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17 March 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:45am

Paul Kingsnorth and the new climate fiction

Alexandria falls into the now well-established genre of “cli-fi” novels: dystopias that engage directly with the hell we are calling upon ourselves as temperatures rise and ice melts.  

By Erica Wagner

Buccmaster of Holland, the narrator of Paul Kingsnorth’s extraordinary debut novel, The Wake, is in a kind of psychic dialogue with “weland the smith”. Weland is sword-maker, god-figure: Weland, or Wayland, appears in early mythic texts ranging from the Icelandic Poetic Edda to Beowulf. Buccmaster confides in the reader his connection to Weland:

. . . it was my grandfather telt me first about eald weland the smith and the same tale i hierde later many times by fyrs and from gleomen and scopmen all ofer angland and efen in other places for weland he is in our blud and our land. eald he is ealdor efen than the lost gods under the mere eald he is lic the fenn and the seas… in weland smith is what angland is what our folc is… all the wundor in this land macd by him from the ore of erce…

If you are struggling, try reading the text out loud. “Eald” for “old”, “efen” for “even”: The Wake is written in what Kingsnorth has called “a shadow tongue”, “a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of [Old English] by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today”. The book is set in 1066; Buccmaster and his band resist what most of us now refer to as “the Norman Conquest” without ever consid-ering the campaign of violence and cultural obliteration that William’s victory over Harold entailed.

The Wake is a vibrant, violent, original book which struggled to find a publisher and then – following its eventual publication by crowdfunding via Unbound in 2014 – won a slew of awards. Kingsnorth soon revealed that his debut was part of a planned trilogy intended to span two millennia. The Wake is set 1,000 years in the past; Beast, published in 2016, is set in the present; and now we have the final volume, Alexandria, set 1,000 years in the future.

All three engage with Kingsnorth’s larger, urgent project which began long before he started writing fiction. Raised in the south of England, in the 1990s he became involved in the protests that fought against the construction of a motorway over Twyford Down. In 2009 he co- founded the Dark Mountain Project, a literary and cultural endeavour looking directly at the idea that society as we know it will not survive the ecological changes humans have wrought: “It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality,” runs one line in the project’s manifesto.

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In this final volume, that untamed reality has caught up with the tiny band of humanity that is the focus of Alexandria; these few characters appear to be victims of Wayland the Smith. As in The Wake, Kingsnorth has developed a new tongue for his characters, though this has much more in common with the degraded English spoken by the protagonist of Russell Hoban’s classic post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker. There are echoes of the world of The Wake in the rhythms of the language, in its use of consonants, in the chanting sense of a lived mythology. “Bak then/Man ate air and time/Breathin Machine at Sun up and down/Man said:/I can not live in this world/I need an other.”

And as in The Wake, there is a conventional narrative within this sidelong use of English – an anchor for the reader. Seven humans live off the land they inhabit, a patch of southern England now largely drowned, the waters having risen and risen. The old, fallen civilisation is called Atlantis; in its stead arose a mysterious, distant place known as Alexandria. In this little universe, patriarch and matriarch are known as father and mother; these are their only names. Yrvidian is an elder; nzil and sfia are parents to el, a little girl; the romantically named lorenso is an interloper, a young man with whom sfia has an affair. In the place they call home, “Edg”, they worship birds and erect poles in their honour. The clan has been reduced in number; once, there were 30 of them, but they are hunted, it seems, by stalkers who appear clothed in red and are avatars of danger.

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In the second half of the novel the reader discovers the identity of these stalkers and the meaning of Alexandria. The stalkers, we learn, serve Wayland, who was created by humans but then came to dominate them. It was Wayland who built Alexandria, so that humans could continue to live even after their physical bodies died. Wayland’s skill, and the creation of Alexandria, are expressions of humankind’s belief that technology will enable us to solve any problem, no matter how intractable: if this planet is ruined, we can just run off and colonise Mars.

***

Alexandria falls into the now well-established genre of “cli-fi” novels, dystopias that engage directly with the hell we are calling upon ourselves as temperatures rise and ice melts. There have been several examples in recent years – Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy; Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; Omar El Akkad’s American War; Ben Smith’s Doggerland – but JG Ballard wrote about climate catastrophe in The Drowned World in 1962. This has been heading our way for a long time. Kingsnorth, though, is interested in a broader sense of cultural fracture, which is surely what brought him to the Norman invasion in his first novel; he is also deeply engaged with the mythic sense of “angland”, as it’s called in The Wake. This got him into some trouble in 2018 when his essay “Elysium Found?” was perceived as promoting a sense of patriotism that bordered on nativism.

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But Kingsnorth’s true allegiance, it seems clear from this sequence of books and particularly from the last two volumes in the trilogy, is to the Earth that humanity appears intent on destroying. In The Wake, Weland is responsible for the “wundor in this land macd by him from the ore of erce”; for wonder, read wreckage, made visible in Alexandria. Beast, which describes one man alone in a landscape in the present day, offers a kind of hiatus, but gives the reader the transitional image that will be carried forward into the final book: “You will understand soon enough that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath.” That great animal appears to rise to defend itself in Alexandria, to consume Wayland/Weland and his works.

The danger – for both the writer and the reader – is that such a construction can appear over-schematic, and while the plot pulls us along in Alexandria, Kings-north’s characters have little individuation. Different members of the clan narrate different sections of the book: Kingsnorth labels each section so the reader knows who is speaking. It would be hard to tell without these labels, with the exception of the sections narrated by the little girl el, whose voice is bluntly childlike. And yet this is, altogether, a remarkable project, and in this final book Kingsnorth creates images that have a timeless power: the drowned landscape, the circling birds, the human desire for survival against the odds. 

Alexandria
Paul Kingsnorth
Faber & Faber, 416pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold