The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’
What would say H.P. Lovecraft say about climate change? His fanatical racism suggests that he would have found a great deal of common ground with Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon and countless others who have made a profession out of denying reality and scapegoating specific groups of human beings for its inconvenient incursions*. But Lovecraft would nonetheless have recognised (and, given his misanthropy, probably welcomed) the climatic transformation that is upon us, and (as the above quote suggests) would have understood our (lack of) reponse to it.
As it happens, he described the Age of the Anthropocene in (joyously unpleasant) detail:
Yet not at first were the great cities of the equator left to the spider and the scorpion. In the early years there were many who stayed on, devising curious shields and armours against the heat and the deadly dryness. These fearless souls, screening certain buildings against the encroaching sun, made miniature worlds of refuge wherein no protective armour was needed. They contrived marvellously ingenious things, so that for a while men persisted in the rusting towers, hoping thereby to cling to old lands till the searing should be over. For many would not believe what the astronomers said, and looked for a coming of the mild olden world again. But one day the men of Dath, from the new city of Niyara, made signals to Yuanario, their immemorially ancient capital, and gained no answer from the few who remained therein. And when explorers reached that millennial city of bridge-linked towers they found only silence. There was not even the horror of corruption, for the scavenger lizards had been swift.
Only then did the people fully realize that these cities were lost to them; know that they must forever abandon them to nature. The other colonists in the hot lands fled from their brave posts, and total silence reigned within the high basalt walls of a thousand empty towns. Of the dense throngs and multitudinous activities of the past, nothing finally remained. There now loomed against the rainless deserts only the blistered towers of vacant houses, factories, and structures of every sort, reflecting the sun’s dazzling radiance and parching in the more and more intolerable heat.
Typically in his stories, something terrible irrupts into our universe. Sometimes it is known by the name Cthulhu, described in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind”. It’s a non-human force, a possibly divine entity but one which is definitely not benign. Lovecraft drew on previous mythologies in creating his own. In inventing Cthulhu he was influenced by Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kracken‘**.
The first Lovecraftian stories I read were not actually by him, but by various writers about Lisbon. Their stories showed Lisbon as an emblematically Lovecraftian city, with its thousand-year history hiding all sorts of monsters. Some stories drew on the earthquake of 1788, with all that it drowned the city with and all that it buried. Lovecraft’s writing itself is extremely vivid and compelling. It lends itself particularly well to treatment by graphic novelists and is popular with creative misfits like Mark E. Smith of The Fall. The notoriously misanthropic French writer Michel Houllebecq wrote an excellent book on Lovecraft, a writer whose legacy is everpresent both in his work, while the current leading exponent and champion of Weird Fiction is China Miéville (who shares Houellebeqc’s assessment that racism is the driving force in Lovecraft’s fiction, the inspiration for his “poetic trance”).
Another fan was the critical theorist Mark Fisher (aka k-punk). In his final book (‘The Weird and the Eerie’) he writes of the ‘weird intrusion of the outside’ in Lovecraft’s fiction, the ‘traumatising ruptures in the fabric of experience itself’ occasioned by the appearance of phenomena ‘beyond our ordinary experience and conception of space and time itself’.
This echoed with something else I read recently: a book by the novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh called ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ (you can read an extract from it here). In it he argues convincingly that the modern novel is underpinned by a philosophy of gradualism. The novels of great authors such as Austen, Chatterjee and Flaubert are set in reduced and largely self-contained social worlds in which it is taken for granted that everyday life is largely predictable and ordered. The standard plot involves a disturbance from inside or outside in response to which the world of the novel reconfigures and resettles itself.
While in the time before the modern novel, popular texts such as ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘The Decameron‘ “proceeded by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another”, when we enter the worlds depicted in realist fiction we are conditioned to regard sudden cataclysmic events as contrived and implausible. This is partly because the real subject of such novels is not so much the events themselves but rather the details and stylings of the bourgeois worlds that the characters inhabit. Thus miraculous and exceptional events which overturn that world do not get a look in.
We can also see something like this in the form of soap operas. In their later years domestic dramas such as ‘Brookside’ and ‘Emmerdale’ were regularly ridiculed for using such attention-grabbing contrivances as plane crashes, fires and terrorist attacks. Such intrusions breaks the rules of realist narrative, which say that this is a stable, self-centred and largely predictable world.
How would a soap opera set in the Phillipines deal with a hurricane like Haiyan? Such increasingly commmon catastrophes undermine the dependable world of the telenovela. An interesting example of a partly anthropocenic soap opera is ‘Jane the Virgin’, which regularly features extreme weather events in order to provide far-fetched plot twists, and which works because it’s a post-modern (as in tongue-in cheek and preposterous) pastiche of the format itself.
Soap operas and the modern novel dramatise everyday life in societies which are presented as essentially stable. They are not able to portray a world which is more vulnerable to sudden cataclysm and in which events cannot be explained without making explicit our dependence on other times and places. One thing that makes Lovecraft’s fiction so frightening and unusual is its depiction of non-human forces, intrusions which challenge our agency and control as a species, and consciousnesses with which we cannot communicate or negotiate.
Of course, with what is usually referred to as genre fiction – principally fantasy and science fiction – magical and miraculous elements occur. Long before Climate Change became public knowledge JG Ballard was speculating about what an overheating planet would be like in works like ‘Drowned World’ and ‘The Drought’. The main proponent of the mini-genre apparently known as ‘cli-fi’ is of course Margaret Atwood, who has used the conventions of Science Fiction to depict a climate-induced dystopia in ‘Oryx and Crake’, ‘The Year of the Flood’ and (although I haven’t read it yet) ‘MaddAdam’.
Then there is the genre of adventure fiction with its interest in time travel, including century-old classics by Jules Vernes and HG Wells. Such works particularly inspired children’s fiction which was often set in a unchanging world whose social forms were so static no one even grows old. Thomas Pynchon parodied this form in ‘Against the Day’, which does qualify as a climate change novel given that it features Lovecraftian passages such as this:
“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.”
Anthopocenic fiction will need to be considerably more radical than what still passes for fantasy. While it purports a world entirely other, ‘Lord of the Rings’ depicts a comforting world based on a conservative mythology. It may be that ‘Game of Thrones’ (which I’ve never seen) falls into the same category, in the sense that for all its shocking elements it conveys a fundamentally reactionary view of the universe, like an even more atavistic Downton Abbey. It may also be the case that the new form of soap opera which that programme belongs to – longform Netflix/Amazon dramas which develop over several dozen (or in some cases several hundred) hours – is able to accommodate new kinds and levels of human experience. Although I haven’t talked here about cinema (one film that bears repeated attention in this context is ‘Children of Men’), it seems clear to me that the worlds presented in dystopian Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Mad Max’ are not actually predictions but prescriptions of a future world which is short on resources but high on aggression and conflict. In the modern age it is partly through bigscreen fictions that we learn how to be human.
Will we (in the words of Lovecraft) “go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”? The latter is what such films are selling. It’s no accident that the tropes they draw upon (dispensible peasants, bows and arrows, mortar and pestle) are largely medieval. Our cities already resemble those of the Middle Ages, with all their exclusions inscribed into both the visible and invisible frameworks. Lovecraft’s misanthropy is as addictive and hugely entertaining as his racism is vile; let’s hope (no matter how horrifyingly compelling the phantasmagoric soap opera that is anthropocenic politics is) that atavistic tyrants such as Trump and Putin do not turn out to be the manifestations of Cthulhu in (barely) human form that they appear to be.
*This gave the title to one of China Miéville’s novels.
**Although relativising Lovecraft’s virulent racism appears to be a sub-hobby for a few of his fans, this is not an article about that subject. Please leave your comments requesting that his racism not be discussed at the end of this (excellent) piece instead.