A Séance in the Anthropocene
I recently read the short story “A Séance in the Anthropocene” by Abigail Larkin, submitted to the Imagine 2022 writing competition and found it captivating.
Readers follow a girl’s journey of learning about Earth’s problematic past in a somewhat distant future. In this future, humans experienced a so-called “Realignment” which left fossil fuels and burning coal in the dust.
At present, the concept of an age beyond climate change sounds immediately unrealistic. The world’s energy supply is barely three tenths of the way to the fully sustainable energy production seen in the story. Nevertheless, Larkin’s depiction of the future does not seem far from reach. I believe that this is because it is not overly optimistic about its past, what is now our present. No one reading their story would be absorbed by a tale of unprecedented, sudden shifts in political attitudes, economic challenges, and previous carbon emissions. There were drownings and extinctions just as scientists are predicting now, which adds realism and diminishes the story’s fantasy aspect. In addition to “artificial trees stretch[ing] upwards, soaking in photovoltaic energy” which would go on to power an entire grid, there are also recounts of a time where “there used to be more than just crows… [there were] all kinds of birds, each with their own song” which seems otherworldly in the context of the story.
Overall, I found the story to be incredibly entertaining. Futuristic stories will often lean too heavily on technology, seen to a certain extent in another short story from the same competition, “When It’s Time to Harvest” by Renan Bernardo (which I found hard to comprehend, maybe I was just tired). It also avoided the heavily pessimistic disaster-ridden route. The story had an air of calm, explained by it succeeding what we as readers picture as an incredibly stressful transition period. Simply imagining having to endure a period where society “hadn’t invested enough in energy alternatives” but was forced to switch is stressful. Yet, as we imagine ourselves sitting in an “Amerorail” train winding through hillsides with the knowledge that the society we picture ourselves in has transitioned away from fossil fuels successfully, it is impossible not to feel at ease. I think that part of the difficulty
Another idea which I believe the story executed well was the link between Willa’s Cherokee heritage and climate change. Themes such as ghosts, spirits, and utalawuhska (a righteous anger at the past) were beautifully intertwined with the science that we see all too often in climate change-related texts and allowed me to view a topic I was already somewhat familiar with from a fresh perspective.
The story opened with a conversation between Willa and her grandmother, who is the founder and CEO of the largest solar farm in North Carolina. Willa is informed of machines which drilled into the ground “opening up [holes] of black carnage, unleashing millions of angry spirits into the sky”. This clever link between angry spirits wreaking havoc and carbon emissions causing climate change is the first of several between spiritual and scientific beliefs. Spirits are said to be terrorizing the Earth through rising temperatures, water pollution and loss of species. This comparison is used in tandem with imagery from the “National Atonement Ceremony”, which discussed how so many species were lost to “wilful ignorance and greed”.
The story then shifts as Willa speaks to Phil’s great-grandfather, as he recounts his experience mining coal before the Realignment. His perspective is intriguing to readers, because in the story’s context he was performing an act of sacrilege, yet his actions are completely normal in our society. Willa asks him if he knew that he was “willingly poisoning the earth” to which he answered “Of course… everyone knew” but he still worked. Because at that point, compared to humanity’s insatiable reliance upon energy, climate change’s more serious effects had not yet begun to take place. The great-grandfather is an accurate representation of our current society, even those of us who are completely aware of climate change’s effects and try to reduce our electricity usage. Because at the end of the day, we pay people to provide us with energy, even if its unsustainable. We are just as evil as Phil’s grandfather.
This passage brings up an ironic and sombre concept, which is that humanity has become relatively dependent on something that is actively destroying the planet. The only way we could possibly turn our burning ship around is by switching over to renewable energy, which does not seem plausible. Unless a famine the likes of which similar to Larkin’s story plagues our society (or at least western society, the likelihood that the world’s economies will allow the “grid [to become] unreliable even as energy costs [go] up” is slim.
The story also succeeds in highlighting absurdities in our society beyond the fossil fuels industry. In a future that withstood famine, the idea that “stores stocked more food than you could ever imagine” and simply threw unbelievable quantities of it out after a certain expiration date would be laughable.
Linking back to the idea of Indigenous culture within the story, utalawuhska, or an “anger against the past”, can also be seen as a demonstration of how the coming generations will feel when they view our actions. Who could blame children in two generation’s time for being angry that they were unable to watch blue whales leap out of the water or orangutans swing through canopies. This utalawuhska is said to be the key to ensuring that we don’t repeat our past mistakes, especially in the context of climate change. That we must be aware of our past mistakes to improve upon them.
Once again, I think this brings up another interesting idea. That being, how are we meant to fix our mistakes if we cannot yet see their outcomes. It is becoming increasingly obvious that our society is unable to effectively forecast the effects of our decisions in many fields, especially climate change.