Though the super El Niño bearing down on California stands to 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, 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.”
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 (a novel that sprouted from “The Tamarisk Hunter,” a short story that first appeared in High Country News) 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.
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 dystopic 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 nations’ climate 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.
Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News. Follow @ben_a_goldfarb