Last year, novelist, bird lover, and wind-turbine hater Jonathan Franzen wrote a curious essay about climate change. In it, he argued that humanity will fail to divert global disaster. Radical collective action is needed to save the planet, he said, but human nature is incompatible with making the necessary changes. The essay—titled “What If We Stopped Pretending?”—vexed a wide-ranging coalition of climate scientists, activists, energy researchers, and environmental reporters. (Perhaps it’s easier to unite people behind a common cause than Franzen suspects.)
As someone who disdains internet culture, Franzen may not be familiar with the term “doomer,” an archetype born in online forums, but his outlook overlaps with the doomer perspective. Not nihilistic, exactly, but melancholic, resigned, and sometimes susceptible to reactionary politics.
Doomers are not a happy lot. An image posted to 4chan of a depressive dude smoking a cigarette highlights prototypical traits. “Cares … but knows there’s nothing he can do,” one of the captions surrounding the image reads. Another: “High Risk for Opioid Addiction.” If doomers were to write a manifesto, they could crib from Franzen’s essay.
They wouldn’t find much inspiration in his books, though—Franzen’s doomerism does not extend to his novels. While the author’s crabby tendencies do seep into his work occasionally—Walter’s rants in Freedom often feel like the writer using his character as a pulpit—the overall affect of his fiction is tender, bordering on hopeful. Maybe Franzen’s next book will be Corrections 2: The Great Midwestern Drought, and he’ll go all-in on havoc. If so, it’ll join a growing body of work that could be called “doomer lit”—writing that takes seriously the idea that catastrophe is our fate, and despondency a rational response.
Sure enough, a doomer perspective seems most at home in so-called climate fiction (cli-fi for short). The genre, which imagines stories and worlds shaped by climate change, is sometimes considered a cousin of science fiction. For the most part, cli-fi titles traffic in danger but contain optimistic codas, allowing their characters to triumph or at least survive. But there is a growing offshoot of more downbeat fare. Andrew Milner, a literary critic and the author of the forthcoming Science Fiction and Climate Change, has tracked the trend. Along with his co-author, J. R. Burgmann, he calls pessimistic fatalism one of the major “paradigmatic responses to climate change in recent fiction.”
An early example of this grim subgenre, Milner says, is Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel The Stone Gods. Set on an Earth-like planet called Orbus, The Stone Gods observes its characters preparing to colonize a new world known only as Planet Blue. As the plot circles back on itself, it becomes clear this is not the first time humans have tried to start fresh. “It’s so depressing if we keep making the same mistakes again and again,” Billie, the narrator, says. She then makes the same mistakes again and again. The Stone Gods is a lively, funny novel, given to whimsical flourishes. (There are far more robot-related sex jokes than one might expect.) But Billie’s story is about reckoning with annihilation. Doomer lit doesn’t have to be dour—it is distinguished by its core fatalism rather than its tone. (The 90s television show Dinosaurs is, oddly enough, both a comedy for children and a candidate for an even earlier instance of doomer art. It ends with the titular dinosaurs dying because their industrial projects triggered a global environmental collapse.)
More recently, Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 Gold Fame Citrus personalizes the crisis. Set in a near-future American West reduced to a dune-covered wasteland, it follows a young couple—melancholic former model Luz and kind drifter Ray—as they search for refuge and find even more mayhem in a desert cult. Things do not go well, freedom is found only in death, hope is a mirage, etc. There are moments where it seems as though the characters might pluck beauty from the devastation they endure, as when Luz reads the “Neo-Fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea,” a taxonomy of creatures the cult leader Levi has compiled as proof that the dunes hold life. (Entries include the land eel, the Mojave ghost crab, and the ouroboros rattler.) But Luz is unable to move forward in this ruined world, and Watkins’ story is, in the end, hard-edged and brutal.
Historically, most art about climate change and ecological and health crises has turned away from whole-cloth negativism. The 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s big-budget “what if climate change but blockbuster” movie, somehow imagines a world where a weather apocalypse happens … and somehow fixes the environment in the end. Even dirge-like apocalyptic works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men have endings that temper the misery of their worlds with a sense of possibility. Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer portrays class war among the few survivors of a global cold snap in which almost everyone in the world has perished and most of the remaining people left are fed cockroach sludge and made to toil in abject conditions—but ends with a moment of triumph. Well, maybe: It’s unclear whether those two kids can survive the frozen tundra.
It’s fun to cheer when the heroes prevail against all odds, but there’s a reason appetites for tragedy persist across cultures and time periods. Sometimes audiences just want to see tears. Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather, resists a happy ending, preferring instead to linger in despair. It might be the most meditative and emblematic entry into the new doomer canon, a book whose protagonist essentially has Franzen’s essay running on a loop in her head. Offill’s narrator, a Brooklynite librarian named Lizzie, frets endlessly over impending chaos. “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days,” Lizzie says. “No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.”
Lizzie devotes herself to catastrophic thinking, and her panic is limitless, coloring even her stray thoughts. She knows how to make a candle from a can of tuna, how to start a fire with a battery and gum wrapper. She recites survivalist techniques as emotional ballast against her sense of imminent oblivion. In addition to her work at the library, she answers letters for her former academic mentor, a woman who runs a podcast called Hell or High Water. Sample question: How will the last generation know it is the last generation? She struggles to respond to these inquiries without sounding nihilistic. As her husband puts it, “Lizzie’s become a crazy doomer.”
Like Franzen, Offill’s register is domestic realism, and Weather takes place in the near-past and present. “We’ve started to see many more books addressing the issue of climate change that don’t feel like science fiction at all,” Amy Brady, whose Chicago Review of Books column “Burning Worlds” catalogs climate change fiction, says. “They’re set in the present day and addressing climate change as we experience it in the here and now.” Lizzie’s fears of the end of the world are not resolved by the end of the novel because her world is contemporary, still on the precipice of crisis as it concludes.
Hope, though, is not lost. After the story ends, Weather offers readers a URL: www.obligatorynoteofhope.com. The webpage is an extratextual consolation-slash-call to action for readers, with a galley of inspirational people and lists of organizations to volunteer with or give money. It’s a strange asterisk, as the most distinguishing element of Weather is how committed it is to capturing anomie. Perhaps it was meant to shield Weather from some of the criticism that Franzen’s essay received. Some of Franzen’s detractors worried that internalizing his message could discourage efforts to halt or reverse environmental damage, that his gloom could be catching. What they seemed to miss is that most people are already plenty apathetic, and that representing such apathy so plainly might force audiences to reckon with the fact of their giving up.
Weather is the most high-profile literary novel to take climate change anxiety as its overarching theme to date, but it has a companion piece in Paul Shrader’s 2017 film First Reformed. Ethan Hawke plays a priest who agonizes over environmental degradation, to the detriment of his mental health and physical wellbeing. The fatalism in First Reformed isn’t petrifying, it’s bracing. It treats its tortured oddball and his radical congregants’ concerns as valid, while a happier movie might minimize or dismiss them. This is the gift of doomer art–it’s an outlet for angst, not its cause.
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