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2 March 2016

Gold Fame Citrus is a “cli-fi” novel – the dystopia of choice in the era of climate change

Claire Vaye Watkins's new novel imagines California after an ecological disaster. But what does it say about our interest in literary apocalypse?

By Tim Martin

 Ultimately, the consistency of our results suggests an exceptionally high risk of a multidecadal megadrought occurring over the Central Plains and south-west regions during the late 21st century, a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent megadroughts that characterised the medieval era.

This is not, alas, a sentence from some forward-looking work of science fiction but the conclusion of a report that was published last year by three scientists from Nasa and the universities of Columbia and Cornell. Its sobering consensus – not to mention the four-year drought affecting present-day California – lends an unpleasant air of authority to the opening chapters of Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, the follow-up to her collection of stories, Battleborn.

In the near future setting of Watkins’s book, California has become a second Dust Bowl, with the trajectory of two centuries of immigration abruptly reversed. The state that was known for its gold rushes, film industry and fruit orchards (the gold, fame and citrus of the title) now breeds a population of impecunious “Mojavs”, whose insulting nickname seems intended to echo the “Okies” of a bygone era. Militias defend the Oregon border; Washington has stopped accepting relocation applications; signs from Houston to Indianapolis proclaim: “MOJAVS NOT WELCOME. NO WORK FOR MOJAVS. MOJAVS OUT.”

Watkins’s novel picks up the thread as Luz Dunn, a former model and poster child for water conservation, departs the abandoned city of Los Angeles with her boyfriend, Ray, and a child they have stolen from a rabble of “burners and gutterpunks”. Heading for Utah, they run out of petrol amid the Amargosa Dune Sea, an area of “monstrous, infinite sand” that has surged across the west of the country, and are taken in by a semi-mythical group of desert-dwellers whose leader claims to be able to dowse for water.

This kind of dystopian “cli-fi”, in which humanity is brought to its knees by pollution and climate change, has largely eclipsed the post-nuclear fables that became standard as literary apocalypses in the Cold War era. In the past couple of years alone, Paolo Bacigalupi’s futuristic The Water Knife imagined a mercenary retained to track down a new source of water in the bone-dry American south-west, while in China Miéville’s short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion icebergs revolved slowly in the skies above London and glistening oil rigs dragged themselves out of the North Sea. Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came imagined a near-future Britain blighted by disease and prone to violent flooding; Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam set its colourful story of humanity’s downfall in an America ravaged by pandemics and extreme weather events. “One of the biggest roles of ­science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind,” said Arthur C Clarke in 1970. He would have been astonished, I expect, by the durability of our appetites for sorrow, pessimism and worlds in ruins.

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Despite Watkins’s resourceful prose, however, and an excellent opening section that creates a powerful impression of the waterless, unwashed world – crowds “dark and balmy with stink”, with fantasies of “velvet moss and steady evergreens” – her novel ends up struggling to make things new in its crowded genre. Early in the book, Luz remarks dismissively, “There was always some saviour out in the wilderness, some senator, some patent, some institute, some cell.” It is a comment that seems to take aim at the clichés of other post-apocalypses but, soon enough, her narrative takes a turn that the reader will probably have ­encountered elsewhere.

One of the strongest stories in Watkins’s debut collection turned around cults, an area in which she has some expertise: her father, Paul Watkins, was a former member of Charles Manson’s “Family” and testified against the leader in 1970. Even so, there is a glum inevitability in this novel to the way that the charismatic desert leader, with his mystical doctrine, his free narcotic handouts and his ranks of brainwashed and sexually compliant young women, turns out to be more (or less) than he initially seems.

Watkins fills the back half of the book with experimental flourishes – choric interludes from the inhabitants of the desert, a government questionnaire, a handbook to the “neo-fauna” of the dune sea – but their originality never quite distracts from the slight predictability of the plot. Then again, perhaps we are being told something else about the repeating history of California: about its endless willingness, even at the end of the world, to believe that personal deliverance and revelatory spiritual truth lurk just over the next dune. Ecological disasters come and go. This novel ends up suggesting that La-La Land never changes. 

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins is published by Quercus (352pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash