The Year in Reading and Watching, 2020
by Christopher Brown
This summer I showed our toddler daughter her older brother’s copy of , one of the seminal books of my own childhood. Too early for her to really appreciate, and as I tried to explain the picture of Pandora and all the creatures she was blamed for unleashing, I wondered if maybe it wasn’t ready for a more 21st century rethink. But if we want to invent better stories to help our descendants survive the damaged world we bequeath them, we first need to better understand the ones we thought we knew.
At the beginning of the year I had been digging into a different compilation of those stories: Robert Graves’ annotated two-volume 1955 rendition of . I was looking for a deeper understanding of the stories of Demeter and Persephone, which my juvenile appetite for hero’s journeys had always caused me to skim. I was working on the final revisions to my new novel, an effort to track the path to a rewilded future. And after what feels like a decade of noodling on the subject, I had honed in on the idea that the root of our problems is that the bargain with Demeter was a bad deal.
The bargain is there in the , one of the earliest surviving sources of the Greek myths, but one I had never read until this past year. In that poem is the story of the seasons of plant life, of human hunger, and of the creation of a grand temple to the goddess of agriculture in exchange for the secrets that will let us feed our children. The temple is the real-world site at Eleusis where Demeter’s secrets were dispensed in one of the great ritual pilgrimages and festivals of antiquity, secrets that were successfully kept from us. And in that temple, and that bargain, is the protean city-state that rises from fields brought under the plow, the entity that manages the surplus and wealth agriculture endows, and the source of the indenture to labor by which we all live, and to which we subjugate the entire planet.
In one of his notes, Graves seems to be saying he knows what the Eleusinian Mysteries were, with his poet’s approach to the idea of fact. But his decrypting of mythic and ritual encodings of the invention of agriculture—human control over plant reproduction, which follows control over the reproduction of animals and of other humans—does seem to be mining deeper truths, especially when he layers in the subsequent capture of those powers by patriarchy. And if you layer over that your own climate crisis revelation that to fix our planetary problems in any real way we need to hack the grain monocultures that are the true fundaments of our civilizations, it gives Graves’ efforts to see the real figures and stories on which the pantomime is based more potential power.
As my fictional hit the shelves in what had revealed itself as a real one in the intervening months, my reading and viewing turned to material related to the next project I had in mind, what I had described in my notes as “eco-horror”—an imprecise and misleading term for stories that use our adversarial relationship with the natural world as the primary engine of conflict. A smarter and better-read friend who is an actual horror writer suggested eco-horror is better thought of as a critical lens than an actual sub-genre. To me, it means any work that uses fiction to try to look honestly at our relationship with the wild. Feral fiction.
The science fiction I grew up with was full of stories of a rewilded world. They were usually presented as stories of the end of the world, which really means the end of civilization, and they always found in that scenario an intrinsic romance. Indeed, the settings of those postwar post-apocalypses, with their images of cities underwater, overtaken by antediluvian foliage, or populated with the kind of gigantic animals our species has exterminated from the Earth, clearly share an aesthetic with Romantic landscape painting of the 19th century—revealing that the world gone back to wild is not really the dystopia it’s pitched as, but something closer to utopia.
I reread from some of my favorites of that subgenre this year, including Ballard’s and Walker Percy’s , and read from two others for the first time—John Wyndham’s seminal and weird , and John Christopher’s smarter and more truly ecologically-based . All of them fit firmly into the category Brian Aldiss aptly dubbed “cosy catastrophes”—stories in which civilization is collapsing and everyone is dying off, but some educated white guy on whom the story centers is having a pretty great time, enjoying his liberation from work, access to abundant abandoned property, and opportunities for a return to more primitive modes of dominion. Visions of rewilding that manage mainly to distill a purer essence of patriarchy, one that comes without the responsibility demanded by the state.
Feral fiction in film
I discovered , a story of humanity brought to its knees by a pandemic that kills grain crops, after seeing the 1971 Cornel Wild adaptation right before the real-world pandemic arrived, part of a collection of 1970s sci-fi dystopias curated by the Criterion Channel. And my hunt for great works of eco-horror led me to another remarkable movie starring two of the same actors: , the only feature film by the title designer Saul Bass, which tells the story of ants touched by an alien intelligence that lets them take over the Earth, and the humans who accept their destiny to become their servants.
Toward the end of the year, also on Criterion, I watched a beautifully restored streamer of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of , about people who come to accept their destiny as hosts for plants that want to take over the planet, and came to appreciate for the first time how the character actor Veronica Cartwright, playing the only member of the ensemble who sees what’s going on throughout the story, carries the whole narrative on her shoulders despite being confined to what you might call the Ethel Mertz role.
I also discovered the rich body of Australian films that used the freedoms of genre cinema to take a more unflinching look at the violent relationship with nature underlying Anglo conquest of that continent. Russell Mulcahy’s 1984 is pure Ozploitation—a movie about a feral pig the size of a rhino pitched as “Jaws with trotters.” But there’s more there, in the story of an American animal rights campaigner who travels to the outback to expose wild animals being illegally processed into pet food, and her husband’s effort to find her murderer, and the movie is full of surreal scenes that manage to mine deep truths about the brutality on which our civilization is based. The movie also provides an interesting parallel with George Miller’s Mad Max movies from the same period, as you see the apocalyptic post-collapse world is just a degree or two removed from real-world rural life.
Peter Weir’s 1977 is the finest of these movies, with Richard Chamberlain as a solicitor whose pro bono defense of a group of Aboriginal men accused of murder leads to the secrets of continental conquest and apocalyptic futures hidden in the bowels of the city. Chamberlain’s climactic emergence from the cave onto the beach where our trash and effluent empties into the ocean, and his hallucinatory visions of a coming deluge, gets only more powerful with time.
But maybe the most interesting of these movies is the simplest one: Colin Eggleston’s 1978 eco-thriller . It tells the story of a couple on the rocks, trying to save their relationship with a weekend getaway two weeks after he has pressured her to have an abortion. She wants to go to the resort with their friends, but he gets his way again, taking them (and his new rifle, and the truck he can disable her from operating with the flick of a secret switch) on a camping adventure to a remote beach. Structured as horror, and peeling back the onions of character in the manner of a stage play, the film does a remarkable job of revealing the darkest aspects of our own nature as it gives wild nature (and the woman in the oppressive relationship) the opportunity to get even.
Some less cozy catastrophes
My effort to find stories of ecological disaster and renewal that were not ready-made for Charlton Heston’s grimace finally bore fruit in a series of books I found in the second half of the year, including several remarkable recent novels by women. Two of them are works by Latin American writers I have been working my way through in the original Spanish (with the recent English translations at hand), a slow but rewarding way to read.
, by the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin, is a powerful and beautifully written novella that takes the form of a dialogue between two women that deals with motherhood, friendship, and the horrific impacts pesticides and agricultural chemicals can have on early childhood development. It finds its horror in the negative space of the text, and in the space evoked by the original Spanish title: Distancia de rescate, literally “rescue distance,” the distance a mother can have from her child and still be able to save them from danger.
The Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor’s 2017 novel (Temporada de huracanas), the English translation of which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, is a stylistically innovative story of the violence, especially violence against women, that overtakes one Mexican village. While not overtly preoccupied with ecological themes, the book grounds its poetic understanding of the macrocosmic society of its story in the land, the climate, and the people’s relationship with it. And like so many great works by Mexican women writers, it subtly harnesses the power of horror and folklore to tell truths about contemporary life in ways conventional modes of realism cannot.
As the year ends, I am reading two English-language novels of ecological apocalypse written by women, both of which bite into a deeper issue inevitably provoked by any honest examination of our Anthropocene moment—the fear of the climate future.
Louise Erdrich’s , a 2017 Campbell finalist, tells the story of a Minnesota woman whose pregnancy compels her to seek her Ojibwe birth mother against the background of a world in which evolutionary progress has begun to reverse, taking the idea of tomorrow with it. Rich with the uncanny weirdness of real life, human and non, the book finds its power in leaving the enigma of what’s going on around us intact, avoiding the compulsion so many science fictions feel to explain it all with textbook plausibility.
The Australian writer Charlotte McConaghy’s , published this year, tells the story of a woman tracking a flock of arctic terns on what may be their last journey from Greenland to Antarctica, by persuading a fishing boat captain to take her in the hope that it will lead him to a rare bounty in a world of depleted fisheries. A beautiful and elegiac work of climate fiction, the book manages to upend the tropes of both catastrophe stories and tales of men at sea, helping us think about books of planet-ranging hunts like Moby Dick in freshly illuminating ways.
None of these books have all the answers, or much in the way of redemptive affirmation in the face of a dismal outlook, but they do show that the anthropocentric conventions of the novel can be repurposed in a way that helps us better grapple with with where we are headed and how we can rethink that path—especially if we charge our fictions with the power of nature writing, and its capacity for empathy and understanding beyond the insular mirror-gazing of the human self. That’s something science fiction is especially well-equipped to do, and I hope that next year I will read more in that vein. And maybe even write some.