The Importance of Anthropocene Fiction


Books Editor

Whether we realise it or not, we are now in the period of the anthropocene. By this we mean the new geological age where our world has become anthropocentric rather than ecocentric. The earth is currently seen as a resource for human exploitation which is exacerbating climate change. Novels which seek to show us the results of the anthropocene, present us with the possible future world we could live in, albeit at times seemingly very far removed from our own.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, famously hailed by Andrew O’Hagan as ‘the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation’ is a post-apocalyptic novel which forces us to consider the anthropocene with all its potential anxiety. From the barren setting, to the sparse style and bare language, McCarthy hits us with the future of a ‘grey’ world.

Whether we realise it or not, we are now in the period of the anthropocene

As we follow the unnamed boy and man over the course of the novel, nothing really happens. Yet in this simple voyage down the road to reach the sea, McCarthy invites his reader to speculate. We’re hopeful that at the beach, the boy and his ‘Papa’ will find freedom or a possibility of escape.

We are left disappointed of course. McCarthy presents various situations of horror. The cannibals who keep humans locked in a basement, whilst they eat them limb by limb, a man who takes a knife to the boy’s throat and Ely (the only named character in the entire novel) who eats with them one night and then tragically dies. McCarthy holds nothing back, he shows no restraint, choosing instead to confront the future for humanity if we do not change.

A motif of morality continuously recurs in the discourse of the two main characters. The boy repeatedly asks the man for reassurance ‘Papa are we the good guys?’ McCarthy asks us and our anthropocentric world: do we ever really know who the ‘good guys’ are? I think the answer is very much that no one is the ‘good guys’ nor the ‘bad guys’. We’re all just as much to blame for this anthropocentric nightmare in which we find ourselves.

McCarthy holds nothing back, he shows no restraint, choosing instead to confront the future for humanity if we do not change

From the outset, when the mother chooses to remove herself completely from the world, by wandering off in a suicidal trance, we know this is going to be a bleak journey. She can’t even face an anthropocentric world and I think if we get any deeper, most of us wouldn’t be able to either. The unknown post-apocalyptic event which occurred before the start of the novel only adds to the mystery. You never know what’s coming next for the duo in McCarthy’s barren version of the United States.

If The Road isn’t enough to convince you we’re in a terrifying epoch and need to change our ways, then just look at dystopian fiction. Margaret Atwood reinforces the anthropocene through her ‘dystopian’ worlds which are not so far removed from our own. In one interview Atwood insisted nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale was imagined. All the events of the novel had occurred at some point, at some time, somewhere in the world.

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was shocked. I made my Mum read it too. She came back to me when she had and said ‘But none of it is real? What an imagination she has!’ My response? ‘But it is Mum! Look around you; it’s happening right now.’ Anthropocene fiction is an essential tool to force us to notice the effect of humans on our wider world.

The events of these post-apocalyptic and dystopian ‘nightmares’ are less imaginative and far more real than you think. We are in the anthropocene, it is happening right now. The sooner we realise it, the better.

Image via Pixabay

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