Cli-fi is producing many and diverse narratives of human-induced global disaster, and this star-studded anthology Drowned Worlds is one of the more curious. The list of contributing authors includes some of the absolute best among modern science fiction and weird fiction writers: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Liu, Paul McAuley, Jeffrey Ford, Catherynne M. Valente, Nina Allen, etc. etc. Australian author and editor Jonathan Strahan has produced a collection with an unique flavor, though, and in many ways it’s not what you might expect at all.
The title and the editor both pay tribute to the inspiration of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, that prescient piece of nascent cli-fi first published in 1962. Strahan lauds this “lush, powerful book that tells of a post-apocalyptic world … seen through a romantic haze that hangs over the flooded, inundated ruins of a world laid waste by rising oceans.” Many of the stories in the collection, indeed almost all, share a similar dreamlike or fantastic Ballardian ambience of a world long past the climate change, where remnants of our current civilization often persist just as fantastic fragments. Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Future is Blue” is one of the most dazzling, effective instances of this mosaic approach, where survivors cling to Sargasso rafts of floating debris in a world in which the seas have swallowed all solid land. Jeffrey Ford’s “What is,” set in dry Midwest desert country where climate change’s Okies pursue pointless, mutually destructive squabbles over dwindling supplies, is the main standout exception, as well as the bleakest story in the book. Others take all kinds of diverse excursions into possible post-inundation scenarios. Christopher Rowe’s “Brownsville Station,” for instance, has an almost steampunk air in its depiction of railway tunnels threatened by flooding. Sean Williams’s “The New Venusians,” meanwhile, is not the only story to take a flyer into a far distance future where much of the drama involves space travel and other worlds – in this case, a climate-changed Venus facing its own ecocalypse. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Venice Drowned,” by comparison, is an almost prosaic account of the salvage trade in a submerged Venice, with the last Venetians perching in rooftop apartments above the risen waves.
I’d have only one caveat to this often sparkling collection, and that’s as much an ideological beef as a literary one. There is a certain unity of tone and focus in these wistful, elegaic memorials to a world long drowned – very much in the Ballardian spirit, but unlikely (except perhaps for Jeffrey Ford’s story) to evoke anger and activism. Strahan rightly says in his introduction that the Anthropocene is “a time of darkness and disaster, and it’s a time we have to face, to confront, and combat,” yet his anthology doesn’t contain direct accounts of that heroic, if doomed, struggle against rising waves or shifting climates. If many of the authors here are to be believed, the battle is already lost, and we might as well learn to love living among the gravestones and memorials of a dead world. I hope not. For one thing, how then would we ever be able to publish, and read, excellent collections like this?