Sunday, July 17, 2016

Drowned Worlds - Jonathan Strahan

Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond is an anthology recently released by Solaris. Editor Jonathan Strahan mentioned in the introduction how he recently read J. G. Ballard's classic The Drowned World (1962). I haven't read that book myself but from what I can tell it looks both prophetic and dated. Ballard didn't seem to believe humanity could influence the temperature on Earth. The greenhouse effect was known as early as the 19th century and in the 1950s and 1960s scientists did start to get worried. Not until the 1970s did the idea that the earth was warming because of anthropogenic emission really take hold though. Strahan continued his post-apocalyptic reading with Kim Stanley Robinson and Paul McAuley among others. Soon an anthology was beginning to take shape.

The collection contains fifteen stories, all of them original with the exception of Kim Stanley Robinson's Venice Drowned. This story was published in 1981. In a way the premise is depressing. The anthropocene to which the subtitle of the anthology refers is a proposed geological era to follow the Holocene. An era in which human activity has a profound impact on the Earth's geology, climate and ecology. An era of rapid change and mass extinction. An era that, whether or not we label it as the anthropocene, has become inevitable. The stories echo that realization. They show us flooded Earths with humanity scrambling to adapt, or far futures in which the remnants of our society make our descendants shake their heads at our hubris. The whole anthology displays a kind of resignation that is more than a bit worrying.

Strahan in his introduction puts it like this:
We are, it has become clear, living in the Anthropocene, that time when human actions start to have significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. It is a time of darkness and disaster, and it’s a time we have to face, to confront, and to combat. There will be triumphs among the disasters, humanity among the apocalypse, and those are the stories that could appear in the right book. And my editor agreed, and so the book you are now holding was born.
In doing so, he raised expectations the anthology doesn't live up to. Many stories use some form of drowned world as a backdrop without really engaging thematically with it. Which was what I was hoping to find more of.

As such I didn't really feel it was a great anthology. Individually there are some good stories in it though. Robinson's story Venice Drowned is interesting for fans of his novels. When it was first published it would be another three years until his first novel came out.  It is not a very plot oriented story but a scene he would repeat later in his career. A main character more or less on his own, forced by some emergency to really connect with his environment and in doing so overcoming a personal crisis. It reminded me in particular of Sax' adventure after losing sight of his vehicle during a dust storm on Mars. More recently, Loon, the main character in Shaman is another good example.

Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan is one of the stories I liked. It's a well written tale that combines a love story and a generational conflict with sea level rise, coral bleaching and a desperate attempt to save some of the riches of the Caribbean coral reefs. I liked Goonan's use of different points of view in particular. Another strong story is The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known by Nina Allan. It may well be the best story in the anthology. It's a story about the friendship between two women in a post apocalyptic world. One still has one foot in the old world, thinking back on the past and her uncle's research. The other seems to have embraced the present world as it is, although that might be to push away past traumatic experiences. Some fine characterization in this story. It is emotionally powerful too.

The last story I want to mention is the final one in the anthology. The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente is probably the most depressing story in the anthology. It is set in a floating isle of garbage on one of the world's much enlarged oceans. The story is about hope but also disillusionment. The main character is unfortunate enough to figure out the state of the world. Where the great garbage patch as a whole likes to pretend everything will go back to normal at some point, she knows this is not the case. A better parallel for what our society is doing at the moment one could scarcely imagine. Maybe Strahan put it at the end of the anthology to leave us with a warning of what the consequences of ignoring the obvious might be.

All in all Drowned Worlds contained many more forgettable stories than memorable ones. As such I was mildly disappointed with it. There are too many stories that only superficially deal with the chosen theme. It turns the anthology into a parade of half-hearted images of what sea level rise might look like, overlaid with decent but not special plots. One can't help but wonder if the anthology wouldn't have benefited from a slightly wider theme, if only to make it a bit more varied. But even with a narrow theme I can't help but feel there ought to be a better selection out there.

Book Details
Title: Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 289
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-930-6
First published: 2016


  1. Fully agreed. I really like your "parade of half-hearted images" as "a backdrop without really engaging thematically" in the anthology's theme. For sure more could have been done by the authors/Strahan. The dire situation he describes in the intro just doesn't match the seriousness of the stories. I know you enjoy environmental engineering, which must make the anthology wasted potential.

    1. It was wasted potential I suppose. But then, I am hard to please in this respect. ;)

  2. In writing my review of Strahan's anthology, I was trying to think of books or stories that utilize a drowned world scenario but apply a more critical or scientific view to the causes. Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital series came quickly to mind, but I could think of nothing further at the time. I've since thought of Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids as another more serious, intelligent look at global warming, but that's it. Do you know of any more? I think more exists, my brain just can't remember...

    1. The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi to an extend, and The Waterknife. Most of his environmental themes are somehow linked to climate change. He tends to link it to societies where people go for each other's troat when the going get tough though. Robinson is the master as far as I am concerned. Antarctica is another book that directly deals with climate change. It is loosely tied to the Science in the Capital books. The Mars trilogy has a chapter set on earth where a drowned England is described. I think it is in Blue Mars.

    2. Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker are set in a world inundated with water, but like you said, Bacigalupi tends to focus on the dramatic elements as much as, if not more than the environmental elements. His novels are more similar to the stories in Strahan's anthology than Robinson's novels.

      I have Antarctica sitting on the shelf. I've heard it described as the Mars trilogy rolled into one book, and therefore have held off reading it for a while. True? (Also, you're right, the drowned Earth scene is in Blue Mars - perhaps the best of the Mars novels. :)

    3. Blue Mars was the first Robinson book I read. I thought it was amazing back then (despite not realizing it was part three until I was 200 pages is). Antarctica covers some of the same terrain. It gives some thoughts about its futere beyond the Antarctictreaty which are already outdated (treaty has been renewed).
      I read the Science in the Capital series more recently than the Mars books and I assoicate them more with that series because they have a few (minor) characters in common. Robinson does go on about landscape in it though. In that sense it is perhaps closer to the Mars books. Oh, and there is quite a bit about Shackleton. Robinson is very interested in the heroic period of polar exploration. I quite liked it but I don't think it is quite as good as the Mars books.