SH: Overshoots

The 30 January issue of Strange Horizons is dedicated to the memory of Maureen Kincaid Speller, and includes several direct tributes; I’d point you to, in particular, Paul Kincaid’s “Thinking Fresh” and Romie Stott’s wonderful poem, “In Review“. My contribution to the essay is tribute by way of practice: an essay titled “In Search of Green Overshoots“, which grew out of a Twitter discussion last summer, and is an attempt to describe how novels with a particular structure work and how they feel to read.

This general topic—of how stories can be organised within a novel to manage reader expectations and emotions—is a big one. What I’m working around to introducing here is my interest in another specific structure that is also common but which I think doesn’t yet have a name. This is strange, because in fact I think the structure is becoming more common, perhaps particularly among writers published outside SF. Mitchell once again provides a widely read model: The Bone Clocks (2014), like Cloud Atlas, contains six stories, and like Cloud Atlas stretches from the past, through the present, into the future, albeit over a more compressed span—a single human life, one of the titular “bone clocks.” But this time the stories are arranged linearly, like beads on a single thread, rather than multiple threads entwined.

My suggestion is that this linear structure generates a number of characteristic effects, and that “overshoot” might be a good name for the structure because it captures some of the emotional valence of those effects; and further, that this structure is perhaps particularly well-suited to dramatising the progress of the anthropocene, hence green overshoots.

Nick Hubble has already attempted to think-through the extent to which these ideas apply to Christopher Priest’s latest novel, Expect Me Tomorrow, which is certainly an anthropocene novel, and by the sounds of it a structurally interesting one, but not an overshoot in the sense I was originally thinking of. The street finds its own uses for critical terminology, though:

So, I have explained in some detail why Expect Me Tomorrow is, at best, an awkward fit for the overshoot paradigm. Why then discuss it in these terms? […] I couldn’t help wondering whether there are actually two parallel processes going on here: one being how the need to make sense of climate change drives a shift in how narrative functions and the other being how the sustained commitment to rework narrative (such as demonstrated over Priest’s career) itself drives a paradigm change, with the potential of opening the doors of human perception, and thus releasing us from the consensus reality of industrial modernity, so that we can actually change our ways. In other words, Expect Me Tomorrow continues the overshoot trajectory of Priest’s own oeuvre, which I have described as ‘a persistence of the New Wave’ that refuses to collapse into the imposed coherence of consensual capitalist realism. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been making my way through The Deluge by Stephen Markley (author interview), which I picked up precisely because it seemed to make use of an overshoot structure. And what I found is that it both does and doesn’t. One habit of science fiction writers that I’ve often enjoyed is when they publish short stories that are off-cuts, alternate versions, or pendants to their final novels; in that spirit, here’s a discussion of The Deluge that could serve as part five of the original essay, although hopefully it stands reasonably well alone.

Typical. You wait for ages for a massive multi-decade granular near future novel depicting social and political efforts to deal with climate change, and then two come along in three years. The Deluge is unlike Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future in quite a few ways, but the two novels are alike enough in scale and overall project that it seems futile to resist comparing them. Both are earnest attempts to provide a roadmap for the next few decades; both achieve panorama partly through formal variation, with different chapters deploying different styles and structures; both are non-apocalyptic, although things get pretty bad. If you started reading them in parallel, however, one difference would be immediately apparent. The Ministry for the Future is purely science fiction; its start date is unspecified, but after the publication date of the novel. The Deluge, by contrast, begins in 2013.

In fact The Deluge spends its first hundred pages in our past, introducing the primary cast of characters who will guide us through the next twenty years. They include Tony Pietrus, a cantankerous climate scientist whose wife has died of cancer; Shane, the ringleader of a US ecoterrorist network; Jackie, an upwardly mobile marketing director; Keeper, an opioid addict in the derelict Midwest; Hassan, the novel’s requisite probably-autistic genius analyst; and Matt, a would-be novelist who falls into the orbit of Kate Morris, the novel’s most prominent activist, who never receives her own narrative but about whom everyone has opinions. After this meet-and-greet – each character in in turn, each chapter another inexorable year on in the timeline, occasionally interspersed with articles from the likes of Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post – the novel largely skips over COVID and resumes its rotation in the mid-2020s, focusing at first on the political struggle to pass meaningful climate legislation in the US by the end of the decade. So the novel has an overshoot structure, albeit a forshortened one: ABCDEF[P]QRSTUV … I think you have to keep going to about AH (using the Excel trick of adding another letter when you run out of alphabet) to reach the end of the book.

By the time of that jump to the 2020s, more philosophical differences with The Ministry for the Future are apparent. They relate to scope, and to the theory of change that each book pursues. The Ministry for the Future sets out to answer the question, what would it take to heave the world onto a more sustainable path? Its answer is, at the broadest level, international cooperation driven by an actor network. The question driving The Deluge, by contrast, is not what it would take, but whether it is even possible; and more specifically, whether it is possible for the political and social institutions of the US to take the necessary steps. Its big 2020s fight, as I say, is Washington-legislative. Kate Morris’s activist organisation, A Fierce Blue Fire, has entered the fray with a single-mindedness reminiscent of the Christian right-wing supporting Trump, which is to say, any sin is forgivable as long as a politician will agree to support the one thing they feel matters. A candidate can be anti-reproductive rights, anti-healthcare, pro-immigrant detention, and all the rest, as long as they are anti-carbon; and, thanks both to their efforts and in part to a Republican establishment that finally loses patience with its base and re-engineers its primary process accordingly, a “Green Tea” president and supportive congress are duly elected.

Markley has spoken in interviews about the challenges of getting “the teeth of the zipper” to join up between present and future – to the point of planning revisions to the novel in subsequent editions – and the strain does show. In place of Ministry‘s actor-networks, The Deluge is fully invested in charisma as a necessary driver of American political change, whether that’s politicians themselves, or outside actors like Kate. It means that particularly in these early-to-mid stages, the narrative is populated by an uneasy mix of actually-existing politicians and notables (there is a joint op-ed from The New York Times by Al Gore, Bill McKibben and James Hansen), transparent stand-ins for actually-existing politicians who might not take kindly to their portraits, and invented-out-of-whole-cloth figures, notably the new president (and indeed all successive presidents in the book: probably the least convincing aspect of the political chicanery depicted, for me, was that the US goes the best part of two decades without electing a two-term president: perhaps a commentary on the instability of the time, but I think still relatively improbable given the historically documented advantages of incumbency). The result, while extremely readable, contains some bumpy narrative lurches between realpolitik and wish-fulfilment. I found myself, perhaps oddly, wishing the story had started earlier, perhaps around 2000, to provide more of a run-in to the future: the narrative, although frequently compelling in its own right, for me lacks the sense of extra-textual momentum that the most effective overshoot stories generate, the first hundred pages serving only as a prologue. 

When the 2020s legislative push falls apart, as it does inevitably and painfully, with attendant backlash, the novel loses a clear centre and gains intensity. Kate’s organisation fractures; Shane’s is emboldened; the next president is an authoritarian security-state nightmare; in the background, various technologies advance; and for a long time, none of the characters who are trying to fix things have any clear theory about what might work. Meanwhile Markley punctuates his chronology with a series of gripping set-piece disasters, reminders of the larger effect-event in progress, such as a megafire in Los Angeles; yet his canvas feels so expansive (even as it remains trained on the US) that such disastrous events get subsumed into the flow in a way uncannily familiar from recent history. Just another day in the anthropocene. Unlike – for instance – the disastrous Indian heatwave that opens The Ministry for the Future, which is rendered with a similar intensity, Markley’s disasters never providing turning points in the way you might hope, although they often have second-order consequences. In the end the novel came to feel sufficiently immersive that, for me at least, it’s not entirely easy to talk about it as literature: sometimes whole chapters are given over to synopsising recent events in a way that makes them feel more like memoir.

In its answer to its central question, however – can the US do this? – The Deluge returns to the conventions of genre literary fiction by offering the only answer that Markley seems to feel will be accepted as legitimate: maybe. There are big wins, but big defeats; activism works, except when it messes things up; politics messes things up, except when it works; the same for terrorism; people are terrible, except when they can change, and people can change, except when they never do. In a novel that often feels like a documentary – that is, like a recreation of events that have happened, when these answers are known – such ambivalence feels a little unsatisfying, although there’s enough incidental pleasure along the way that I’ll take one Deluge over any ten straightforward dystopias you care to name. And to give at least partial credit, I think what Markley thinks he wants to say is that even after 900 pages we have to go and make our own answers. Fair enough.

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