My favorite scene in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild is one that only lasts a moment: we see the inhabitants of the Bathtub, a forgotten village on a dystopian future Gulf Coast, clustered around a fire, drinking, singing, and generally having a good time. The village lies outside a zone of levies that protects the rest of the southern United States (or what inhabitants of the Bathtub call the “dry side”) from the rising waters of the Gulf.
In this vision of the future, like many others, some people have been left outside the walls, or have stayed, or have been expelled. It’s a walled world. But these left-behind people aren’t miserable. It’s a profoundly mixed gathering—Black and white and Asian people, old men and babies—and a happy one, even with the knowledge that no one in the scene knows what the next day will bring.
This scene stayed with me long after I’d forgotten almost everything else about the movie, which now seems ahead of its time—an early entry in what has become a large genre, now called, at least by some, “cli-fi,” for “climate fiction,” stories about the impending, already-unfolding disaster of climate change. Cli-fi is itself only one subset of the larger trend in contemporary literary fiction away from present-day realism and toward futurism: that is, predictive fiction, whether the prediction is apocalyptic, dystopian, or (an increasingly rare subgenre) techno-optimistic in the sense of much traditional science fiction. Some of the highlights of this trend are Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Ling Ma’s Severance, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.
The unit of social organization we see in so many of these futurist fictions is the camp. People in the future, in these novels, no longer live in towns or cities, near supermarkets and dry cleaners, in houses with recycling bins that go out on alternate Tuesdays. They live in tents, or caves, or space stations orbiting uninhabitable planets, or traveling wagon caravans, or homemade fortresses in the mountains, or towering stacks of shipping containers.
These novels probably draw inspiration from the fact that we already live in a world of camps, although writers aren’t the ones usually living in them. Camps were notoriously used during World War II for “concentration,” meaning the control of undesirable populations for genocide or forced imprisonment, but they became a standard function of the post-World War War II world order, primarily in the unsettled, occupied or contested zones caused by the realignment of national borders: Kashmir, the Horn of Africa, Nepal, Turkey, the Greek Islands, the Congo, and perhaps most famously Palestine, one of the settings of my new novel, The New Earth. A related phenomenon are the permanent shantytowns that surround many of the world’s largest cities, driven by the skyrocketing cost of housing and the stagnation of low-end wages.
Even if it was true in 2016, it certainly isn’t true today that climate change is a marginal subject in the American novel.
In the most basic sense, a camp is a temporary form of housing for people who (by choice or by force) have become unhoused, or chosen to leave their homes, but of course there’s much more to it than that: a camp is a temporary society in which all kinds of provisional and unusual arrangements and relationships take place.
This is something I learned most vividly visiting the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park in 2011. Before I went, I didn’t fully get why it was important for Occupy to insist on occupying space on Wall Street. Occupy was both a means of accomplishing an end and an end itself. The architect Charlie Hailey writes in his book Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space, that “The spaces of camps are both open and closed…”
The camp can be understood as an engraved field, etched, layered, and ordered by diverse objects and programs. Combining field and event, camp is in effect spatial practice. Camps lie at the confluence of mental and social space. Camps are also defined through time. Just as they are lodged spatially between the open and the closed, camps exist between the temporary and the permanent. As a spatial production, camp is both field of research and a kind of contemporary field research.
I think of this last line as a particularly meaningful description of summer camps. Summer camps last only a very short time, relative to the rest of one’s life, but are often a transformative experience; that meaning is expressed not just through activities or products but through the camp’s own temporariness, the fact that so much effort and thoughtfulness have to go into every aspect of creating and sustaining the space. Camps are, in this way, extremely intentional—or else they wouldn’t exist.
A novel is particularly suited to describing camps because a novel in itself is a little like a camp. It’s a provisional and elastic form. Camps bring people together into unusual kinds of intimacy, dependency, and support. In dystopian or apocalyptic narratives, in particular, notice how often a small group of unlike characters are stranded together and have to make the best of it by acknowledging their individual weaknesses and strengths. The superficial version of this idea threads through stranded-on-a-desert-island TV shows like Gilligan’s Island and Lost; more accurately it should be called the Earthseed Principle, after Octavia Butler’s hugely influential novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, published in the 1990s.
Parable of the Sower begins in an anarchic Los Angeles of the late 2020s, where the stresses of climate change, the disintegration of the social safety net, and radical privatization have led to a total breakdown of civil society. Most of the city is a ruin dominated by gangs of drug-addicted nihilists, who burn, loot, rape and murder everything in their path. The only safe areas are walled, armed communities governed by councils of citizens, or fortified corporate zones which offer employment to those willing to surrender their freedom and live inside the walls.
“What does it mean to form a community within a partially (or entirely) failed state?”
The most striking feature of Parable of the Sower, for most readers, is how the heroine, Lauren Olamina, responds to the chaos of her young life—in which her family is killed and her home community is destroyed—by building a new community of survivors. They’re people not like her: she is Black and a teenager, the oldest daughter in a large, profoundly religious Baptist family, but the only other living members of her old enclave are virtual strangers to her, and much older—Harry, a white man, and Zahra, a Black woman who was part of a polygamous marriage. The moment they decide to trust one another and leave Los Angeles as a group is narrated in Butler’s characteristically blunt, even brutal style:
“Harry has to decide for himself,” I said. “Maybe he wants to hang around to look for his family before he goes.”
He turned over slowly. He looked sick, but fully aware. Zahra put the peaches she had saved for him next to him.
“I don’t want to wait for anything,” he said. “I wish we could start now. I hate this place.”
“You going with her,” Zahra asked, jabbing a thumb at me.
He looked at me. “We might be able to help each other,” he said. “At least we know each other, and…I managed to grab a few hundred dollars as I ran out of the house.” He was offering trust. He meant we could trust each other. That was no small thing.
Zahra grunted. “Mixed couples catch hell whether people think they’re gay or straight. Harry’ll piss off all the blacks and you’ll piss off all the whites. Good luck.”
I watched her as she said it, and realized what she wasn’t saying. “You want to come?” I asked her.
She sniffed. “Why should I? I won’t cut my hair!”
“No need,” I said. “We can be a black couple and their white friend. If Harry can get a reasonable tan, maybe we can claim him as a cousin.”
She hesitated, then whispered, “Yeah, I want to go.” And she started to cry. Harry stared at her in surprise.
“Did you think we were just going to dump you?” I asked. “All you had to do was let us know.”
Think of this as the formation of a camp, or what Charlie Hailey defines as a “spatial practice, combining field and event.” The relationship of trust and mutual dependence that begins here protects Lauren, Zahra, and Harry as they walk north on Interstate 5, now a river of refugees on foot; eventually it forms the nexus of a self-sufficient community, Acorn, based on Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy, that numbers nearly a hundred people.
No one would want to find themselves in the position of these characters; on the other hand, as adrienne marie brown and many others have acknowledged, there’s something distinctive and contemporary about Butler’s vision of a new philosophy of community in the most violent, horrific, circumstances. You could call it mutual aid or interdependence, or, as brown does, “emergent strategy”; I call it a vision of solidarity specifically in the way it invokes Zahra’s embarrassment: the shame she feels at asking for help even in circumstances when anyone would.
In this way, futurist fictions challenge our overwhelmingly (and necessarily) cynical assumptions about whether such solidarity is ever possible. Of course, they do so using artificial means; part of why stories about disasters are so appealing is that they strip away the layered social and familial and economic lives that divide our loyalties, and our attention, in the present. But it’s precisely this desire to overcome one’s embarrassment by seeing everything stripped away—to lose everything, be faced with some terrible obstacle, and then make friends along the way, as the cliché goes—that to me makes these stories so significant, and important, in the present.
Not long ago, as a major storm was moving north in the Gulf of Mexico, I messaged my friend, the writer Lacy Johnson, who lives in a low-lying area of Houston, to ask if she had an inflatable boat at the ready to flee her house. Of course, she said, as if the answer was obvious. For her, like many people who live in the Southeast, owning a generator, a chainsaw for clearing trees and debris, an inflatable raft or other boat, is second nature.
The Covid pandemic illustrated what happens when the home itself becomes a kind of camp, when we are stranded wherever we happen to be.
Even before the 2020 COVID pandemic, many people like Lacy had been living in what might be called an apocalyptic present. With a nod to Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, we could call this the “slow apocalypse.” Doomsday preparation is a multibillion dollar industry; it runs the gamut from sensible and obvious decisions, like buying a generator in Houston, to the realm of paranoid fantasy: billionaires buying compounds in New Zealand or rockets to Mars, or your neighborhood dentist assembling an arsenal of assault weapons in advance of a zombie apocalypse, or a race war (in the American imagination, these often amount to the same thing).
While there are certainly thinkers and activists using this period of slow apocalypse to reimagine the future as a social and political problem, the way Parable of the Sower does, much of the apocalyptic imagination we witness today—driven by the capitalist impulse to buy our way out of our problems—invokes a different fantasy of the future: one of extreme self-reliance and isolation.
For example, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which has been invoked as a prophetic text by conservative commentators like Peggy Noonan, in the same way Octavia Butler’s work is seen as a prophetic text for those of us on the left. To prepare for The Road, you don’t need a philosophy of living in community; you need guns, ammunition, ideally a vehicle and gas to drive it—just enough resources for one person or maybe a small family, based on the cultural fantasy, going back at least as far as Robinson Crusoe, that one man can be an island, or, as Margaret Thatcher once said: there is no such thing as society.
The problem with these isolationist fantasies is that, as we all witnessed during the first months of the COVID pandemic, they don’t work. Even with all the preparations possible, no one living in an industrial society today is capable of being entirely self-sufficient for more than a year or two. On the other hand, as the COVID pandemic also demonstrated, a radically unequal free-market society with limited social services not only can’t protect its members during a crisis; through the mechanisms of disaster capitalism, it makes the crisis worse.
How, then, should we use the time we’re given, or the time we have left, in this slow apocalyptic present, to imagine (and prepare for) what comes next? I’ve been wrestling with this problem since I first read Frank Kermode’s 1968 classic The Sense of an Ending in college in the nineties. Kermode argues that the cosmology of the Christian apocalypse, largely as laid out in the Book of Revelation, has never stopped shaping the way Western writers and thinkers relate to time—even writers who are completely secular, or come from non-Christian traditions.
In the era of Y2K and the Branch Davidians, The Sense of an Ending felt like a helpful way to understand the apocalyptic manias that erupted in a relatively peaceful decade; but after Bush vs Gore, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial crisis, I began to think about the book in a very different way, because it seemed to me two interpretive crises were (and still are) happening simultaneously.
Everywhere we look we see apocalyptic fantasy used for commercial and political purposes: it’s the core strategy of the prepper industry, but also the root of the white nationalist politics that has erupted all across the West over the last decade: the fear of white eclipse, or what’s sometimes called “The Great Replacement,” where white people are dispossessed of their power and privilege and (because, in this way of thinking, racial power is a zero-sum game) subjugated and marginalized instead.
On the other hand, there is a very real crisis happening in our lifetimes, in front of our eyes, that guarantees the world two or three decades from now will look radically different. Many of the largest cities on the planet either will have reshaped themselves to adapt to rising sea levels or will have been abandoned. Entire countries in the global South may be uninhabitable. There will be resource wars and refugee crises in the future that dwarf anything we’ve seen in the 20th and 21st centuries. And so on.
There is an imaginative deficit in the way many novels today inhabit the present and project the future.
The ironic detachment Kermode employed in The Sense of an Ending can’t save us from these unfolding realities; neither can stockpiling inflatable rafts or automatic weapons, not in the long term. And neither, in many cases, can the social and political systems of the present help us, unless they become far more adaptable, equitable, and democratically engaged than they are today. The imaginative task ahead of us has to do with uncomfortable and unfashionable questions, like, “Who can I trust?” “Who can I rely on?” “What does it mean to form a community?” “What does it mean to form a community within a partially (or entirely) failed state?”
Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book The Great Derangement approaches the question of this second interpretive crisis through a stinging critique of contemporary fiction, arguing that most novelists and other storytellers today still write with the assumption that the bourgeois world—the world that has contained the novel, more or less, for at least two centuries—will still be here basically unchanged 50 or 100 years from now.
Ghosh argues that partly because the Earth’s climate has been relatively stable over the last 500 years, and partly because industrial civilization has insulated most of us from the natural world, “serious fiction” involves relatively granular events in the lives of individuals, and stories about natural disasters, civilizations collapsing, or unrecognizably changed versions of our own world are treated as mere genre fiction.
I don’t entirely agree with Ghosh’s assessment; even if it was true in 2016, it certainly isn’t true today that climate change is a marginal subject in the American novel. But in the larger sense I think he’s exactly right: there is an imaginative deficit in the way many novels today inhabit the present and project the future. That deficit is our failure to imagine, and grapple with, solidarity—how human beings form bonds of mutual trust and support in a rapidly changing, or disintegrating, society.
One way of addressing this deficit is to move the novel away from houses and the nuclear family, which is contained within the house, and toward camps and chosen or reconstituted families, those who have survived and fled. Here I’m not limiting myself to thinking about camps of the future—as they appear in many of the novels I mentioned above—but camps of the present.
For my new novel, The New Earth—about the family of a young American peace activist killed by an Israeli sniper in the West Bank during the Second Intifada—I relied on post-1949 Palestinian writing, which is almost entirely set in camps, physical and psychological. The transformative book for me was Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, narrated by a doctor in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut—a camp that has existed in a state of flux, and perpetual danger, for five decades. This to me is the best example of a camp as what Charlie Hailey calls “a mental and social space,” in which the characters spend much of their time preoccupied with the past or dreaming about the future, partly as a way of dissociating from an unbearable present.
An even more extreme, and evocative, example of the same phenomenon is Ma Jian’s 2008 novel Beijing Coma. The main character in Beijing Coma is a man who has been in a coma, though still mentally functioning, since he was injured in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. It’s now more than a decade later, during which time he’s been cared for at home by his mother, but because of the economic boom, their apartment block is being pulled down for a new development.
This is a scene repeated all over the world: people resisting relocation by simply refusing to move, creating a camp where a home used to be. What makes Beijing Coma so distinctive is that in the mind of the protagonist it’s still 1989; we are called back to the massive camp that was the Tiananmen Square student occupation in April and May of that year, burgeoning with creativity, wonder, and fear.
The way Beijing Coma describes a kind of cyclical movement, or feedback loop, between the camp as a utopian dream and the camp as abject nightmare to me illustrates something so profound about the instability of our current world, in which it feels like so many of us live precariously in a world of houses, supermarkets, post offices, clean sheets, working toilets, iced lattes. The Covid pandemic illustrated what happens when the home itself becomes a kind of camp, when we are stranded wherever we happen to be, isolated from and totally dependent on others.
The last three years have made the questions I asked above (“Who can I trust?” “Who can I rely on?” “What does it mean to form a community?” “What does it mean to form a community within a partially (or entirely) failed state?”) so painfully real, and yet, for most of us, still mostly unanswerable. Which is where our stories, our imaginations, have to come into play.
Earlier I said that the novel itself is a little like a camp, in that it’s a provisional and elastic form, which lives, as Mikhail Bakhtin said, in “a zone of maximum contact with the present.” Maybe this explains why, despite so many predictions of its demise 15 or 20 years ago, the novel continues to flourish today: it feels like the future. It can also help bring the human needs of the future more sharply into focus.
The New Earth, by Jess Row, is available now from Ecco.