Past and Future Worlds: Queer and Non-Binary Dystopian Narratives

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the series, Succession: Queering the Environment, which centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.


QUEER TIME

In speculating on modern literary fiction’s silence about climate change, novelist and writer Amitav Ghosh asks, “Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the assumed barques of [fictional] narration?” (Kindle Location 8). This question appears in Ghosh’s elegantly written 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which criticizes artists, writers, historians, government leaders, policy analysts, and politicians for ignoring the life-threatening phenomenon of climate change. Ghosh predicts “future generations” will look back at our current moment and “blame the leaders and politicians” for downplaying climate change, and that these future generations “may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable” (Kindle Location 135). To explain literary fiction’s collusion in the cover-up, Ghosh characterizes the elite Western modern novel as overly individualistic, making it ill-equipped to address the disruptive, large-scale reality of the Anthropocene. With its penchant for self-contained worlds and characters, modern literary fiction sidelines environmental threat—even in place-based literary novels.

As a contrast to literary fiction, Ghosh singles out science and climate fiction— also known as “sci-fi” and “cli-fi”—as rare examples of imaginative writing that directly address global climate change. The literary establishment marginalizes these novels, classifying them as “genre” fiction. Ironically, so does Ghosh. He provides no analysis of these kinds of fiction in his book, praising only novels considered hybrid sci-fi/literary fiction– penned by famous, award-winning “literary” writers. Most dramatic, he outright dismisses the emerging field of climate fiction as one-dimensional futuristic disaster stories: “Cli-fi is made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future, and that, to me, is exactly the rub. The future is but one aspect of the Anthropocene: this era also includes the recent past, and most significantly, the present” (Kindle Location72).

Ghosh’s characterization of cli-fi as naively futuristic not only overlooks his own futuristic/predictive tendencies—the way he evokes “future generations”—but occludes the complex way cli-fi uses futuristic methodology to address the present and the past. In addition, scholars interested in queer, trans, and critical race cli-fi writers might find Ghosh’s dismissive attitude off-putting and inaccurate. In the work of women, queer, trans, and people of color cli-fi authors, the future is often depicted as an intricate maze, instead of the forward-marching movement that Ghosh’s comments assume.


“In the work of women, queer, trans, and people of color cli-fi authors, the future is often depicted as an intricate maze…”


Yet Ghosh is not the only theorist of literature disturbed by futurity. Lee Edelman’s canonical text, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, promotes a “fuck the future” stance, encouraging queers to reject the relentless heteronormative futurity evident in dominant institutions, representations, and the state. Queer ecologists claim Edelman’s book as a proto-queer ecological text, inspiring scholars to defang the toxic “save the planet for future children” reproductive futurism of mainstream environmental writing and organizing (Brochu-Ingram, Hobbs, and Sandilands 16). Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility, however, points out that queer theory is itself a form of futuristic speculation. Lothian also suggests that “There are many reproductive futurisms, often in conflict and contradiction with one another” (24). Embracing and challenging Edelman’s “no future” stance, Lothian argues that futurity isn’t always conservative and a “no future” standoff isn’t always radical, offering a nuanced approach to futurity that challenges Ghosh’s interpretation of cli-fi as a simplistic form of writing.

Lothian isn’t alone in conceptualizing futurity as entangling the present and the past. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown argue that African-American science fiction writers use time “to write [themselves] into the future” (Thomas ix). As Lothian also states, in much feminist, African American, and queer speculative fiction, “the future becomes as immediate as the present, the present as inaccessible as the past, the past as unpredictable as the future”—challenging the assessment that cli-fi always adheres to a linear structure (Lothian 255; 24). Instead, futurity is the stuff “out of which dreams and worlds can be built,” and constructing alternative futures “has meant most for those whose access to material resources in the present has been most limited” (Lothian 92; 100). In this way, future-oriented temporalities are not always heteronormative or denials of the present and the past but alternative models for approaching how time can operate in cli-fi, sci-fi, and environmental novels. Experimenting with time offers marginalized writers a way to negotiate precarious worlds, futures that may be unachievable, and characters who still survive against the odds. As Lothian reminds us, “[N]o matter how dystopian the future seems, somebody somewhere will be trying to remake it” (255). Walidah Imarisha concurs, characterizing speculative writing as a “vast space of possibility” (1).

“The Future Is Queer.” At #WerkForConsent at the Trump Hotel, Washington, DC , Miki Jourdan, January 2018. Flickr Common.

Queer authors Bev Prescott and Rivers Solomon remake the future in unique ways through the use of time and history in their dystopian novels. Set in 2092, Prescott’s 2 Degrees painstakingly illustrates climate change by evocating a bygone past, a time before climate change irreparably damaged the global world. The main character, a lesbian farmer of Abenaki ancestry who is trying to rescue her ill wife, embarks on a journey with a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse coalition of highly skilled scientific and humanitarian leaders. As interdisciplinary collaborators, they draw on land-based traditions, sciences, and the arts to devise fugitive nature-based solutions to help humans and more-than-humans adapt to the shock and extinctions caused by climate change.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts evokes the past in a different way. In Solomon’s novel, climate change has rendered the earth uninhabitable, and the remaining humans board a spaceship called HHS Matilda to search for a Promised Land. On the ship, however, white supremacy threatens the lives of the black straight, queer, and nonbinary main characters. An Unkindness of Ghosts emphasizes histories of enslavement, colonialism, and capitalism as linked to normative gender and climate violence. Both narratives present climate change as an abuse of power and feature main characters with strong attachments to nature and collective liberation.

CONFRONTING CLIMATE CHANGE

As if inadvertently responding to Amitav Ghosh’s call for literary action on climate change, Bev Prescott’s cli-fi novel, 2 Degrees, plasters the realities of climate change on almost every page. The novel also brings to mind David Mura’s theory of creative writing as discussed in his book, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing. Mura theorizes creative writing as the potential to “challenge the accepted”; “create new knowledge, new discourse”; and expose “the erasures no one talks about” (17). 2 Degrees refers to wars, famine, floods, drought, storms, disease, food shortages, and poisoned water to illustrate the effects of climate change– “Jagged fingers of broken glass jutted from rotting window sills, all of it reminders of the time before relentless storms, disease, and human conflict ripped the world apart” (Kindle Location 74). Instead of concealing the realities of climate change as Ghosh says literary fiction does, Prescott broadcasts them.


“Jagged fingers of broken glass jutted from rotting window sills, all of it reminders of the time before relentless storms, disease, and human conflict ripped the world apart.” – Bev Prescott, 2 Degrees


2 Degrees also uses references to history to emphasize the loss of landscapes, animals, plants, and humans — “Much of the Great Plains, and everything west of the Rockies, had morphed with climate change into desert. The land between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, meanwhile, turned hot and tropical” (Kindle Location 754). The novel’s main character, Sharon, mourns the loss of landscapes, plants, animals, and her entire family. She remembers “her beloved farmhouse blazing with her parents’ bodies inside. The plague that had killed them played by the rule of kill or be killed” (Kindle Location 1066). Sharon’s wife, Eve, a Chinese-American Harvard-trained botanist who has blood cancer, is her only family now. But Eve is “taken to the Asian internment camp in Chicago” and Sharon sets out to find her (Kindle Location 1222).

In the course of Sharon’s journey, she joins the Qaunik people, a collection of underground scientists, doctors, humanists, and activists headed by Wilhelmina Woodhouse, a Muslim woman known as “Woody.” A brilliant, wise, humane leader, Woody earned a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering at age seventeen. In addition to practicing renegade science– colleges and universities have been disbanded–Woody’s daily goals include “To meditate. To connect with the people and history that I came from. To connect with the people I’m with now. To connect with myself. To connect with our dying planet” (Kindle Locations 1611 and 1688). Woody’s commitment to love a dying planet resonates with queer ecologist Cate Sandilands’s observation that we can complicate our attachments to nature, suggesting a “kind of political, embodied understanding of death and mourning” based in the experiences of the AIDS pandemic (334). Woody’s approach to planetary destruction illustrates Sandilands’s call for “a public record of environmental loss, an ‘archive of ecological trauma’” (342).

Sharon’s interaction with Woody and the interdisciplinary team introduces her to new nature-inspired strategies that mitigate the effects of climate change. As Woody explains, she and her team “collaborated on designing biospheres that could keep people alive during the worst of climate change” (Kindle Location 2785). Woody tells Sharon that, to do their work, they must pay close attention to nature (Kindle Location 2868). In this way, the Qaunik’s nature-based technologies differ from traditional disembodied techno-fix solutions prevalent in Western white male-dominated science fiction and climate change literature.

Woody’s renegade team draw strength from a futuristic, visionary sensibility that echoes Lavelle Ridley’s ideas about trans futures in her article, “Imagining Otherly: Performing Black Trans Futures in Tangerine.” In this article, Ridley talks about the importance of “daring to imagine” as a form of “knowledge production,” insisting that, “[N]o matter the outcome, the gesture of daring to imagine . . . might be a productive move toward collective liberation and personal joy” (487; 488). Daring to imagine as a form of resistance emerges in 2 Degrees as well, as the Qaunik’s underground science program exemplifies. But even before joining the Qaunik people, Sharon and Eve spend many years quietly creating a garden that produces edible fruit and vegetables– “[T]hey managed to find what they needed to build the underground oasis that included the plants, lights, and reclamation system that continuously recycled moisture, carbon dioxide, oxygen and other nutrients” (Kindle Location 563).


“[N]o matter the outcome, the gesture of daring to imagine . . . might be a productive move toward collective liberation and personal joy.” – Lavelle Ridley


2 Degrees, in its relentless commitment to exposing climate change, emphasizes politicized mourning combined with daring efforts to produce climate-change action steps. It features characters and a coalition of interdisciplinary leaders who survive life on a permanently damaged planet, suggesting that, while daring to imagine is not a guarantee of a particular outcome, it is nevertheless an act of empowerment. Sharon, in joining Woody and the Qaunik people, enacts Ridley’s vision of “collective liberation” in the midst of a devastated human and more-than-human world. As Sandilands might put it, 2 Degrees illustrates how “the natural world [is] a field of intimately mourned lives and possibilities” (355).

DECOLONIZING THE ANTHROPOCENE [1]

While Bev Prescott’s 2 Degrees puts climate change at the center, focusing on environmental mourning and a subversive human collective, Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts approaches it differently. Solomon emphasizes how human responses to an endangered, uninhabitable earth inspire–rather than curtail–white supremacy, the glorification of gender binaries, and economic injustice. In Solomon’s novel, humans board a spaceship called the HHS Matilda and recreate an autocratic society that reproduces the “old” structures and ideologies of American slavery. To illustrate this, Solomon models the ship on an antebellum Southern plantation, with the lower decks designated for poor people and female-identified queer and straight women of color, including the protagonist—a black, gender-nonconforming, intersex, neurodivergent genius named Aster Grey. Aster–who uses both she and they pronouns–embarks on a mission to decode her deceased mother’s journals for clues to bringing about the freedom of the lower deck community. The novel ends with Aster escaping Matilda to a rehabilitated earth.

While Prescott uses a historical perspective to document devasted landscapes and extinctions, Solomon draws on black feminist afrofuturist traditions reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s “Histofuturist” method.[2] Emphasizing how the future is a replication of the past, Solomon assumes entanglements between climate cataclysms and structures of racial, sexual, and gender oppression, stressing the aftermath of slavery instead of its alleged end. As one of Solomon’s characters says, “History wanted to be remembered. Evidence hated having to live in dark, hidden places and devoted itself to resurfacing” and “Ancestors are everywhere if you are looking” (Kindle Locations 802- 806). References to the “resurfacing” of history in the novel merge slavery and colonialism into the analysis of the Anthropocene—evoking the work of Christina Sharpe, Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, Kathryn Yusoff, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and, to a lesser extent, Amitav Ghosh.[3] Similar to Solomon in An Unkindness of Ghosts, these scholars identify capitalist practices of enslavement, invasion, white supremacy, and colonialism as climate change. For instance, Kathryn Yusoff explores the consequences of “Whiteness as the color of universality” on the field of geology–a discipline she argues should be renamed “White Geology” (Kindle Locations 909; 110). Yet the text that most resonates with Solomon’s fictional vision is Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, which “recogniz[es] antiblackness as total climate” (21). As Sharpe explains, “The means and modes of Black subjection may have changed, but the fact and structure of subjection remain” (21; 12).[4]

Solomon braids climate change, slavery, and colonialism together to reimagine what “counts” as a cli-fi novel. Even though humans save themselves and search for a Promised Land—the purported mission of the HHS Matilda—they easily fall back on white supremacy. On board the ship are routine beatings and rapes of black girls and lesbian, queer, and straight black women; food shortages; executions, including of a black, non-binary child; deliberately scheduled power blackouts and lack of heat and water for those living on the “lower decks”; and a violent authoritarian theocracy—all revealing how the real urgency before humanity is—as Christina Sharpe says–“antiblackness as total climate” ( 21). For instance, Aster mourns the loss of their childhood friend, Giselle Nwaku, to the ship’s violence, describing Giselle as “a person with myriad psychological disturbances, the logical outcome of the trauma she suffered. I estimate she experienced ninety-one events that could be described as intense trauma, but data is scarce and inconclusive” (Kindle Location 4931). Based on what Aster has experienced and witnessed, her deepest craving is “to be able to peer into herself and see more than what Matilda had made her” (Kindle Location 3892).


Black people lived in a dystopian world long before research scientists discovered the Anthropocene.”


Traditional approaches to environmental literature and climate change fiction might lead some critics to conclude that Solomon’s novel could be “more environmental” and that it should include detailed accounts of the destruction caused by climate change. But such a criticism would overlook Solomon’s main point: black people lived in a dystopian world long before research scientists discovered the Anthropocene. White supremacy, in addition to religious patriarchy, economic injustice, and gender binaries, have made life on earth a disaster for black people and other marginalized cultures and communities for many centuries.

Solomon’s novel speaks to this history, inspiring queer eco-critics to continue to ask: What should we talk about when we talk about climate change and environmentalism? Who and what controls what we can and cannot talk about? From a black queer gender non-conforming feminist critical race perspective, Solomon’s answer is that, for a climate change analysis to be capacious and equitable, it must center slavery, colonialism, and their aftermaths.

Whereas Amitav Ghosh encourages modern literary novelists to confront the topic of climate change by showcasing it in their fiction, Solomon urges us to see climate change in relation to race, ethnicity, class, and, most important, white supremacy. Approaching the novel using the kind of decolonial lens Solomon’s novel is proposing recalls Walidah Imarisha’s call for “visionary fiction,” a form of fugitive creative writing by black science fiction authors that deliberately challenges the “mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power” (1). Greta Gaard’s work also asserts this strategic intervention, noting that “[c]li-fi narratives have the potential to present not just a techno-science story but rather to narrate our . . . differences of gender, race, nation, economics and ecologies, sexuality and species” (158).

Solomon does this work by exploring differences when referring to the scientists on the Matilda who develop technologies that simulate idyllic natural landscapes reserved for “upper deck” straight white Christians–bringing to mind how black, poor, and brown people in the United States and elsewhere are disproportionately relegated to geographical areas without access to clean air, water, and wondrous natural views. In this way, Solomon makes clear that power is at the heart of climate violence–the world’s most powerful want to preserve their power more than they want to preserve the human and more-than-human world and the dignity of all species. Ironically, Amitav Ghosh may never read Solomon’s novel because of its “genre” classification, but in a 2016 roundtable discussion published in The Journal of Asian Studies, he proposes a question that resonates with Solomon’s vision of power as set forth in their novel. Ghosh asks, “What if it is precisely the prospect of a reduction in global inequities . . . that motivates the world’s powerful to drag their feet on climate change mitigation”? (953).

CONFLUENCE

Bev Prescott’s 2 Degrees and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts symbolize how two very different approaches to climate change can still overlap. 2 Degrees focuses on planetary destruction caused by climate change, and An Unkindness of Ghosts critiques what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the “White Supremacy Scene.” Nevertheless, the two novels present fictional worlds that confront silence and power. Both show how queer and trans communities are aligned with nature, society, and the world instead of against them, and both suggest the unique ways that queer and trans narratives imagine climate futures– despite the fact that, historically, these are the same communities that have been cast as “futureless” and moral and physical “disasters.”

In addition, each novel features characters from historically marginalized communities who have a passionate relationship to plants, nature, and the earth. Prescott dedicates her book to a “scrappy chinstrap penguin” she met in Alaska who, because of the earth’s rising temperatures, had to build a nest in a dangerously exposed, muddy location (Kindle Location 4057). Solomon ends their novel with Aster burying her brilliant scientist mother and childhood friend Giselle and laying in their grave “sheathed” in the earth’s dirt ( Kindle Location 5021). Both Aster and Sharon’s wife, Eve, are gifted botanists and healers who work to support their communities and the earth. Sharon learned land-based values and practices from her Abenaki mother—”Every speck of soil, the trees, and the plants—they all formed the building blocks of her identity (Kindle Location 717).” Aster survives life on the brutal Matilda in part by taking enormous comfort in her fugitive “botanarium’s moss-covered walls [and] the vine-strangled support beams. Rows and rows of her botanical progeny welcomed Aster with their familiar order” (Kindle Location 2550).


“Both novels demonstrate the resistant courage of queer and trans imagination.”


Finally, both novels demonstrate the resistant courage of queer and trans imagination, resonating with queer critical theorist and philosopher Judith Butler’s observation that “Sometimes only imaginary worlds can shed light on history or modes of life, on moral dilemmas and emotional realities” (n.p.). An Unkindness of Ghosts and 2 Degrees expose the moral and ethical dilemmas of climate change in complex and compelling ways, demonstrating the linkages between literature and power, and showing the varying ways that queer literary narratives engage climate violence and the ongoing disaster of white supremacy.


Feature Image: Nettrice Beattie at IBM Exhibit A, Opensource Obscure, May 30, 2010, Flickr Commons.


Notes:

  1. This section title is inspired by Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene.”
  2. Shelley Streeby analyzes this term and Octavia Butler’s work in Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism.
  3. Because of space limitations, I am unable to develop the many resonances between Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts and Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene”; Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being; Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None; and Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “It’s Not the Anthropocene, It’s the White Supremacy Scene, Or, The Geological Color Line.” In terms pf connections among Amitav Ghosh’s work, Solomon’s, and the scholars cited above, Ghosh brings a colonial/postcolonial approach to climate change, asserting, “empire is not only alive and well but is also an integral element of the history and political dynamics of climate change” (Journal of Asian Studies 951). I develop a fuller decolonial, queer, critical race perspective on climate fiction/climate analysis in relation to Solomon’s novel in my forthcoming manuscript, Imagining Climate Futures through Queer and Trans Literature.
  4. Though Solomon’s novel and Sharpe’s book were published before COVID 19, both writers’ ideas overlap with those of Roxanne Gay’s recent New York Times column on police brutality in the age of COVID 19. Gay writes, “The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.” Solomon’s novel similarly suggests how before, during, and after the destruction of climate change, there is no escape from white supremacy for black people.
  5. Prescott’s title refers to the probable rise in the earth’s temperature by two degrees, effectively rendering the planet forever uninhabitable.

Work Cited:

Brochu-Ingram, Gordon Brent, Peter Hobbs, and Catriona Sandilands. “Queer Ecologies Roundtable Discussion: Part 1: From Queer Nature to Queer Ecologies.” UnderCurrents 19, 2015, 16.

Butler, Judith. “A Dissenting View from the Humanities on the AAUP’s Statement on Knowledge In defense of critical inquiry.” Academe, American Association of University Professors, Spring 2020, https://www.aaup.org/article/dissenting-view-humanities-aaup%E2%80%99s-statement-knowledge#.XtksB2pKj0s

Gay, Roxanne. “Remember, No One is Coming to Save Us.” New York Times, May 30, 2020.  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/opinion/sunday/trump-george-floyd-coronavirus.html  Accessed June 4, 2020

Davis, Heather and Zoe Todd. “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 16 (4), 2017, 761-780.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Duke University Press, 2004.

Gaard, Greta. Critical Ecofeminism Lexington Books, 2017.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,Kindle ed., 2016, The University of Chicago Press.

Imarisha, Walidah “Introduction.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movement, AK Press, 2015, 1.

Lothian, Alexis. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility, 2018, New York University Press.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “It’s Not the Anthropocene, It’s the White Supremacy Scene, Or, The Geological Color Line.” In, Richard Grusin (ed.), After Extinction. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Mura, David. A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing. 2018, The University of Georgia Press.

Ridley, Lavelle. “Imagining Otherly: Performing Black Trans Futures in Tangerine.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4, 2019, 481-490.

Sandilands, Catriona. “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Indiana University Press, 2010, 331-358.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Streeby, Shelley. Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism, University of California Press, 2018.

Thomas, Julia Adeney, Prasannan Parthasarathi, Rob Lintothe, Fa-Ti Fan, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Amitav Ghosh. “JAS Round Table on Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 75, No. 4 (November), 2016, 929–955.

Thomas, Sheree Renée. “Foreword Birth of a Revolution.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movement, AK Press, 2015, ix.

Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kindle ed., 2018, University of Minnesota Press.

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Katie Hogan

Katie Hogan is a professor of English and faculty affiliate of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her book Women Take Care: Gender, Race, and the Culture of AIDS was a finalist for the CGS Gustave O. Arlt Award in the Humanities. Hogan’s current project is Imagining Climate Futures through Queer and Trans Fiction.

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