Rebecca Campbell’s 2022 Le Guin Prize winner Arboreality is a stand-alone climate fiction novella.
Humanity has triumphed over nature. No more coddling of that stable climate for which our institutions are adapted. Fossil fuels have gone full speed ahead. As a consequence, rapid climate change provides the people of the 21st century with the opportunity to adapt or die.
The novella focuses on the consequences for Vancouver Island.
Soaring heat has transformed the island, once a temperate rain forest. Fires sweep the island. Plants long native to the island are displaced by newcomers better adapted to the new climate. Humans who cannot deal with the changes perish.
Canadian and provincial governments react swiftly. Faced with crises well beyond its ability to manage, British Columbia’s government appears to evaporate. The Federal government responds resolutely, withdrawing back to the Central Canadian heartlands1. Wexit is now a reality, whether or not Canadian westerners want it to be.
The narrative follows the community as those members who refuse to die or flee East are thrown back on their own resources. They do their best to preserve something of the past while surviving in an ever evolving present. Over the course of the 21st century, amenities once commonplace vanish. A new and considerably poorer society arises.
Yet, despite calamity and tragedy, there is hope.
It is hard to say how bad things get off-island. The fact that governments implode or retreat without any other nation state taking the opportunity to conquer the island is highly suggestive. When was the last time a significant region was left unclaimed because nobody could be bothered to covet it?
One could look at this work as a novella-length collection of short stories. That would involve more work for me, so let’s view this as a braided novel. Because each chapter is brief, covering a small period of time, no one character gets much stage time. This is fine, because the protagonist is the community, not its members.
I’ve seen reviews calling this a sad work. I will grant that characters lose contact with loved ones. People die prematurely. Despite efforts to preserve cultural treasures like libraries, much is lost. However, if one steps back to look at the big picture, the outcome could have been much, much worse. The community manages to do more than barely survive on dwindling resources; it wins its way to a new stability. This Vancouver Island may look impoverished to us, but it’s better than a barren island occasionally swept clean of life by tsunamis2. In the context of what might have been, this is well towards the optimistic end of the scale. After all, there are still humans in 2100!
The novella is beautifully written. Campbell has been around for a while; I will have to look for her previous works.
Arboreality is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Weightless Books). I did not find Arboreality at Apple Books.
1: A negative note: the novella offers an unjustifiably sunny view of Ontario. We get indirect glimpses of the region toward the end of the book and it is not necessarily the sort of place one might want to live. A small group of the rich survive in pre-catastrophe comfort, while the resettled masses work for their overlords, surviving in less comfortable conditions. But the government does seem to be trying to forge a new sustainable lifestyle.
This is too optimistic! Ontario has embraced two modes of government: wreckers and time servers. The first group breaks stuff. The second group maintains the new normal until voters decide it is time to smash more essential services. Ontario is not going to somehow stumble its way towards capitalist ecotopia. It’s far more likely that it will ratchet its way towards becoming a toxic, uninhabitable, possibly radioactive, garbage dump with a few McMansions and lovingly maintained golf courses perched on top of the debris piles.
2: Despite all the hints that things got pretty bad, a search of the text failed to find terms like “war” (except as part of the title War and Peace), “fallout,” or “extinction-level global thermonuclear exchange.” Matters could have been much, much worse than they were.