Imagining More: Women Writing Worlds in Crisis
Erin Swan on Fiction That Dares to Ask, “What If?”
I wrote the bulk of my debut novel between 2016 and 2020, years of intense political tension and heightened concern for our planet and the people we love. My debut novel, Walk the Vanished Earth, is a speculative exploration of what it means to be both a parent and a child at the mercy of the great American Dream, the promise that we can be all we can be if we simply set our minds to it.
While writing, I was grappling with two big questions, the first being: “What is?” What is this world I am living in, and how can I replicate that on the page? Into the draft I poured my anxieties about who we were as a people and where we were in history.
Like all speculative writers, I was also asking myself: “What if?” What if I toyed with reality? What if I altered our actual timeline, flooding the coastlines in 2017 and sending my characters into one of the submerged cities? What if I gave my characters children and then launched those children into outer space? Through juxtaposing my answers to these two questions—What is? What if?—I found a way not only to channel my feelings about our present moment into a work of fiction, but also to imagine a possible path to something new.
In the past year, I have had the joy of reading a lot of books that seem to grapple with similar fears. Here I offer six standout books by fellow women writers, books I believe are must-reads for those seeking to explore this current juncture in history, as we challenge our past and question what our future will bring. These writers have made me feel less alone in my anxieties, and the things they have made out of our shared worry have given me hope.
Some of these books create new worlds—employing elements of the magical, the dystopian, and the apocalyptic to expose pressing questions about our reality. Two are more grounded in the world we know, yet also contend with the same threats of capitalism and climate. All six of these books ask the same two questions I was while writing my novel. What is this world we are living in? And what if we imagine something more?
Meredith Westgate, The Shimmering State
Meredith Westgate’s debut novel is set in the land of dreams known as Los Angeles. Amid the organic fast-food stands, movie-star hopefuls, and wildfires burning in the Hollywood hills, two young transplants attempt to find their way. Sophie is a talented ballet dancer who pays the rent waitressing at an upscale restaurant. Sensitive and optimistic, she envisions a promising future for herself. Lucien is a more broken character, a photographer still grieving his artist mother even as he cares for his grandmother, who is bedridden with Alzheimer’s.
The speculative element in this novel is a drug: Memoroxin—Mem, for short—a luminescent pill intended to assist dementia patients by feeding their own memories back to them. Mem quickly floods the recreational drug market, in high demand from those seeking to escape their own realities via the memories, and identities, of others. At the beginning of the novel, Sophie and Lucien meet at a rehab center for people whose lives have been upended by Mem. As Westgate investigates their present realities and tangled memories, she charts what has brought them to this moment. How has this land of dreams failed these two young people, she asks, and what more might be possible if they can find their way out of it?
Alexandra Kleeman, Something New Under the Sun
This novel also explores the seductive and ravenous culture of Los Angeles, pushing the boundaries of reality even while interrogating the very real and very frightening world in which we live. Patrick Hamlin is an east coast writer who has flown to L.A. to oversee the film adaptation of one of his novels. We first meet him in a dry and dusty hotel room where his thirst forces him to pick up, and consequently purchase, a bottle of WAT-R, a synthetic water replacement that has spread across the west coast. Actual water, we understand, has become either too scarce or too expensive (or both) to suffice and so, as with the Mem in Westgate’s novel, the characters have turned to human-made products for relief. The WAT-R in Patrick’s bottle has an odd blue tinge, but he drinks it, because he has no choice.
The rest of the novel pushes this tension between what we need, what we can get, and what we sacrifice to satisfying extremes. Desperate for both human connection and financial success, Patrick struggles to maintain contact with his family back east while navigating the money-driven intricacies of the movie industry. But his wife has fled with their daughter to a utopian commune where the single telephone is rarely answered, and his movie is beginning to seem as though it will never get made. Patrick teams up with a once successful star named Cassidy Carter, but though they try mightily to fight the giant that is capitalism, they are only two flawed humans in a world that is literally on fire. Bleaker than The Shimmering State and just as illuminating, Something New Under the Sun offers a glimpse at our own destruction, not quite as distant as we thought.
Kim Fu, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
I love a good short story collection, and if that collection is packed with sea monsters and experimental technology and bizarre infestations of June bugs, not to mention love and grief and rage, I am sold. Kim Fu’s story collection is an imaginative leap into what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. I adored each one of these twelve stories in turn, but a few felt particularly evocative. Structured as a conversation between a customer and a company representative, “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” presents a grieving daughter who longs to meet with her deceased mother in virtual reality, a desire strictly prohibited by the company, which fears the possible litigation if customers became addicted to such experiences. The young woman’s insistence that she walk with her mother in the botanic garden they once strolled felt acutely poignant in the way it explores the persistent nature of grief.
“Twenty Hours” is another tale that uses technology to examine the depths of human relationships. In this story, a married couple has splurged on a 3-D printer than can recreate a human body after it is dead. The husband and wife use this printer as an excuse to kill each other off when they become bored, and then resurrect their spouse on the printer’s tray when they tire of their brief respite from the burden of marriage. “June Bugs” places a young woman in a house in the middle of nowhere and fills that house with scores of June bugs, a stunning reflection of the horror she experienced in the abusive relationship she has just fled. “Bridezilla,” the collection’s penultimate story, has a sea monster rise from the polluted Pacific on a woman’s wedding day and carry the bride-to-be away. The way her body dissolves into the monster’s back works as a superb metaphor for how what we have wrought on this planet may just consume us in the end.
Brenda Peynado, The Rock Eaters
The Rock Eaters is another short story collection that uses fabulist and magical elements to comment on our current moment and to question what else might be possible. The first story, “Thoughts and Prayers,” sets us in a Florida suburb populated by the families of immigrants. On each rooftop squats an angel, no pretty thing, but rather a terrible bird-like creature with a human face, a silent being that spatters the shingles with droppings, yet serves as a status symbol for the family on whose house it perches. Combined with this is the horror of recent school shootings, which grow ever closer to Peynado’s characters and the angels on their rooftops. In “The Rock Eaters,” adults literally fly from the Dominican Republic to the U.S., only to later witness their children return to their homeland and devour rocks to weight themselves to their parents’ birthplace, a remarkable way to comment on the utopian/dystopian nature of the American Dream and what it means to chase that dream, even while longing for home.
As Fu does, Peynado also explores the benefits and horrors of advanced technology. In “The Touches,” Earth’s climate has been so thoroughly decimated that people’s bodies must remain in sterile cubicles, attended by robots. Their conscious lives, meanwhile, play out in virtual reality. In this space, their avatars go to school, find jobs, marry, have children. It is when they finally meet IRL that the true horror of their situation crystallizes. I could not help reflecting on my own experiences in our increasingly virtual world, when suddenly meeting face-to-face a person I have only seen on a screen can feel strange and shocking, our corporeal selves lifted from our computers and placed in a new and terrifying reality.
Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were
Imbolo Mbue’s second novel takes place in Kosawa, a fictional village in an unnamed African country, where an American oil company named Pexton has begun drilling. Kosawa’s community is close-knit, bound by family ties, tradition, and the origin story they share, that a leopard mingled her blood with their men, telling them that “[a]ll who seek to destroy you will fail, for my power in you will cause you to prevail.” When Pexton’s drilling pollutes their water and begins killing their children, the people of Kosawa embrace their birthright, doing whatever they can to resist this foreign corporation and their own corrupt government that has betrayed them. Thula, whose father disappeared when he demanded answers, takes the firmest and most courageous stance, dedicating her life to saving her beloved village.
Told from various viewpoints, including one called simply The Children, How Beautiful We Were offers us the tale of a family and a people at the mercy of forces far greater than they, a story that feels all too familiar as we consider climate change and its potential impact across the globe. Much of this novel’s power stems from its focus on community, particularly resonant in how Thula closes her letters home when she is studying in New York: “I’ll always be one of us.”
Annie Proulx, Barkskins
Spanning over 300 years and 700 pages, this astounding novel by Annie Proulx is an epic exploration of what it has meant to “tame” and “civilize” the forests of North America. More in the realistic fiction category than the others on this list, Barkskins is one of the most resonant examples of climate fiction I have read. It begins in the 1600s with two French immigrants, René Sel and Charles Duquet, who have come to North America to work as “barkskins,” or woodcutters. Initially bound to a feudal lord, they eventually break away to follow their own paths, Sel with his Mi’kmaw wife and Duquet with his lust for power and money. The novel follows them and their descendants, each family line irrevocably linked to the lumber trade. Proulx is a genius at evoking how her landscapes impact her characters, and in the first few pages I felt on a visceral level the terror of the trackless forests surrounding Duquet and Sel, the blackflies that torture them and the backbreaking labor of clearing a land of its trees.
As the novel moves from New France to the coast of New England, to China, New Zealand, and eventually the Midwest, the sheer numbers of trees these two families topple is both impressive and absolutely horrifying. Barkskins is a violent novel. The characters get injured, grow sick, die in terrible ways. There are forest fires and diseases and sudden disappearances. This seems utterly appropriate. It was not with tenderness we shaped this land to meet our needs. This land we love for both its beauty and its flaws. This land to which we owe everything.
Walk the Vanished Earth by Erin Swan is available from Viking