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By the Book

Dire tales of climate change

Matthew callahan/globe staff

At a decisive moment in Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake,’’ her post-apocalyptic novel of a near-future ravaged by global warming and genetic technology run amok, a thought repeats itself in the mind of the main character: “We understand more than we know.’’

And it’s true. We often grasp a situation, instinctually or emotionally, even morally, before we’ve processed it intellectually. But the inverse, it seems, can also be true. There are moments - and this may be one of them - when we know more than we understand.

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The overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that we already know what we need to know about climate change in order to make the case for urgent action. We know that we face the very real risk of catastrophic consequences for humanity within this century. We know this, or we’re supposed to. But do we understand it - really feel it - on our pulses?

This is about more than science. It’s also about the kinds of stories we write. And for environmental writers, the task seems to grow more daunting by the day. How do you approach something as vast, frightening - almost inconceivable, really - as global warming? And especially now, as it is shown increasingly to be not only human-caused but human-suffered? There’s a sense that it’s time to move beyond the conventions of environmental writing - and its old-school, man-versus-nature story lines - to convey the full human dimensions of the situation we face. But how?

A recent collection of short fiction suggests some bracing possibilities.

Of course, other prominent novelists have made recent use of climate: One thinks of Ian McEwan, in “Solar,’’ and Jonathan Franzen, sort of, in “Freedom.’’ But those novels aren’t really about climate change and its implications. If anything, it figures more as a prop - or in McEwan’s case, a stage set - for other dramas. In Franzen’s novel the environmentalist hero, strangely, barely mentions it.

On the other hand, “I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet’’ (Verso) - featuring work by such writers as Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Lydia Millet, David Mitchell, and Helen Simpson - represents a more direct approach. It’s not what you may think - some sort of enviro agitprop. These are literary artists responding to our situation head-on, as artists, and with striking results.

Despite the volume’s title (from a line of John Muir’s), the writers here are not so much with the bears as with the humans - or rather, they’re with both, exploding the notion that one can choose between the two any longer. The best of these stories ask us to imagine, and viscerally inhabit, an all-too-near, all-too-possible human future.

Mitchell’s “The Siphoners’’ embeds story within story to give us an aging couple, professors of the “now-extinct discipline of anthropology,’’ in the anarchic year 2033 - global agriculture crippled by warming, oil at astronomical prices, their last fuel rations emptied by marauders who offer them escape in the form of “mercy beans,’’ euthanasia pills. Simpson’s “Diary of an Interesting Year,’’ set in a post-collapse Britain, unfolds in the terse and chillingly believable journal entries of a woman who flees north on foot with her husband in a desperate effort to escape societal breakdown. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter’’ envisions the American Southwest under permanent “Big Daddy Drought,’’ metropolitan Phoenix abandoned and something like martial law imposed to control the flow of water to California.

But it’s not any clever sci-fi futurism that stays with you, or any mere didacticism. It’s the acute psychological portraits, the way they cut through abstractions like “climate crisis’’ to bring it home, make it real. When Mitchell’s protagonist, her ailing husband slipping into dementia, considers her options, it’s the way she pauses to contemplate abandoning her helpless mate. When Simpson’s diarist faces rape, pregnancy, and murder, it’s her utter lack of epiphany, only an instinctive obedience to self-preservation. When Bacigalupi’s wily protagonist - having secretly rigged his government “water bounty’’ - faces the troops who arrive at his desert home, it’s the Kafkaesque paranoia of existence under the surveillance state.

But for me the strangest and most affecting of these stories is by the Italian novelist Wu Ming 1. In “Arzèstula,’’ the narrator, a middle-age writer haunted by the extinction of her mother dialect, makes a pilgrimage back to her home village in the flooded and depopulated Po River basin. No post-apocalyptic cliché, the story offers a vision of both desolation and human resilience at once chilling and primal, yet also, somehow, spiritual: the woman and her companions, a small community of refugees, gazing ritually into the pre-dawn sky, “along the chain of millennia, through ice ages and thaws, the rise and fall of civilizations,’’ imagining future generations, those who have endured.

The volume concludes with Atwood’s brief and bitter “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet.’’ It sent me back to that earlier Atwood tale. “We understand more than we know.’’ Do we? I want to say these stories get at something desperately needed - a psychological realism, an emotional depth, almost completely missing from the climate “debate.’’ I don’t mean just a palpable fear (much less some naïve hope). I mean something more like the will to survive, or the capacity to love, maybe even to pray. Something we understand as human.

Wen Stephenson, a former editor of the Globe’s Ideas section, writes and edits The Roost at ThoreauFarm.org. He can be reached at wen.stephenson@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @wenstephenson.
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