It is a truism that certain aspects of life in present-tense America are best understood by reading Charles Dickens. Pick up Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey & Son or any of his other novels: they all vividly depict the effects of extreme income inequality and the sickness of an overly stratified society in which the rich reap the rewards of empire while the poor live physically miserable lives. Alternatively, care to know what life might be like in a western society without electricity, or modern conveniences and medicine? Read Dickens and understand that, while love and friendship can be found under even dire conditions, without the material benefits of fossil fuels life will not be as lovely as some utopians would like to believe. Death abounds.
Dickens inhabited a pre-peak-everything world. For him, heir to the Romantics, nature in all its parts was an inexhaustible matrix from which life—and his novels—emerged. In his fully realized fictional world, all those descriptive bits that high school students yawn over when forced to read, say, Great Expectations, are completely integral. For how else would one get such a sense of people existing completely within nature—out walking or riding in heat and cold, in snow, wind, rain, a balmy spring morning, under trees and among flowers; and how else would Dickens be able to use weather and landscape as outward expressions of his themes and his characters’ emotional lives? In his novels, nature is eternal, abundant and taken for granted, the world still large enough to contain humankind and all our sins, our cruelties, our wastefulness, and our glories, to little deleterious effect.
However dystopian, Dickens’ was a society on the way up, in which the full effects of the tech/fossil fuel revolution were yet to be realized. We moderns, on the other hand, are living on the downslope, learning to our sorrow that, keep pushing nature’s limits too far and dire consequences inevitably accrue. The times are out of joint—ours is an uneasy age, haunted by memories, in many cases not our own but told to us, of “before,” when there was still a "freshness deep down things,” earth systems had not yet had to adapt to our manifold excesses, and whatever trashing we did could easily heal. Nature may still be vast, but no longer is there a sense that it forms an abiding cradle for human civilization.
Two Novels Worth Reading
There’s no shortage of modern writers who are exploring our modern dystopia by, as someone has put it in a different context, “remembering forward.” Recently, I happened to read two such novels back to back, both quite fine and both illustrative of that something in the zeitgeist that makes our grinding apocalypse worth writing about. Neither is a techy, sci fi, plot-driven novel such as those of William Gibson or Paolo Bacigalupi, nor are they fully akin to sociological horror stories such as 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. They are less didactic than World Made by Hand or The Road.