australia, in the late twenty-first century. The story unfolds chronologically but with years or a decade in between chapters and with frequent shifts in focal characters and narrative mode, varying from third-person limited to the unvarnished first person of a teenager's journal. This episodic structure allows Bradley to emphasize escalating climatic and technological changes, along with characters' reactions to these changes—which are, essentially, its plot.

Clade James Bradley. Titan Books, 2015, 297 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The book's many characters are linked through Adam Leith, a climate scientist. Adam is the focal character of the first, second, and [End Page 171] fifth chapters, and, as his biblical name suggests, a kind of diminished latter-day patriarch. Adam's only marriage breaks up, he has just two direct descendants (his estranged daughter, Summer, and her son, Noah), and his familial ties to several other characters are honorary rather than biological. But Adam's projects monitoring Antarctic ice and the South Asian monsoon connect him closely to climate change, and he's the only character at the center of multiple chapters. The novel ends with news of his end—somewhere offstage, a decade or so after his grandson, Noah, has reached maturity in his own career as an astronomer.

The environmental conflicts of Clade are projections of our own: the planet is warming, leading to loss of the polar ice caps, intensification of tropical storms (one of which floods England), and displacement of millions of people from coastal and low-lying regions. Young children die of cancer or suffer from acute asthma...


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pp. 170-183
Launched on MUSE
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