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03 Feb 2016

Western Lit: In 'Gold Fame Citrus,' the Nascent Genre of Cli-Fi Looks to California

Written by  Ben Goldfarb

Though the super El Niño bearing down on California may help alleviate the state’s crippling drought, even a good drenching won’t wash away four dry years.

For nearly a half-decade, the watery foundation that underpins so many California institutions—almonds and salmon, weed and dairy, the Salton Sea and Los Angeles itself—has wobbled under the weight of mismanagement, our national hunger for fresh produce and climate change. As the writer Lauren Markham put it: “California is a great, slick hustler at the card table, bluffing a myth of plenty while holding tight the fan of truth: We are now, and have been for the entirety of modern history, running out of water.”

The drought has inspired plenty of great journalism, but some truths only literature can reveal. Enter Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which captures the moment at which California’s bluff has been called. Set in a drought-stricken near future, Gold Fame Citrus tracks a feckless young couple, Luz and Ray, who squat in the ruined home of a vanished starlet, drinking syrupy ration cola and paying exorbitant prices for black-market blueberries. Beyond the crumbling walls, nature lies in chaos; Luz is treated to “scorpions coming up through the drain, a pair of mummified frogs in the waterless fountain, a coyote carcass going wicker in the ravine.” At least there’s no traffic on the 101.

The plot takes off when Luz and Ray adopt a creepy child and try to get out of Dodge. Yet the real pleasure lies not in the What, but in the surreal Where. The landscape has come to be dominated by a “vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West,” its height rivaling Denali, that marches across the state with malevolent purpose. The desiccated wasteland is purportedly inhabited by a newly evolved menagerie: incandescent bats, land eels and sand krill. Mutant mole people roam nuclear waste disposal sites.

Watkins’ evocation of the drought, and society’s feeble attempts to ameliorate it, unspools with chilling authenticity. In Gold Fame Citrus’ afflicted future, engineers drag glaciers down from Alaska, erect vast retaining walls to repel airborne sand, drill “three thousand feet into the unyielding earth, praying for aquifer but deliver(ing) only hot brine.” Los Angeles, a thirsty Kraken, builds “new aqueducts, deeper aqueducts, aqueducts stretching to the watersheds of Idaho, Washington, Montana, aqueducts veining the West, half a million miles of palatial half-pipe left of the hundredth meridian.”

If that sounds improbably grandiose, consider that this fictional plan is only half as loony as some of the real-world ideas California has entertained. Hell, consider the Central Valley Project.

Gold Fame Citrus is the latest addition to a nascent genre dubbed “cli-fi”: science fiction, often dystopian, that confronts the environmental and social impacts of climate change. The cli-fi canon is diverse and growing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a delicate study of an errant flock of monarch butterflies, to Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, an actuarial thriller (seriously) about consulting firms that profit off storms. The pantheon grows with each passing year: 2015 saw the publication of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife alongside the release of the latest iteration of Mad Max, disaster porn set in the deserts of Australia.

As The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz has observed, weather no longer serves as backdrop to our stories; increasingly, it is the story.

Climate change certainly provides fertile ground for literature. Its worst symptoms—floods, fires, die-offs, insect plagues—are so cataclysmic, they make the Old Testament look banal. You can hardly blame a novelist or screenwriter for using those phantasmagoric hazards as plot devices. Think, for example, of Interstellar, which conjures a Dust Bowl redux as an excuse to launch Matthew McConaughey into space.

Yet climate change is fundamentally a public policy problem, and thus the most valuable cli-fi not only transports and terrifies; it illuminates and instructs. As Bill Chameides, former dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, put it, “The thing that makes dystopian fiction so intriguing, at least to me… is the social science aspect—the author’s vision of how humanity chooses to organize and cope in the post-apocalyptic world.”

And that’s precisely why Gold Fame Citrus is so necessary. In Watkins’ novel, climate change is not merely a backdrop against which to stage Mad Max-ish post-apocalyptic hijinks. Rather, how people “organize and cope,” to use Chameides’ words, is the driving question in Watkins’ novel. This is literature not only as humble escape, but as chilling meditation on pending social havoc.

The nail that Gold Fame Citrus hits most squarely on the head is its treatment of refugees. Like Children of Men, another dystopian work that grapples with large-scale human migration, Gold is not optimistic about our ability to compassionately manage the displaced. The refugees fleeing California, slapped with the dehumanizing label “Mojavs,” are forced into makeshift underground detainment centers, packed into labor camps, and barred from relocating to the moist paradise of Washington. Bureau of Land Management officers patrol the desert, locking up wanderers like stray dogs.

If this sounds familiar, well, that’s the point. This country is currently hot with anti-immigrant fever, and while it’s easy to blame Donald Trump, culpability may lie with even larger forces: The Syrians now seeking sanctuary in some Western states were likely dislocated in part by climate change. A study published in March 2015 found that Syria’s conflict was exacerbated by the catastrophic drought that destroyed agriculture in that country’s breadbasket. “Severe droughts such as the recent one,” wrote author Colin Kelley, “were two to three times more likely to occur under the effects of climate change than in its absence.”

As other  refugees inevitably follow Syria’s, global warming will test not only the integrity of our infrastructure but the bounds of our humanity. And that’s where fiction proves its value: It activates our empathy by forcing us to inhabit an unfamiliar skin—the skin, say, of a refugee.

That skin may not remain unfamiliar for long. Sooner or later, this country will have its own migrants, fleeing from drowning communities in Alaska, wildfire-scorched towns around Western states, and eventually, perhaps, drought-ravaged California. Gold Fame Citrus exists to show us how—and how not—to treat the climate refugees to come, as well as the ones already knocking at our doors.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Riverhead

352 pages, $27.95

1 comment

  • Comment Link Dan Bloom Thursday, 04 February 2016 22:56 posted by Dan Bloom

    ''cli-fi bullets'' - Zen-like ruminations on literary and philosophical aspects of cli-fi novels and movies:such as:

    • Cli-fi isn't a marketing term or a bookstore shelving category, and it's more than a literary term. It's a password into the future and those who know it, know.

    • ​Cli-fi is more than a genre term, much more than that: it's a code word, a password, a secret handshake; it is bringing us together as one



    • ​#CliFi is not for you or your children or grandkids, no. It's codeword for future generations, as yet unborn. And born they shall be. In next 30 generations.​

    • ​Cli-Fi cannot, will not, save us from what's coming. Too late for that. But it's here, now, always. We have 30 generations to prepare. See?

    • In the future, come 30 more generations of man, there will be no #CliFi. By 2500 A.D. (Anthrocenus Deflexus)it will be too late.

    • People want cli-fi to offer solutions, comfortable happy fixes. Aint gonna happen. We are ''doomed, doomed'' as a species, and we did it to ourselves.




    ​• Cli-Fi cannot, will not, save us from what's coming. Too late for that. But it's here, now, always. We have 30 generations to prepare. There's time.
    ​​ ​• Cli-fi won't make much of a difference either way you define it. It's just here, now, beckoning future writers. It's not sci-fi, never was



    • Cli-fi is more than a mere genre: it's a cri de coeur, a warning flare, a pathway to the future before it's too late. See? #CliFi's here now​


    • If the rising new literary term "cli-fi" makes you 'cringe' at first sight or hearing, don't give up on it yet. With time, you will come to see it for what it is.

    •​ Cli-fi is not sci-fi, it is not eco-fiction, it is not subgenred to anything earlier. #CliFi is a hashtag burning its stamp into our very skin, as we prepare.

    • ​Cli-fi is more than a genre term, much more than that: it's a code word, a password, a secret handshake; it is bringing us together as one.

    • Cli-fi wasn't just a case of slapping a new name on an old genre. It's much deeper and existential than that. Think game-changer, new directions.

    • We'll never make it out of here alive. That's cli-fi in a nutshell. Man the lifeboats, prepare to test the seas of one season after the next.

    • Cli-fi defines a line the sands of time that no man can cross without trepidation or reverence. There's a reason we are here. What is it?

    • If cli-fi is one thing, it's a chance to choose our future. One door leads here, another door leads there. Choose wisely: Your descendants are waiting.

    • There's a tragic flaw in our genes, a selfish shellfish that doesn't want to share. This DNA will be our downfall. This Earth shall abide.

    • Cli-fi doesn't choose sides. We do. Choose your weapon, use it wisely. We are here by the grace of God, and someday we won't be. God knows.

    • You could say that in a post-sci-fi world, cli-fi has come to rescue us from oblivion. Not true. No way.

    • You might not really be interested in cli-fi, or where it is going. But trust me, cli-fi is interested in you. Why? Becos the End is nigh

    • When all is said and done, cli-fi points in only one direction. It's for everyone to find it on their own. ON THE BEACH from 1957 has clues.

    • Cli-fi is not about who coined it or who popularized it. It's about much more pressing things, like how many more generations before the End?

    • I never met a future I didn't like. No, that can't be true. Some futures spell the end of humankind. It's in the cards. Choose your exit.

    • Cli-fi is neither pro nor con. It just is. Take your pick. Choose yr sides. We are at war w/ a future that threatens all futures. Arise!






    • Cli-fi is so much a part of this world that on first hearing the word or seeing it in print, it slips right by, invisble, unnoticed.

    •If by some remote chance you find yourself reading a cli-fi novel without realizing it's cli-fi, you have arrived.

    • There are are still 30 generations to be born before the real apocalypse begins. This now is just a rehearsal. An audition.

    • Cli-fi leads to a meeting of the minds, borderless, rudderless, unconsolable. Will we get there on time?

    • If you think time is running out, or has already run out, in terms of the unspeakable cli-fi future we face, you are very close to solving the riddle. Why are we here?

    • I don't want to sound pessimistic, as optimism must abound and console us. But listen to the wind, hear the chimes sing, ring.

    • Cli-fi has a place in our hearts and minds, now and forever. But forever is no longer forever. We sold the farm.

    • Cli-fi can, and will, shine a light on the darkness that is about to befall us. Let's stick together and shoulder the burden.

    • You didn't know cli-fi was coming. Nobody did. It's taken us by surprise.

    • There will be days when cli-fi is beyond us, unscoutable, undetected. All the more reason to pay attention.

    • Cli-fi doesn't mean resignation or giving in to the darkness ahead. To the contrary, it means taking up arms.

    • If a time shall come when all else fails, cli-fi may just come to the rescue. Make room.

    • Cli-fi cannot answer all our questions or undo the deeds we have done. No. But she can unburden us of our fears.

    • There will come a time when there is no time left. That's where, and when, cli-fi comes in.

    • Who will write the cli-fi of the future? They will be legion, legends. Welcome them.

    • Cli-fi is more than a mere genre term, much more than a literary term. It's a battle cry, a cri decoeur, a shout-out to future generations: "We tried to warn you!"

    • Think positive, think cli-fi. Think future generations, think now. Think the end is nigh unless we change our ways.

    • There is no way out of here, said the sailors to the sun. Thirty more generations is all we have left. What then?


    • Ploddingly, one step at a time, we are marching to future days. Cli-fi cannot stop the deluge, yet we must not surrender. Never.

    • With sea levels rising in future times, Nature has been turned on its head. Cli-fi paints a picture, sight unseen.

    • If we could see CO2, smell it, know that is there, over-loaded, we might be able to put out the fires. But it is invisible, odorless.

    • Whatever generation you belong to, know in your heart that there is no way out of here. Nature has spoken, Earth recoils. Write on.

    • To show respect to the Earth, which is our home in the cosmos, please always capitalize the word as ''Earth.'' Earth matters, tell the copy desk. Lowercasing it is beneath us.


    • Cli-fi cannot, will not, lead the way. This is a clean-up action, and way too late. But it matters nevertheless.

    • One cannot see the future, cli-fi is blind. But the stories we tell will matter, even if it is all for naught.

    • Cli-fi, by indirection finds direction out. Your words on the page must be balanced, insistent. Always. And never lose hope.

    • Not doomed yet? What will it take to connect the dots? Not doomed yet? Some overly-rosy displays of optimism in print could be seen as pathological.

    • As humans, ike all life forms, we are hardwired and programmed to believe that the near future will be similar to the recent past. Our Achilles heel, so to speak.

    • Cli-fi won't solve our problems, and can't undo what's done. Fasten your seatbelts. This is a ride to Hell.

    • Climate change is more than a fact of life. It is the result of human ingenuity, greed, rapaciousness and fear. Fear not: cli-fi is here. Write it.

    • I came to the table naive and unquestioning. I left totally convinced there will be dead people, lots of dead people. That was the genesis of cli-fi.

    • You might not want to go down the cli-fi road, and that's okay. It's not a pretty picture, not a happy selfie. It's disaster, writ large.

    • In the long and rambling history of humankind, cli-fi will be just a blip on the radar screen. Pay it no heed.

    • You weren't born yesterday. Your descendants may not even be born at all, ever. That's how unfathomable cli-fi is.

    • If you can manage to fit the personal stories of cli-fi between the covers of a book, do it. With trepidation. Know your audience.


    • Cli-fi will have no denouement, no act three, no happy ending, no Greek chorus, no social media take-away. Push send.


    • Sorry, but this is how cli-fi is going to be, in the Anthropocene. Just 12 letters spelling doom.

    • I wish there was some cli-fi way out of here, but there ain't. Ain't ain't ain't. Ain't ain't ain't times, ten thousand times ain't.

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