Ian Mond Reviews McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D., Edited by Claire Boyle

McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D., Claire Boyle, ed. (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 978- 1944211707, $26.00, 184p, hc) December 2019. Cover by Wesley Allsbrook.

When I received my subscriber copy of McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D., with its eye-catching cover (and interior illustrations) from Wesley Allsbrook, bushfires were raging up and down the Queensland and New South Wales coast. As I read the issue, featuring ten stories that imagine what a climate-affected planet may look like two decades from now, the bushfires had extended to Victoria, with horrific, apocalyptic scenes of a deep red sky and men, women, and children taking refuge in boats emerging out of the coastal town of Mallacoota. As I finished the Quarterly, Melbourne (where I live) was engulfed in choking, dense smoke so bad that for a time the city (just like Canberra before it, where muddy ash fell from the sky) was ranked as having the worst air quality in the world. Suffice it to say that reading McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D. was a surreal, and, at times, profoundly unsettling experience.

According to the introduction from editor Claire Boyle, the catalyst for 2040 A.D. was the United Nation’s Special Report on Global Warming, published in 2018, which states that we have between ten and 12 years to keep warming to a maximum of 1.5C or reach a point of no return. In imagining what that world might look if we “didn’t right the ship,” Boyle commissioned writers from around the globe, including familiar names (at least to me) like Tommy Orange, Claire G. Coleman, Kanishk Tharoor, Elif Shafak, and Asja Bakic. The collection’s international outlook, with a wide variety of approaches to storytelling, not only varies the tone but, of course, demonstrates that climate change affects us all. Having said that, my one gripe is that the book could have done with more translated works – there’s only one, Asja Bakic’s “1740” (translated by Jennifer Zoble).

Each author was asked to write about a specific climate catastrophe picked out from the UN Report, including “coral reef destruction, swells of climate refugees, and dangerous heat waves.” To ensure that each story was backed up by science, McSweeney’s collaborated with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – an environmental lobby group with a membership of more than 700 lawyers, scientists, and policy advocates – to provide the writers with technical support. As such, there’s a verisimilitude to the stories, with vivid descriptions such as the bleached and ruined coral reef in Claire G. Coleman’s “Drones Above the Coral Sand” – “broken dead coral, cracked scattered shells, have long ago overwhelmed and covered the sand” – and the drought-affected landscape in Abbey Mei Otis’s “Save Yourself” – “Now the fields are fallow and empty, unfertilized, bare of moisture and minerals and nutrients and anything that might let something grow.” To further drive home the reality of climate change, many of the stories are intimate and personal, with a focus on family. I particularly enjoyed Rachel Heng’s “The Rememberers”, a haunting piece about memory and loss set in a drowned Singapore where the narrator and her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, live – with the rest of the population – in underground apartments. I was also moved by the humanity and compassion shown in Elif Shafak’s “He Are The People”, where a grandmother explains to her granddaughter that despite it being against the law it was their duty as Muslims to protect their “guests,” two of the millions of climate refugees that had lost their “lands, livelihoods, memories.” The piece that I found really brought home the personal, localised nature of the crisis was “Ghost Town” by Kanishk Tharoor (I heartily recommend his debut collection Swimmer Among the Stars). The story is a tragicomedy, with a touch of magical realism, that sees an old married couple, the last residents of a deserted village in India, protect their onion patch from militant monkeys. Two other stories that stuck with me were “The Night Drinker” by Luis Alberto Urrea and “1740” by Asja Bakic. Urrea’s piece is a psychedelic nightmare set in Mexico City of exploding volcanoes, intense heat-waves (“the world was so hot that monarch butterflies easily caught fire”), blood sacrifices, and the rise of a thirsty God. In contrast, Bakic offers up a cynical and darkly humorous tale where a group of scientists plan to travel back in time to 1964 to convince the Communist Party not to open Yugoslavia to the free market – an act the scientists believe will ultimately lead to global warming. It’s also, quite brilliantly, a story about petty revenge, sabotage, and the debauchery of pre-revolutionary France.

The NRDC’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz ends her introduction to 2040 A.D. by stating:

Our climate story thus far has been frightening and inspiring, infuriating and empowering. It’s been suspenseful in some ways and all too predictable in others. But we get to craft our own ending. And that ending, fortunately, has yet to be written.

I want to be swept away by these words of hope; I want to believe that fiction will move the dial and persuade those in power to address climate change. But right now, as the fires still burn across Australia, it’s hard not view the stories that feature in McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D. as accurately foreshadowing a world that right-wing and populist governments seem hellbent on creating.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.

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