‘This is the Hell that I have Heard of’: Some Dialectical Images in Fossil Fuel Fiction
by Andreas Malm
How can the realities of global warming be made visible in literary texts? After the rise of ‘cli-fi’, it might be time to return to a trove of literature written long before the discoveries of climate science: fiction about fossil fuels. It is filled with premonitions of disasters, such as extreme heat and terrible storms. Focusing on two texts – Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon – this essay makes a case for developing ‘dialectical images’, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term, from fossil fuel fiction. Such images might contribute to a critical understanding of our current epoch, fracturing the narrative of the human species as a united entity ascending to biospheric dominance in the Anthropocene. The miseries of global warming have been in preparation for a long time. Some have felt the heat from the start.
In Men in the Sun, the iconic novella by Ghassan Kanafani, three Palestinian refugees seek to cross the border into Kuwait to find employment. Two physical forces shape their journey: the infrastructure of oil, and heat. They travel around pipelines, on an asphalt road, behind a roaring engine, eyes set on a kingdom whose promise of at least a decent living wage shimmers in the ubiquitous sun; the substance of oil itself drips into the text from multiple points. They travel ever further into the heat. On the very first page, Kanafani lays down the parameters of the passage: from the homeland – now only the object of hallucinatory dreams – where the rain was plentiful, the ground damp, the water cold and fresh, into a world where there is ‘nothing but scorching heat and dust’.1Back home, Abu Qais had trees that showered him in olives every spring, but a friend working as a driver in Kuwait has told him what to expect. There are no trees in the kingdom of oil.
The first attempted crossing is made from Jordan. A smuggler dumps Assad from his lorry and tells him to walk out into the desert around H4, one of the pumping stations along the pipeline that carries oil across the Levant, from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean. He has a first encounter with unbearable heat: ‘He had given H4 a wide berth. The sun was pouring flame down on his head,’ the head-cloth affording no protection from the blaze – ‘indeed it seemed to him that it too was catching fire’ (31). The attempt fails, but with no other venues for supporting their families, Assad and his two fellow migrants, Abu Qais and Marwan, press on with their journey. In the Iraqi city of Basra, they cross the path of one Palestinian – the fourth man in the sun – who is already privy to the oil-based circuits of accumulation: ‘Shall I tell you the truth? I want more money, more money, much more. And I find it difficult to accumulate money honestly’ (56), confesses Abul Khaizuran. He makes his money by driving the water tank of a rich merchant back and forth across the border between Iraq and Kuwait, sometimes filled with water to serve the hunting expeditions of the owner, but more often with contraband. He offers to take the three on board.
A plan for the passage takes shape. When they approach the border stations, Abu Qais, Assad and Marwan will climb into the empty water tank, locked by Abul Khaizuran, who will return to the wheel as soon as his papers are stamped. But the three have misgivings: ‘In heat like this, who could sit in a closed water tank?’ (49). Their smuggler taunts them to try walking through the desert with no drop of water as far as the eye can see. Bowing to the force of the argument, apprehensive but bereft of alternatives, they accept the plan and take their seats. On the road, ‘the sun was pouring its inferno down on them without any respite’ (52); no matter how much the driver wipes it, sweat flows in rivers down his face: relentlessly, Kanafani hammers home the soaring temperatures. ‘Come on!’, Abul Khaizuran yells when close to the first border station, a callous tone in his voice: ‘I’ll open the cover of the tank for you. Ha! The climate will be like the next world inside there’ (56). The climate will be like the next world inside there.
And indeed, Assad, the first to enter the tank, reports to the others: ‘This is hell. It’s on fire’ (57). The three are locked up. Abul Khaizuran returns to the driver’s seat, where the glass blazes and the sweat burns his eyes. He makes it through the first border station, opens the tank after six minutes and helps the three panting men out. Then begins the next phase, through the no-man’s-land between the first and the second station:
The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin. The sun hung high above their heads, round, blazing, and blindingly bright. None of them bothered to dry their sweat any longer. […] The lorry travelled on over the burning earth, its engine roaring remorselessly. (63)
Like an incantation, Kanafani repeats the words ‘the lorry travelled on over the burning earth’ (64), and then he repeats them again.
There is an absolute limit to the heat a human body can withstand. More precisely, scientists use ‘wet-bulb temperature’, a combined measure of temperature and humidity – or, in one word, mugginess – to specify the limit. Above a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, the human body can no longer cool by sweating (evaporating heat) or ventilating (exchanging heat with the air); after six hours or so, even the fittest body expires. The threshold is never reached under current climatic conditions on Earth. In February 2016, however, Nature Climate Change published a paper projecting that unabated global warming will make wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C a common occurrence in at least one region: the Persian Gulf. In the last third of this century, the threshold will be regularly crossed in locations such as Dhahran, Dubai, Doha and Bandar Abbas; in Kuwait City, sheer temperatures – humidity uncounted – might well exceed 60°C. The region is prone to developing conditions beyond absolute tolerance limits because it is close to shallow water bodies, uncovered by clouds in summertime, exposed to the sun: a part of the world on a course towards uninhabitability. Even the most basic outdoor activities might become impossible.2
Already now, after an average global warming of a mere 1°C, the Persian Gulf is brushing the threshold. In July 2015, an unprecedented heatwave conspired with the humid air from the sea to push wet-bulb temperatures to a peak of 34.6°C, leaving a margin of 0.4°C to the limit of liveability.3 But that heatwave appears to have been surpassed by the one of July 2016, summed up worldwide as the hottest month on record on Earth.4 The global trend was spearheaded by the Gulf: in late July, the mercury – heat only – soared to 54°C (129°F) in Kuwait and Basra, probably the highest temperature ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere and possibly in the world as a whole.5 Zainab Guman, a 26-year-old university student in Basra, told the reporter from the Washington Post that she rarely left home during daylight throughout the summer, for stepping outside is like ‘walking into a fire’: ‘It’s like everything on your body – your skin, your eyes, your nose – starts to burn.’ A spokesperson for Iraq’s meteorological department attested to a fundamental shift in the country’s weather patterns towards longer, more intense, more frequent heatwaves. A refugee living in a tin hut outside Baghdad said: ‘Iraqis are strong people. But this heat is like fire. Can people live in fire?’6
Naturally, the authors of the paper in Nature Climate Change could not fail to take note of a certain irony: the region that gives the world so much oil receives some of the most extreme heat. Fossil fuels from the Gulf are poured on fires across the globe and then return, via the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, to haunt the area with a particularly stark form of the general predicament.
And still the lorry travels on. As they get closer to the Kuwaiti border station, the four men in the sun contemplate their course of action. Surrendering himself to overwhelming forces, Abu Qais confirms his resolution to give up on the verdant homeland and carry on towards Kuwait: he must take the ‘plunge into the frying pan with the rest of humanity’ (64). Abul Khaizuran, for his part, reiterates his credo to himself: ‘Let the dead bury the dead. I only want more money now, more money.’ Wiping his sweat in vain, cursing a weather more awful than any he has ever seen before, he murmurs: ‘“This is the Hell that I have heard of”’ (64–65). And yet he makes his passengers step into the tank before the second station. There the paperwork drags on. The bureaucrats have decided to hold up Abul Khaizuran this time.
Abul Khaizuran, it is important to note, is no simple crook; the most complex character in Men in the Sun, he used to be a freedom fighter in Palestine, but a roadside bomb ripped off his genitals and drained him of all spirit. Embodying the fate of his people, he has fallen off the path of resistance and become a jaded money-maker. But he still retains some sympathy for his fellow countrymen, and knowing full well that time is running out, his heart seems to beat every more loudly inside the office. He has advised the men to take their shirts off – ‘you’ll sweat as though you were in an oven’ (57) – but after six or seven minutes, no precautionary measures can save them: and the clock is ticking. The customs officers fiddle around. They enjoy themselves, taunting the driver and making obscene jokes.
When he finally receives his papers, Abul Khaizuran rushes to the lorry, looks at the tank and is struck by ‘the impression that the metal was about to melt under that fearful sun’ (70). Full throttle, he drives a minute and a half out of sight and then hits the brakes, opens the tank and shouts out the names of the men. There is no reply. Sliding into the tank, his hands fall on the still bodies:
Abul Khaizuran had a choking sensation. His body had begun to run with sweat at such an amazing rate that he felt he was coated in thick oil, and he couldn’t tell whether he was trembling because of this oil covering his chest and back or whether it was caused by fear. (71)
Dazed by what has happened, he continues to a municipal rubbish dump. Before leaving the corpses among the garbage, he makes sure to rob them of all the money and valuables he can – and then he starts to cry out in despair: ‘Why didn’t they knock on the sides of the tank?’ Like an incantation, Kanafani repeats the words at the very end of the text: ‘Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you bang on the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why?’ (74)
It is no mystery that Ghassan Kanafani, writing in 1962, long before he could have known about climate change, associated oil with heat. Similar imaginative conjunctions can be found in other Palestinian writers, such as Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who eulogizes the rain in the homeland and has one of his characters in The Ship exclaim: ‘Why was I uprooted and cast about under hoofs and fangs, driven into flaming deserts and screaming oil-producing cities?’7 Jabra and other Palestinians who ended up in the Gulf simply went from a land with Mediterranean climate, ample precipitation in winter and lush greenery in spring, to a much hotter, drier place, where oil also happened to be the king of commodities.
Similarly, there is a natural explanation for why many in nineteenth-century Britain associated coal and steam with excessive heat, among them Charles Dickens, whose imaginative leaps in Hard Times brought him all the way to the lands of Men in the Sun: ‘The streets were hot and dusty on the summer day’ in Coketown, where
stokers emerged from low underground doorways into factory yards, and sat on steps, and posts, and palings, wiping their swarthy visages, and contemplating coals. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many storeys oozed and trickled it. The atmosphere of those Fairy places was like the breath of the simoom; and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert.8
In this cascade of similes, Dickens evokes a novel climate issuing from countless chimneys: instead of cloud and drizzle, there is frying hot oil; where there should have been a typically English dampness and chill, there is a fabulously foreign atmosphere and the heat of an alien biome.
Coal, of course, could only be used by means of fire. Heat was an intrinsic aspect of it from the start. As a fuel for steam-engines, it replaced water for wheels, the primary source of mechanical energy in British industry until the second quarter of the nineteenth century: an element antithetical to fire, running more cold than warm through the rivers of Britain. Hence the transition from water to steam represented a passage from moderate temperatures to exceedingly hot localities, and hence operatives and writers sympathetic to their plight could associate it with the stifling heat of a desert.9But in the present moment in history, the actual experiences of a refugee moving from Palestine to the Gulf, or of a worker subject to the shift from water to steam, are not the most eye-catching facet of the fiction that they might have informed. Now these imaginings take on an entirely different meaning.
Reading in a warming world
Global warming changes everything, including the reading of literature. We might expect readers of The Tempest henceforth to attach special significance to the power of Prospero to conjure up a storm. One or two degrees further down the road, those who find reason to peruse Dante will likely dwell on the descriptions, some circles into the underworld, of ‘the infernal storm, eternal in its rage’, pause at ‘a dry expanse of sand / thick, burning, sand’, and feel disappointed by the incongruity of the deepest centre of hell, where the climate is freezing cold and everlasting damnation assumes the shape of a glacial standstill.10 One can imagine what moral will be extracted from the flood in Genesis, or from Isaiah’s warnings about the earth lying ‘polluted under its inhabitants’ and withering in permanent drought,11 not to speak of the Book of Revelation, with its dried-up rivers, disappearing islands and sun scorching the unrepentant. This is already happening, of course.12 Expect more of it. One might venture a general law of reading in a warming world, a sort of literary equivalent to the physical models of the IPCC: as temperatures rise, readers will become ever more preoccupied with situations resembling the climatic plagues descending upon them.
Beyond lay readings and popular film adaptations, a more sophisticated account of stories of catastrophe, from the Bible to Camus’s Plague, is offered by Kate Rigby.13 Working within ‘the hermeneutic horizon of climate change’ (147), she is interested in how people have perceived and responded to calamities in the past, now that we face a future replete with disasters. It is a worthwhile endeavour yielding plenty of insights, but there is a certain distance between Rigby’s disasters – the Lisbon earthquake, the bubonic plague, the eruption of the Tambora volcano in 1815 – and those of a warming world. Climate change does not produce natural disasters of the garden variety present since time immemorial, but a very peculiar form of the phenomenon: namely, extreme weather caused by the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels. The same distance separates our present and future from Prospero’s storm, Dante’s wastelands or the jeremiads of the Hebrew prophets, which have nothing to do with the source of the problem. Ignoring this remove, readers in a warming world risk descending into facile or even bromidic modes of book worming, much like someone in love who cannot get enough of romance and smells the flowers of infatuation everywhere around her.14
There is, however, a category of literature that closes some of the gap: fiction dealing with fossil fuels and imagining some disaster linked to them – or fossil fuel fiction, for short. Imagine someone who suffers from severe anxiety. Rummaging through piles of paper in the attic, in search of clues to her predicament, she finds a diary in which someone unknown to her describes a traumatic experience. Now imagine that she instead finds a diary with such a content written by one of her parents. Reading it has the potential to be transformative – not just a matter of adaptation, as it were, but possibly one of mitigation.15 The analogy is imperfect, of course, but something of that difference might apply to reading stories of any catastrophe and reading fossil fuel fiction when the earth is heating up.
There has been a call for some time now for compelling stories about climate change.16 The recent surge in ‘climate fiction’ provides one answer to it, but that genre of writing has so far failed conspicuously on one score: rarely, if ever, does it broach the cause of the problem.17 In the most acclaimed cli-fi novels – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, say, or Ian McEwan’s Solar – the act of extracting and burning fossil fuels is no more visible than in any other contemporary literature. In his exhaustive survey of the genre, Adam Trexler notices that absence, most glaring in pure disaster narratives such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the biosphere is ravaged by unidentified, mysterious and unintelligible forces.18 What we get in these novels are representations of effects. The failure to integrate the combustion of fossil fuels with their climatic consequences in the imaginative arch of a novel – or, for that matter, a film – must be deemed remarkable; indeed, it justifies talk of a climate-induced crisis of the imagination. As long as cli-fi floats above the material base of the fossil economy, until it invents narrative techniques for connecting the dots – however far apart they may seem – it will have limited capacity for illuminating the causes of present and future heat, in the worst case even serving to naturalize it.
Meanwhile, as we wait for this artistic breakthrough, there are more texts to be inspected. After all, the roots of global warming run into the past, long predating recent awareness of the nature of the by-products. The first assessment report of the IPCC in 1990 and the establishment of the UNFCCC in 1992 roughly mark the moment when the basics of climate science became common knowledge: a precondition for the emergence of cli-fi (with certain precursors, such as J. G. Ballard, who several decades earlier intimated some of the effects but nothing of the cause). But climate change did not begin in the early 1990s. The curtain was lifted around that time, but the process as such had been under way since the nineteenth century, when Britain first developed the fossil economy, most simply defined as one of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels and therefore generating a sustained growth in CO2 emissions.19 It is that spiral that has brought us into this warming world. At any given moment, the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere is a function of cumulative emissions made in the past and, more fundamentally, an infrastructure of fireplaces built up over time. (It was not always there.) Once we recognize this, we can surmise that cli-fi is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: the fossil economy must have made appearances in literature much earlier. Some compelling stories about climate change may lie hidden there.
To borrow another metaphor from Allen MacDuffie: just as ice cores drilled from deep within Antarctica contain traces of the late spike in CO2 concentrations, so fossil fuel fiction encapsulates experiences of life in a fossil economy and, more importantly, the imaginations they have stoked.20 It encompasses literature where the presence of coal, oil and natural gas can be detected – but their imprints are uneven: if coal is the father of fossil fuels and oil the anointed son, gas is an ethereal and elusive spirit, rarely appearing physically like the other two. For all practical purposes, fossil fuel fiction can be treated as the sum of ‘petrofiction’ and coal fiction. The former has been read closely in recent years, often in the light of worries about ‘peak oil’ – a prospect that currently looks vastly exaggerated – but the latter rather less so; if the salient horizon is climate change, they need to be read anew together.21Some fascinating common denominators might then come into view. How might we go about finding them?
A major problem of climate change in literature concerns scale. In one of the most stimulating recent essays in the field, Timothy Clark homes in on the baffling aggregation of human actions: one person driving a car leaves no measurable mark on the climate, but hundreds of millions of motorists destabilize it, on a level none of them can see before their eyes.22 Are there any literary instruments for making such ‘scale effects’ visible? Clark doubts the capacity of existing conventions to do the trick, and proceeds to read texts on the grandest possible scale to identify their concealments and complicities. If a novel has a protagonist unblinkingly filling up several cars, it is implicated in destruction. The number of texts open to such retrospective criticism is, Clark convincingly claims, ‘unlimited’, but that also raises the question of what the method can elucidate, apart from a universal illusion.23 Is there no more specific meaning to distil from a piece of fiction than its performance of a species-wide myopia? One strategy for tackling the problem, often deployed by cli-fi writers, is to bring the unfathomably large biospheric drama down to the private sphere, where individuals might get caught up in battles for survival or self-realization, the standard fare of a gripping plot: Clark calls it ‘miniaturisation’.24 It betrays the scalar essence of climate change. The point is to zoom out, not in. But then how can we ever conceive of close reading – or close writing – in a warming world?
One alternative might be to take images from fossil fuel fiction and read them through a magnifying glass. Or, with Walter Benjamin: ‘to discover in the analysis of the individual moment the crystal of the total event’; a work or even a fragment of fossil fuel fiction might be read as an object – more precisely, a monad – ‘into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale’.25 It might be retrieved as a dialectical image, whose import can be fully recognized only now that we stand on the verge of uncotrollable climate change. In this afterlife, the image has left the intentions of its creator behind and ‘flashes up at the moment of its recognizability’, which is the moment of peril.26 History, says Benjamin, is a ‘constellation of dangers’, and if people in the present discern some danger coming towards them, they have to return to the ‘prehistory’, when the stage was set for their epoch, to grasp its true nature.27 Between these two points in time, a very special bond suddenly surfaces; indeed, only from the vantage point of the contemporary emergency can the underlying image become legible at all.28
It is a process similar to waking up from a dream. A dialectical image is ‘manifest, on each occasion, only to quite a specific epoch – namely, the one in which humanity, rubbing its eyes, recognizes just this particular dream image as such’.29Notoriously mystical, the theory appears eminently rational and suitable for reading fossil fuel fiction in a warming world, since the pre-IPCC fossil economy and the current rise in temperatures stand in an objective, biophysical relation to each other, with the discoveries of climate science the drawn-out moment of awakening. It is a theory outlined in opposition to any naïve belief in the possibility of reconstructing the past ‘as it really was’, without adulteration from present affairs. But it is also different from the banal assertion that every epoch reads the past in its own mirror, merely to confirm its self-image.30 Benjamin’s claim is much more radical and ambitious: this sort of study is the royal road to knowledge about the present.31 By seeing itself as prefigured in past images preserved in works of art, the present awakens to its real structure. But through the very same communication back and forth between the summits of history, across a deep valley of silence, the nature of the past is likewise brought out: the process is reciprocal – dialectical.32
Curiously missing from most ecocriticism, Benjamin might well serve as a lead interpreter in its general pursuit, defined by Lousie Westling as the re-evaluation of ‘traditions in light of present environmental concerns’.33 That could include a Benjaminian reading of Benjamin himself. How, for instance, could his fragment ‘Fire alarm’ be read today, if not with the approaching tipping points of global warming suffusing the text? The words seem chosen for our moment: ‘Before the spark hits the dynamite the burning fuse must be cut through.’34
And three migrants travelling towards the kingdom of oil inside an empty water tank and perishing from extreme heat – can there be a more powerful image of the fate of the poor in a warming world? Men in the Sun has long been recognized as an intensely allegorical text, in the basic sense of the literal drama, the actual persons and events serving as stand-ins for a higher order of signification.35 Thus the desert has been read as a symbol of the tribulations which the Palestinian refugees must pass through, or a space devoid of meaning, or the vast nothingness in which the traces of the wanderer disappear, or alienation.36 The sun of the title is the ‘light of truth’ whose rays the sorry characters cannot withstand.37 Reading Men in the Sun in a warming world, however, some pressing realities start to reconfigure the allegory. As many ecocritics have argued, the material components of a text now insist on being taken literally – the desert on being read as desert, the sun as sun. The desolate, overheated landscape of Kanafani’s novella no longer appears to refer to a state of mind or political affairs beyond itself, but to precisely that type of landscape, for the first time widely recognizable in this present.
But then can we speak of allegory at all? In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, surely one of the finest cli-fi novels yet written (although it is as silent on the cause as any other), an unhinged character explains one reason for his mental instability:
Also there is the literalization of all literature because the sky is falling, if you know what I mean – that’s no longer just a phrase. A lot of people can’t handle it, how everything becomes hieroglyphic.38
So when someone today says ‘the sky is falling’, it is no longer an innocent cliché, since the crisis is actually located in the sky itself. But the sky is not literally falling. Even as it refers to global warming, the expression remains a kind of allegory, and in the same way Kanafani’s desert does not refer to any particular desert or even to deserts as such: as desert, it symbolizes the creeping material realities of a warming world, reasonably associated with that biome. The heat from the sun can no longer be read as ordinary solar radiation, but rather as an index of a planetary plight. When Kanafani piles words connoting heat – ‘blaze’, ‘flame’, ‘burning’, ‘fire’, ‘hell’, ‘flaming ground’ – on top of each other, the effect is not merely to describe a place in the Persian Gulf: inevitably, it strikes a chord with what is today, to speak with Fredric Jameson, an emerging interpretive ‘master code’.39 One might think of it as a material allegory.
Certain other readings then come across as rather idealist. In recent years, readers of Men in the Sun have tended to focus on the castration of Abul Khaizuran as the central event, Joseph Massad going so far as to say that ‘his impotence is what leads to the death of the three Palestinian refugees’.40 A warming world does not necessarily obviate such interpretations, but it does give them a somewhat improbable quality. Henceforth, minus the gender bias, the very title could be read as a material allegory over a well-nigh universal position of danger: Men in the Sun. When Abul Khaizuran opens up the tank for the three workers, he invites them into the oven of fossil capital.41 The spiral that irresistibly pulls them into the heat is the accumulation of money through the production of oil. The journey from wet soil to parched sand adumbrates the business-as-usual trajectory of the twenty-first century Earth; the forward movement of the lorry is inexorable, impervious to the obvious dangers; the officials close the window of opportunity by wasting time on petty details. All of these images, and more, now strike the reader as thoroughly dialectical. They draw their force from their being dreamed up long before the 1990s; written today, refugees grilled to death inside a tank might have seemed a contrived image, but from the summit of the Persian Gulf of the early 1960s, it flashes up with a raw imaginative power.
That moment in time was, from a Palestinian perspective, utterly bleak. Organized resistance had yet to be launched. The lack of collective efforts by the Palestinian people to take their destiny into their own hands represented, in the eyes of Kanafani, whose Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine would only be formed five years later, a suicidal paralysis: ‘Assad spread his shirt over his head, bent his legs, and let the sun roast him without resistance’ (63). He conceived Men in the Sun as a supremely subtle, profoundly pessimistic clarion call for resistance. One wonders what future readers will think when they reach the final sentences of the text.
Captain MacWhirr’s decision
Among authors in the Western canon, the former sailor Joseph Conrad is notable for having experienced an energy transition at first hand: the shift from water to steam in global shipping.42In Conrad’s novella Typhoon, Captain MacWhirr steers the steamboat Nan-Shan through the South China Sea as he has done hundreds of times before. He is competent and punctilious, a man without distinctive features, standing at his wheel in fulfilment of his duties. When the barometer abruptly falls, he realizes that ‘there’s some dirty weather knocking about’. He registers the evidence but, never having encountered a severe storm in these waters, shrugs it off:
Had he been informed by an indisputable authority that the end of the world was to be finally accomplished by a catastrophic disturbance of the atmosphere, he would have assimilated the information under the simple idea of dirty weather, and no other, because he had no experience of cataclysms, and belief does not necessarily imply comprehension.43
It ought to be impossible to read that sentence today without seeing in it a synopsis of the reception of climate science.
The Nan-Shan carries cargo, but more importantly two hundred Chinese coolies, indentured labourers being ferried home after seven years of service. They carry with them boxes of silver dollars earned by the sweat of their brows in coalmines, railways and other enterprises in the colonies of the British Empire. At the beginning of the story, they lie ‘prostrate about the decks’ under a sun pouring down its ‘leaden heat’ and smoke from the funnel, which spreads itself out ‘like an infernal sort of cloud, smelling of sulphur and raining soot all over the decks’ (19). But as the storm brews, the two hundred coolies are ‘battened down’ in a storage room. Chief mate Jukes worries that they will not survive in there. He proposes to his captain that the boat be turned eastward, so as to avoid the cyclone and keep the passengers safe:
‘Passengers?’ wondered the captain gravely. ‘What passengers?’
‘Why, the Chinamen, sir,’ explained Jukes, very sick of this conversation.
‘The Chinamen! Why don’t you speak plainly? Couldn’t tell what you meant. Never heard a lot of coolies spoken of as passengers before. Passengers, indeed! What’s come to you?’ (27)
Jukes insists that it would be prudent and relatively easy to head to the east, arguing that he has ‘never known a ship roll like this’. But the captain only grows impatient with his pleadings.
‘To the eastward?’ he repeated, with dawning astonishment. ‘To the … Where do you think we are bound to? You want me to haul a full-powered steamship four points off her course to make the Chinamen comfortable! Now, I’ve heard more than enough of mad things done in the world – but this […]. What put it into your head that I would start to tack a steamer as if she were a sailing-ship?’ (28)
From the second quarter of the nineteenth century until its end, steam and sail competed for dominance in the military and merchant navies of the Empire. It was clear from the start that steamers were weighed down by the burden of a bulky and expensive fuel: coal. Their great advantage, however, as their proponents never tired of pointing out, was uniform, reliable, unruffled motion. Sail may be far cheaper, depending as it did on a gratis fuel that took up no space on board, but it might fail at any time if the winds so decided: ‘[N]o vessel,’ explained John Ross, a captain in the Royal Navy, ‘can ever be constructed to sail in direct opposition to the wind.’44 A steamer could run straight into any wind without drifting off course. Impelled by a source of energy utterly extraneous to local weather conditions, it went wherever its commander decreed: ‘steamers make the wind always fair,’ as Admiral Charles Napier, one of their most influential advocates, proudly declared.45 Just as in the shift from water to steam in British industry, this quality of the engine – absolute subordination to the wishes of its master – sealed its victory on the imperial seas.46
Joseph Conrad, a skilled sailor made redundant by the submissive power of coal, returned to that quality several times as a writer. In The End of the Tether, the Sofala ‘could always be depended upon to make her courses. Her compasses were never out’; to steamers, ‘the winds of December and June were all one’.47 (Compare Dickens: the steam-engines in Coketown ‘went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul’.48) In Nostromo, steamboats run up and down the coast, year after year, ‘disregarding everything but the tyranny of time’.49 In Typhoon, Captain MacWhirr refuses to heed any other imperative than the throbbing forward motion. Not only would the proposed turn add three hundred miles to the distance ‘and a pretty coal bill to show’, but it would contradict the very essence of steam power: ‘ “A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the captain, “and a full-powered steamship has got to face it” ’ (29–30). Against such considerations, the fate of two hundred coolies counts for nothing. Its engine roaring remorselessly, the Nan-Shan travels on.
Then it crashes into the hurricane. Conrad strains his language to the utmost to convey its violence. A torrent of brutal verbs creates ‘the suspense of the interminably culminating catastrophe’ (43), in which all the forces of nature seem mobilized in a concerted attempt to crush the ship – but the stokers work madly to feed the furnace with coal. In pellucid detail, Conrad describes the engine as an almost supernatural organism of power, whose limbs move with an unerring, ‘irresistible precision’ (56). Only the coolies are at the mercy of the winds. Abandoned to their fate, they roll over each other, smash into the walls, cry out in despair, see their earnings float away, as though ‘overtaken by a landslide’ (63). Jukes peers inside and reports to his captain: ‘A regular little hell in there’ (51). By this time, however, he has adopted the view of his superior – ‘what the devil did the coolies matter to anybody?’ (48) – and exchanged his empathy for a shuddering fear of the Chinamen. Will they revolt against the command? If two hundred coolies break loose, how can a handful of white men defend themselves against their fury?
As it happens, the steamer weathers the storm. To Jukes’s amazement, ‘there had been no corpses; but the lot of them seemed at their last gasp’ (65). In the final quarter of the text, he and MacWhirr face another kind of threat: a mob of badly injured migrant workers, whose savings from seven years of hard labour have been lost. With a combination of battering, flaunting revolvers, and distributing recovered money, they succeed in restoring calm. The Nan-Shan has reached its destination. At the end, Jukes sums up the events: ‘They had had a doing that would have shaken the soul out of a white man. But then they say a Chinaman has no soul’ (82). Captain MacWhirr’s decision has been vindicated.
The storm in Typhoon has been read as anything but a storm: as a symbol for linguistic turbulence, disintegrating communication, the breakdown of referentiality, the work of the text itself, or perhaps artistic creativity.50 It should be clear how it might be read as a material allegory. Indeed, storms have become slippery metaphors for psychological turmoil, as they now draw readers into their vortex and remind them of actual weather gathering force.51 (The effect is similar for Benjamin’s famous image of the storm in his ninth thesis on history.) In a recent reading of Typhoon, Nicholas Royle contends that a masterpiece is characterized by its uncanny ‘capacity to cast light on what comes later, on what ostensibly post-dates the work’: Benjamin could not agree more, and this text could not be a more apposite example.52
Other similarities with Men in the Sun are evident, but so too are the differences. In Kanafani, the workers have names, faces, voices, memories; in Conrad they form a brutish mass, making only indistinct guttural sounds, described in the same terms as the lumps of coal. In the former, they share a communal bond with the driver; in the latter, the two parties are utterly foreign to each other. While Men in the Sun ends in a consummate calamity, echoing Benjamin’s protest that ‘things cannot go on like this’, Typhoon only stages a brush with the catastrophe, the ship docking safely – from the viewpoint of captain and owner – which, in the words of Edward Said, ‘seems to suggest that MacWhirr’s way is the best after all’.53 Perhaps the relative pessimism and optimism of the two tales are functions of their respective historical moments, the catastrophic character of the fossil economy more readily graspable to a Palestinian imagination in 1962 than to a European one in 1902.
In other stories, however, Conrad paints a decidedly gloomier picture of a world run by coal. In Youth, he draws on his own extensive experience in loading sacks of the fuel from the northern English mines and sailing it to harbours around the world; one of the many barques on which he served, incidentally called the Palestine, caught fire on its way to Bangkok.54 The ship has been renamed the Judea in the story and, like the original, suffers the fate of spontaneously igniting coal. A terrified crew discovers that the cargo under their feet is smouldering. Soon they are enveloped in ‘a pestiferous cloud defiling the splendour of sea and sky. […] The ship smoked, the sun blazed’, explosions rock the barque. A steamer comes along and takes it in tow, but the higher speed only fans the flames. The sailors try to get by on their own, but ‘the heat seemed hardly bearable’; finally they save their souls on lifeboats and, bobbing on the sea, look back at the vessel: ‘At daylight she was only a charred shell, floating still under a cloud of smoke and bearing a glowing mass of coal within.’55 There is a novel meaning to Jameson’s observations on Conrad’s ‘allegory of the ship as the civilized world on its way to doom’.56
In fact, Conrad’s stories are packed with portraits of hideous steamboats spewing out smoke and breathing heat – always to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. In The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, the death of the black sailor is symmetrical, in a way so typical for Conrad, to the death of the sailing-ship. As it enters London in the final years of the transition, the Narcissus is tugged up-river, into ‘an impure breeze’, a veritable graveyard of pollution: ‘A mad jumble of begrimed walls loomed up vaguely in the smoke, bewildering and mournful, like a vision of disaster. […] She had ceased to live.’57 In Conrad’s colonial tales, the imperialists invariably arrive by steam; in Almayer’s Folly, the European steamers stain the sky and unleash their guns, echoed by the hills in ‘a long-drawn and mournful sight, as if the land had sent it in answer to the voice of its masters’.58 And then we haven’t so much as mentioned Heart of Darkness where the steamboat, uniquely for Conrad but not for river traffic in continental interiors at the time, is fuelled by wood. A summary of Conrad’s view of the new prime mover is offered in The End of the Tether: ‘here it is: one man’s poison, another man’s meat’ (295). But in what sense can such images be seen as dialectical? What features do they bring out in our own age?
The human species and other stories
‘The Anthropocene’ has quickly been established as the master concept of the environmental humanities. Denoting the new geological epoch that has prematurely terminated the Holocene, it suggests that humanity is now the main engine of changes in the earth system. If it highlights the anthropogenic nature of global warming and other environmental woes, this narrative is unproblematic, indeed unassailable: but it often does something more. As critics have lately pointed out, it tends to slip into a depiction of humanity as a monolithic entity, a species marching in unison towards biospheric mastery, possibly predisposed by its very biological inheritance to seize hold of the earth.59
Such tendencies are on display in Ecocriticism on the Edge. Conceiving of the anthropos as a Leviathan, or as ‘enormous and dense tectonic plates of humanity’, Clark attributes climate change to the most humdrum activities, undertaken by more or less everyone to enhance their welfare.60 Things like poverty reduction, food production and the wider distribution of medical support send global emissions soaring.61 The abolition of relations of power and exploitation could end up making matters worse – or, as the editors of ariel sum up Clark’s analysis in a symposium:
The attempt to achieve just human arrangements (and to use literary texts to help us think about what those might be or how they might be achieved) looks ideologically suspect on the scale of climate change.62
The upshot verges on defeatism. Since intra-human antagonism does not condition the result, it offers no path forward either: the human species is caught up in ‘an impersonal dynamic it cannot command’. Failing to alter course, it falls prey to its own inability to behave rationally on the planetary scale or even catch sight of it – a tunnel vision ‘inherent to humanity per se’.63
At this point, however, the question of scale derangement might be turned upside down. To what extent is this picture of humanity a function of watching it from the highest possible scale? Is it any wonder that humans appear as indistinguishable ants, if the critic ascends to the most empyrean outlook? Be that as it may, the monadological method of Benjamin certainly yields different results: if we read Men in the Sun and Typhoon as crystals of the total event, in which all the forces and interests of the fossil economy have entered on a reduced scale – ‘a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil’ – we learn something else about our epoch. The poor are locked inside cellars when driven into a warming world. Travelling to an oilfield or home from a coalmine, they do have their hands dirty with fossil fuels, but, expelled and indentured, their lives are constricted from all sides. The decisions are not theirs to make. Captain MacWhirr cannot bring himself to view the workers below deck as humans on a par with himself: read alongside Power in a Warming World: The New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality, a magnificent survey of two decades of climate negotiations, his portrait can be developed as an image of the behaviour of our ruling classes.64 Against the imperative of forward motion propelled by fossil fuels, the fate of the masses – invisible from the bridge, already feeling the ship lurching – has in fact carried no weight, however forcefully some have pleaded their cause.
But MacWhirr is not quite the ruler. A figure of banal evil, he is rather the underling of the absent cause – namely fossil capital itself, as pervasive and unnamed here as in Men in the Sun. Abul Khaizuran is likewise betrothed to it. Unlike MacWhirr, however, he is a torn soul: on the one hand, his allegiance to accumulation pushes him to expose his countrymen to lethal dangers; on the other, when faced with the results of his actions – after all, he could have run out from the border station if he had deemed the three lives more valuable than his own business prospects – he cries out for resistance. The divisions of the species run straight through his persona. It is an irony that the monolithic Anthropocene narrative exhibits the classical feature of poor fiction: a one-dimensional protagonist. Both Kanafani and Conrad, in their ways, contradict it; by placing the full realization of the disaster in a dark hole, they bring out what Patricia Yaeger has called ‘the energy unconscious’ of our epoch.65 Those who perish, or lose, reside in the overcast peripheries. In the end, the whole ship might go up in flames, but in this narrative, that will be a consequence of how the pilots have loaded and steered it. From their opposite angles, Men in the Sun and Typhoon allude to a logical, as yet unrealized possibility: that of resistance, of breaking out of the confines before it is too late, or, with Benjamin, of snatching ‘humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn’.66 In and of themselves, however, two novellas from the twentieth century of course prove nothing. But, then, fossil fuel fiction is a far wider field of texts.
How can we delimit fossil fuel fiction? A case can be made for reading all modern fiction as saturated by fossil fuels, whether it speaks of them or not.67 But texts that do should command special interest. In a seminal paper, Richard Heede has traced 63% of cumulative emissions between 1751 and 2010 to 90 corporations; perhaps a global canon of fossil fuel fiction, in all involved languages, refracting the history of the fossil economy – if only through a montage of fragments – will one day be composed of roughly the same number of texts.68 A list of novels now demands close re-reading. One could start with Jules Verne’s The Child of the Cavern, in which the former manager of a coalmine believed to be exhausted returns to find it filled with both abundant deposits and the ghostly presence of an abused worker who sabotages the recommenced operations. One might proceed to Richard Llewellyn’s sentimental bestseller How Green was My Valley, where a rural Welsh landscape is submerged by the slag heaps advancing from the coal mine, run by a company deaf to the inhabitants, who struggle to find an effective strategy of disruption. Emile Zola’s Germinal, with its apocalyptic visions and ecstatic rioters trying to demolish the whole mine once and for all, is a given on the list; so are D. H. Lawrence’s tales of broken pitmen, Franz Kafka’s stories of estranged colliers and coal consumers, the industrial novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Dina Mulock Craik … And then we have only listed texts from the original core of the fossil economy, outside of which a host of works on coal – Baldomero Lillo’s Sub Terra (Chile), Anil Barve’s Akra Koti Gallon Pani (India), Ba Jin’s Xue (China), to mention just a few – await translation into English. Ecocritics certainly have a lot to sink their teeth into.
A working hypothesis is that reading this literature in a warming world will ‘explode the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins – that is, with the present’. Images from the past might be recovered so as ‘to bring the present into a critical state’.69 Clark asserts that the Anthropocene names the moment when ‘what used to be clear human goods begin to flip over into sources of degradation and environmental harm’, but the archives of fossil fuel fiction seem, rather, to lend fresh support to Benjamin’s lesson: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’70 The task, then, is to rescue that tradition from oblivion and let it inspire efforts to halt or jump out of the linear lorry. The danger of losing the biosphere to the fossil economy should alert us to all those who have banged on the tank – or not – in this pre-history; indeed, any hope of redemption rests on widening ‘the tiny fissure in the continuous catastrophe’.71
Whether such a counter-narrative is borne out by global fossil fuel fiction is, of course, a question of continued reading. But it receives resounding confirmation from the novel that once again stands out as an extraordinarily prophetic work: the first volume of Abdel-Rahman Munif’s quintet Cities of Salt. Drawing on a trope which long seemed trite, but which in this historical moment is re-invested with literal urgency, Munif begins with a description of the relatively stable environment of Wadi al-Uyoun, an oasis somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, blessed with ‘good air and the sweetness of the water available every day of the year’.72 Suddenly a group of strangers arrive. They poke around in the soil and draw mysterious symbols on pieces of paper. In a state of utter incomprehension, the people of Wadi al-Uyoun learn that the men represent an American company looking for oil. What on earth could that be good for? Paralysed by confusion, they look on as the self-absorbed strangers seize hold of their oasis – except for Miteb al-Hathal, ‘the troublemaker’, who seeks to rouse them into action.73
‘Be assured of this, people of the wadi – if they find what they’re after, none of us will be left alive’ (44), Miteb al-Hathal preaches to his community. When the Americans bring drills and other machines to the oasis, he can barely contain himself:
In the wink of an eye they unleashed hundreds of demons and devils. These devils catch fire and roar night and day like a flour mill that turns and turns without tiring out and without anyone turning it. What will happen in this world? How can we kill them before they kill us? (69)
He gets an audience with the emir, who brushes off his concerns with a mixture of monetary carrots and allusions to the sword hanging on his wall. The Americans are given a free hand. Some one hundred pages into the novel, their bulldozers start attacking the groves, pulling the trees up by the roots and flattening everything into a dusty ruin. The people witness the end of their world; Mitab el-Hathal cries silently, and then, when all is lost, rides out alone into the desert.
The dispossessed inhabitants are herded into the new American oil Eldorado of Harran. Munif modelled it on Dhahran, one of the towns singled out in the Nature Climate Change study: Harran means ‘the overheated’.74 Working on the wells and construction sites, the people of the wadi cannot stand the new climate:
It was hotter and more humid than anyplace else. […] Harran was Hell itself in summer: the wind died and the sky hung low like a leaden dome. The air was saturated with humidity. Breathing was difficult and bodies were heavy and slick from constant sweating. Clothing, damp and reeking with perspiration, became a hindrance. (194–95)
In one of his many texts still not translated into English, Munif warned that the cities built on oil would turn into ‘infernal ovens’ in which no human could live.75 In Cities of Salt, one worker in the oilfields never stops telling his fellows ‘how the Hell that boiled beneath the earth would soon burst out and burn everything to cinders’ (387). The premonitions that something terrible is going to happen linger in the overheated barracks.
One rainy night, however, another type of fire is started. One of the pipeline stations, called H2, goes up in flames. Among each other, the people of Harran whisper a name:
They were all sure that Miteb el-Hathal, who had been gone for long years, no one knew where, was back, and that he would make the desert a hell for the Americans. They were delighted, but their delight was tempered with a certain weariness and anticipation. […] Miteb al-Hathal, who had taken refuge in the dark and the desert, would be back. (510–12)76
Whether that figure ever returns to make a real dent in the curve of warming is an open question. Were that to happen, perhaps some inspiration could be drawn from the tradition of the oppressed as registered in fossil fuel fiction.
I am very grateful to the Prize committee and editors of FMLS. My thanks also go to Jesper Weitzh and Sam Carlshamre for their encouragement.