The time seems ripe for fiction with an eco-activist bent. Months ago, the world population surpassed 7 billion. A year ago, the biggest literary sensation in recent memory (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) largely revolved around the plight of an endangered bird. Political activism has spread from the Arab Spring to Zuccotti Park and beyond. Given this recent prevalence, motivated by and directed toward primarily economic woes, this new collection looks to recast the focus of some of that discontent on circumstances that are perhaps even more dire than our faltering financial conditions.
Not so surprisingly, the ten stories in I’m With the Bears are a hodgepodge—a mix of eco-minded veterans exploring a familiar theme (Margaret Atwood, T. C. Boyle) and younger heavyweights conjuring up prescient and ominous dystopias (Paolo Bacigalupi, Helen Simpson). As the distinguished writer and activist Bill McKibben suggests in his call-to-arms/introduction, “[T]he job of writers is not to push us in some particular direction; it’s to illuminate.” These ten writers largely succeed with this charge, taking up the mantle of naturalists like Edward Abbey and John Muir, while borrowing strategies from satirists and oracles like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury.
It’s those stories less overtly about environmentalism that turn out to be the more compelling selections. We humans are myopically fixated on our own particularly human brand of experience, and so just as the most effective activism necessarily appeals to our empathy, so too does our best literature proffer a lifting of some veil, a raising of consciousness. Which is possibly why a story like T.C. Boyle’s—an excerpt from his novel A Friend of the Earth, about four eco-warriors—is less potent than Lydia Millet’s peculiar tale of a businessman who becomes obsessed with breaking into zoos at night in order to feel a connection with captive and imperiled creatures, to share in “the sad quiescence of the animal’s own end of time.”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Sacred Space” is one of the most convincing, sympathetic portrayals of the insecurities of middle-aged white men I’ve read, perhaps because the characters’ dismay over devastated eco-systems is something over which we should all be losing sleep. Another highlight of the collection, David Mitchell’s “The Siphoners” is a layered and nuanced take on dystopian fiction, foregrounding personal tragedy atop ecological and political catastrophes and thereby bridging the human and global scales. “Arzèstula” portrays a writer-cum-clairvoyant solemnizing the fragility of both a waning planet and a vanishing cultural vernacular (novels are a nearly forgotten extravagance). The story, by a member of the enigmatic Italian writers’ collective Wu Ming, suggests that storytelling is not just a connection to our past and an evocation of our present, but also a crucial conjuring of our potential futures, however dire or hopeful they may be.
Many readers may be wary of a curated collection such as this—art with an agenda—but these ten stories avoid the sort of didactic, righteous preaching that elsewhere grates. The loose theme of climate change and a planet in peril doesn’t exactly manage to wrangle these stories into a cohesive collection, but any reader with an interest in environmental issues will appreciate these different angles on the most pressing of our many current crises.