The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

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Many of us know the story: Science fiction was born 200 summers ago at a villa on Lake Geneva. Lord Byron encouraged his company, most notably the newlyweds Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, to write a ghost story. Byron and his physician collaborated on “The Vampyre” (the prototype for Stoker’s classic) while Shelley wrote a draft of Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, which is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel.

But when Amitav Ghosh tells this story, he situates it within science itself. Byron’s spookiness—the impetus for his infamous writing prompt—was due to the effects of “the greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history.” The eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora boosted 1.7 million cubic tons of dust into the atmosphere, obscuring the sun and causing global temperatures to dip, crops to fail, and storms to rage across the planet. This volcanic winter (also known as the “Year Without a Summer”) even resulted in summer frosts in New York. Ghosh quotes historian Geoffrey Parker who has said “The Vampyre” and Frankenstein “reflect the disorientation and desperation that even a few weeks of abrupt climate change can cause.”

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, culled and edited from a series of lectures Ghosh delivered at the University of Chicago, the Indian author cites the intellectual sequestration of science fiction as one of many ways in which our culture has divided the imaginative from the scientific. Whereas the literary mainstream has taken up residence in the mansions of “serious” fiction, Ghosh claims sci-fi has been banished to the outhouses of literature. He charts the gulf between Nature and Culture, claiming the former has been “relegated exclusively to the sciences and is regarded as being off-limits to the latter.” While there are plenty of celebrated nature poets like W. S. Merwin, there are fewer nature writers among novelists.

By examining the conventions of science fiction—its obsession with futurity and the way it undermines the “calculus of probability” that is so privileged in social realism—Ghosh tries to determine the genre’s fitfulness to address the specter of the Anthropocene.

The largest section of The Great Derangement examines “Story” (the consignment and suppression of literary forms), but Ghosh also looks at the impact of alternate histories and global politics on climate change discourse. He wags his finger at those who would blame Indian and Chinese modernization for bringing us to the tipping point; instead he points to western idealism and technophilia that created the myth that everyone can have two cars, a washing machine, and refrigerator, when in fact “modernity can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population… not because of technical or economic limitations but because the earth would asphyxiate in the process.” What’s more, Ghosh directs our attention to the irony that “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins,” Tuvaluans and southern Bangladeshis for example, “are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us.”

Elsewhere Ghosh takes exception to John Updike’s description of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” This conception makes us more likely to tell stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Twin Towers—not the calving of the Larsen B ice shelf. The notion of an individual moral adventure primes us to ask questions like “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” Ghosh writes, “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm [parts per million]?’” The answer resonates throughout the book: Not until we revitalize the technology of fiction to entertain the longue durée. Not until we recalibrate and globalize our conception of history. Not until we allow “democratic emotion” (Roy Scranton’s phrase) to have a foothold in “actual governance.”

While bouncing among ideas as interconnected as biopolitics, the Syrian War, carbon equity, DOD security interests, natural disasters in Indochina, misanthropic statecraft, capitalism, empire, the Global South, and the technological singularity—not to mention a fascinating comparative analysis of the rhetoric of the “Paris Agreement” versus Pope Francis’s Laudato si’—Ghosh is demonstrating how “the events of today’s changing climate, in that they represent the totality of human actions over time, represent also the terminus of history.”

In her New York Times review of Sea of Poppies, Gaiutra Bahadur called Amitav Ghosh (the novelist) an “archaeologist of the powerless.” Here, in The Great Derangement, Ghosh continues to gravitate toward power vacuums—this time in the literature, history, and politics of climate change. Rather than promulgate doom and gloom or point the finger unidirectionally at X (these have been the dominant modes of climate critics to date), Ghosh’s book burnishes genres like sci-fi, exposes the ellipses of history, and pressures the political present, all while illuminating Culture’s way back to rafts of rational thought.

Lawrence Lenhart is the author of the essay collection The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19). He studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an M.F.A. from The University of Arizona. His work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, BOAAT, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Passages North, Prairie Schooner,, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and climate fiction at Northern Arizona University and is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM. More from this author →