Excerpt of the Day: “Emergency Everywhere”

From the New York Review of Books, March 25 2021:

Regina Marler: Fire season in California ended in mid-December, but I can’t bring myself to unpack the boxes near the front door.

I threw them together overnight—family photos, backup drives, mementos, passports—in late September, when three wildfires merged, creating the Glass Fire, and burned west into rural Sonoma County, where I live. The Walbridge Fire, which came closer, had been contained only ten days earlier.

Regina Marler

For weeks I kept the gas tank full and wore a respirator mask on my trips out for groceries and bottled water. (The electricity had been cut, and without it the well doesn’t work.) Mostly I stayed in with the windows shut, watching birds materialize through the smoke to land on the feeder. Blackened, blistered bay leaves spattered the driveway.

At night, I woke hourly to scan the surrounding woods for an orange glow. What if no warning came? Like almost everyone in the Bay Area, I have friends who’ve fled fires at night, driven through flames. I ran my risk assessment daily. You could say the fire had already gotten me.

Climate fiction is a genre of necessity—a new, rapidly expanding chorus of alarm. It’s beginning to seem strange not to mention climate change in realistic fiction, and not only because it’s an existential threat.

As Bill McKibben wrote in these pages, “we are entering a period when physical forces, and our reaction to them, will drive the drama on planet Earth.”

The term “climate fiction” itself came into use around the turn of this century. (Its catchy abbreviation, “cli-fi,” was coined by a blogger and environmentalist, Dan Bloom, in 2007.)

While environmental disasters have been a staple of dystopian science fiction since the late nineteenth century, writers before the mid-1960s rarely envisioned anthropogenic climate change. Terrible things just happened, like the hurricane that sweeps humanity off the planet in J.G. Ballard’s first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961).

But more recent climate fiction tends to assign blame. The reproductive toxins that render most women infertile in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for example, derive from leaking nuclear plants and discarded chemical weapon stockpiles—very much humanity’s doing. Almost all climate fiction is political now. It wants to kick the reader’s chair. . . .

In The Inland Sea, an artful debut novel by , the effects of climate change have become inescapable and relentless. The book opens during the record-setting Australian heat wave of 2013—until 2019, Australia’s hottest year on record:

Ambulance crews raced towards Circular Quay and Parramatta to tend to the elderly, the pregnant, and the very young. In the western suburbs dogs and babies were discovered comatose after five minutes left inside locked cars…. At Taronga Zoo, the lions were given milk-flavored ice blocks. Carrot-flavored ice was fed to the zebras.

Dozens of fires break out along the south coast, and flash floods follow the fires: “The ocean bled into the land. Salt water seeped into the crops. Rivers not rivers. Homes not homes.”

The narrator, who is unnamed, is adrift after dropping out of a one-year postgraduate honors program. She moves to a semi-seedy part of Sydney and takes a full-time job at an emergency call center, a temporary stopgap, she thinks. She knows the work might be stressful, but

the script we were taught on our first day was meant to shield us from distress. If all went as planned, the person calling didn’t tell us about the fire raging down their cliff or the body they’d discovered at the bottom of a gully. We waited to hear the caller engage with the paramedic or the firefighter and then quietly hung up before hearing the details. We were not meant to hear the problem. We were not meant to hear the woman howl for the baby turning blue in her arms.

[But] at work, she finds that others’ emergencies are “leaking through the borders” of her own life.

Madeleine Watts

Riveted by the calls that come into Triple Zero—Australia’s emergency call number—she jots down details in a notebook. When more than 135 fires are burning across New South Wales, a woman calls to let the fire service know that she has “chosen to go instead of stay. I lived through the fires of ’94, she told me. It’s like a war zone. Smoke everywhere. I’m not going through that again.”

The narrator thinks, but does not say, that she also remembers driving through those fires with her mother, “remember[s] the smoke and the heat and the roads blocked off and no way home.” She connects the caller to the fire brigade and writes “like a war zone” in her notebook. . . .

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