Living and Writing in A Time of Planetary Extinction

Elvia Wilk, author of "Death by Landscape," on decentering the human protagonist as the leader of the story

Photo by Abhishek Singh on Unsplash

The world has been getting weird for a while, and in the process the distinctions between reality and fiction, utopia and dystopia, individual and environment have themselves come to feel strange. In her new essay collection, Death by Landscape, novelist and critic Elvia Wilk asks what we mean by “weird” in the first place and considers how the notion might help us—in literature and in life—to think beyond such hard lines. 

The book explores writing in the age of extinction, questioning the role of the individual human actor in a world that is intimately connected and in crisis. Wilk, whose first novel, Oval, imagined a buggy, hi-tech eco-development in a creepily corporate Berlin, is interested in the different futures that technology or science fiction promise and project. The essays delve into world-building in real and fictional realms or areas that occupy the hazy zone between—VR games, vampire role plays, and solarpunk futures. 

I talked with Wilk about the eerie promise of a frictionless existence, how fiction can come to grasp the scale of the climate crisis and the slow violence of its global effects, and the weirding of “work” during the pandemic.

Olivia Parkes: The title essay of the book tracks the ambivalent fantasy of women becoming plants through folktales, stories, and films. I appreciate how you draw out both the problems of the trope—a view of women as inherently closer to nature, which is itself romanticized and feminized—as well as its potential to reverse what you call the relationship between figure and ground, to establish a different relationship between who and what we perceive to be active versus passive. You keep returning in the essays to this idea of an “ecosystems fiction.” What does an ecosystems approach to fiction look like? 

Elvia Wilk: I don’t love to drop terminology and make categories, but when I’m talking about ecosystems fiction, I’m talking about fiction that tries to undermine or decenter or question the human protagonist as the leader of the story. By leader, I mean the figure at the top of the hierarchy of being, as well as the propulsive force that leads the story forward in time. Most fiction is dependent on an idea of the human figure leading us into the future—a better future or worse one, but a future nonetheless. 

Ecosystems consist of all sorts of human and non-human entities that can’t be ranked in a hierarchy, and no single element can be seen as leading an ecosystem. In that first essay, I deal with the literary history of systems novels, with this masculinist notion of humans and technologies and ideas and language making up a system that can be parsed by a fairly paranoid—usually white—man in the middle of the story. In contrast, in contemporary ecosystems fiction, which is sensitive to climate change, the workings of the world are not to be puzzled out or to be pinned down by the protagonist. The natural, artificial, technological, material elements all have their own influential leading roles, and this is not a conspiracy against the human actor. 

OP: This feels related to the distinction you keep coming back to between the “New Weird” as a development and departure from the “Old Weird”, which is associated with these Lovecraft-era sci-fi tropes in which the “un”natural or the “super”natural—the enormity of the unknown—rises up to threaten the boundedness, or the centrality of the human protagonist’s point of view, which is often our starting point for fiction. Could you talk about some of the problems with that model—what we’re calling the Old Weird—and the potential, as you see it, for the New Weird to do something different?

EW: I think the Old Weird of the late 19th, early 20th century is similarly paranoid to the systems novel, and similarly supposes a conspiracy threatening the human. To a writer like Lovecraft, that conspiracy would be ancient aliens or nonwhite people threatening the way Western imperial figures’ sense of agency over the way the world works. The conspiracy in a systems novel might be a corporation or a government.

The stories I’m interested in are about what happens between, what happens before and after the revolution.

Lovecraft’s books were taken up in arts and humanities discourse in the last ten or fifteen years as a kind of precursor to discussions about the Anthropocene, because they reflect on deep time and the limits of human consciousness. What was the world like before humans? What would it be like after humans? These are questions very relevant to the age of extinction. But those questions were framed by Lovecraft as terrifying ones, about what would happen if the white guy wasn’t in charge, basically. Those questions can certainly be re-purposed and that fiction can be revisited to do something new. Anne and Jeff VanderMeer are the author-editor team who have done the most to make the “New Weird” into a term with some currency within the literary world. Maybe New Weird exists as a genre, maybe it doesn’t. But if you want to identify it as a tendency, it would be fiction that’s picking up on these questions of estrangement, on what it means to see ourselves from the outside. What it means to question the limits of the human. And that for me becomes adjacent to the ideas of ecosystems fiction that I’m exploring. 

OP: There’s this sense, in the climate change era in particular, that the future and its various catastrophes are already here. And I wonder how you think that changes the relevance of terms like utopia and dystopia, or how we can more productively think beyond those categories.

EW: An idea I return to in a few different ways is that utopia and dystopia are coterminous. They happen at the same time and are essentially matters of perspective and scale, which is to say that you might have a utopian moment in time, you might have a utopian group, you might have a micro-utopia in the midst of a large dystopia, or vice versa. As any kind of genre writer or reader knows, utopia and dystopia switch places constantly and that one is never present without the other. As theoretical poles, they’re dependent on their theoretical opposites. So in writing one, you’re always writing around or in reaction to the other. For instance, in movies about utopia the drama of the plot is usually when it disintegrates and is revealed to be a terrible dystopia. A lot of the time the plot arc of the utopian story is just showing how it’s dystopian in the end. 

OP: Yeah. You describe this disturbing trend in which dystopian fictions and films are a kind of luxury good that allow elites to exorcise some kind of demonic fantasy. 

EW: Dystopia is a fantasy for the wealthy, and in this way it’s also a prophylactic. It’s like, if “our” world is not that bad, then we’re still safe. A classic Hollywood dystopia might look like how the movie-makers imagine a refugee camp—something faraway in space and time. And that way “we” can assure ourselves that it’s happening somewhere else or that it happened already in the past, or it’s happening in the future, but it’s not here. It’s not now. 

OP: There’s also this resonance with what I think of as the tech utopian elites, who keep promising a better and better future enabled by technology while preparing for one that’s worse and worse, buying bunkers and land in New Zealand. And that’s a very dystopian trend I would say. 

Utopia and dystopia switch places constantly and that one is never present without the other. As theoretical poles, they’re dependent on their theoretical opposites.

EW: That’s a good example. These people are operating with full awareness of what’s happening to the planet while peddling and selling utopian products. 

Something that comes up frequently in the book is the issue of scale and how hard it is for a person to access the rate of change, the rate of destruction, the global and interconnected nature of the patterns, and especially the enormous, reality of mass extinction. It’s incredibly hard to talk about in a way that is meaningful, because the numbers are too big to grasp. Or the heartbreak is too big to grasp, to feel. The existential threat is too vast. I’m not exactly proposing that we need to put a name or a face to an abstract problem for people to “identify” with it more—like a “save the pandas” campaign. It’s not really so much a problem of abstract versus concrete, of extinction versus pandas. It’s a problem of being able to psychologically and somatically handle something. For me, it’s like, what can I put in my hand? And how can I hold this? I might borrow Ursula le Guin’s carrier bag theory of fiction here, I think that stories are bags that can carry a lot. 

OP: Yes, there’s the issue of scale but also of speed. You talk on the one hand about things accelerating, but on the other about “slow violence”—how a lot of the catastrophe in the world doesn’t happen in a big action or moment that blows up. Rather these long and often invisible processes erode or destroy communities and places over time. One thing fiction seems to be able to do is make these processes visible in some way, which feels similar to what you’re saying about scale. 

EW: Yeah, I think that because of the way that a narrative lives in time, it can deal with the way that things happen slowly and sometimes imperceptibly. Moments of extreme crisis or rupture are what the news cycle runs on. When it comes to personal history or political history, narratives are often likewise framed in terms of major events. But the stories I’m interested in are about what happens between, what happens before and after the revolution. 

OP: The epilogue to the book is a personal essay about writing during lockdown. You talk about the pressure to produce in an atmosphere that combines a sense of pervasive crisis with constant injunctions on social media to practice self-care, which makes individuals personally responsible for overcoming problems (which are often structural) in ways that are profitable for the system overall. What made you want to close the book out in that way? 

EW: Part of the reason that the book ends with this very personal, present-tense essay written during the pandemic is because I wanted to structure the book so that it becomes increasingly tied to me and to the moment. It starts with something like third-person literary analysis and then throughout the sections I creep into the frame. By the last section, I’m dealing with some pretty juicy personal stories; the writing becomes increasingly autobiographical, even confessional. I chose this narrative arc because the book is about zooming in and zooming out, relating the micro to the macro, trying to connect big systems to the experience of living in a body. 

With the epilogue, I felt like the coda needed to zoom all the way in tight, a last act where I talk about how I actually wrote the book—a lot of which happened during lockdown. During that time my ideas about the future, about how to work, about how to be with others, changed a lot, and that personal shift is mirrored in the topics I deal with in the book. 

OP: I’m stuck in this apartment, like all of you. 

EW: Exactly. It’s a window into the writing process, which is a way of puncturing the wall between reader and writer. I wanted to show that the labor of writing wasn’t done in a vacuum. We can’t pretend that the structures we’re actually living and working in have nothing to do with the work that is produced. 

OP: The pandemic also changed our relationship with time in that the future seemed to be on permanent hold. There’s this recognition that if the future was the place we were always supposed to be rushing into, it’s now also a site of crisis. I think a lot of us are recalibrating that sense of the future as the place that we’re always working so hard to get to, of work as something we do for results in the future. How has your own relationship to work changed?

EW: As you say, with the pandemic the idea of working towards a future was called into question. Or more like radically disrupted or ripped away. In the book I talk about this as a loss of my “structuring principle” for daily life—the idea of working each day toward tangible future goals. What if there is no future to work towards? Why work? What kind of work is writing, actually? That feeling of the loss of the future in your body is not the same as writing about the general loss of the future horizon in fiction. 

OP: You capture the way that suddenly having this unlimited space and time to work was a privilege but also a kind of terror. Which makes me think our cultural obsession with optimization—with saving time to somehow liberate work from real life, so that you can fill life with work—is actually a kind of hell. 

What if there is no future to work towards? Why work?

EW: Oh no, it’s a total nightmare. I did a five-week residency a few years ago at the Banff Center in Canada to work on my novel, Oval. At the first meeting with all the residents, the coordinator said: Look, your meals are going to be cooked for you. Your bed is going to be made. You’re going to have nothing to do but write for the next five weeks. And most of you are probably going to have a mental breakdown. We have therapy services. 

OP: I love that. 

EW: At the beginning of the residency I thought, this is paradise. But by the first weekend, it was a catastrophe. How can you be if you have nothing holding you in? How can you create if there’s no friction? It’s hard to work in an artificial vacuum, in a biosphere. 

OP: Totally. It’s that inversion of utopia and dystopia, right? The idea that it’s utopian to somehow liberate work from real life, that a frictionless world is paradise, but it’s hell. 

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