The American writer Terese Svoboda is talking to me over the crackling pops and steampunk whistles of a rusty transatlantic email connection, and she’s talking about her new book, “Great American Desert,” a collection of 21 short stories she chose just for this paperback edition.
“Farmers invented climate fiction, stories that console or haunt or condemn them to the whims of the weather.”
“Climate fiction for rest of us readers delivers the news that a little pitter patter isn’t just backdrop to our lives, but a character that changes events and will change us.”
The well-known Kirkus book reviews website saw an early edition of the collection, set for a March release, and put it this way: “Terese Svoboda returns to her art’s quintessential landscape to relate the overlapping epochs of the great American desert.”
Kirkus goes on: “Camp Clovis,” the first of the 21 stories that make up this collection, opens in the Pleistocene era among the Clovis people, a Paleo-Indian community who live in what will become the American Great Plains. The community’s teenage boys have been sent away to camp, where they will engage in “boy’s footraces, showing off underwater, crafts with leather, spear point chiseling, campfires — the usual,” to keep them out from under their mothers’ feet for the long summer months. When the engaging innocence of their boyhood is threatened by elements outside their control or understanding — global climate change, overhunting of keystone species, encroachment by other cultures on Clovis’ territory — their bewildered bravado and ageless little-boyness provide a bridge from their time to our own.
The final story in the collection, “Pink Pyramid,” takes place on the same land in a far distant future when almost all animals are extinct and “electronics control…even the wind, and the turning of the Earth.” The story’s unnamed male and female characters operate as a cross between scavengers and disaster tourists, drawing ever closer to the eponymous pyramid which houses the unextinguished fires of environmental endgame. In spite of their alien surroundings — all life systems mechanized, all Earth soaked with poison — these characters radiate a desire for connection, authenticity, and experience that is as familiar to a modern-day reader as it would have been to one of the Clovis boys at camp alongside their ancient river. In between, characters pack their windows against the dust of the 1930s, bury WWII’s leaking munitions under the dry soil of the South Dakota plains, get engaged in snowstorms, set dogs on fire, attend their dying relatives, disregard their living children, and generally live the sort of brief, bloody, tender, or brutal lives they have always lived in a part of the world that both sustains and destroys with its implacable emptiness.
A poet, a translator, and more, Terese Svoboda has always engaged language as a tool of exploration. This new story collection shows how she does it.
Her enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations.
The works in this volume represent the author’s take on the most challenging of subjects — the survival of our species from its distant beginnings into the possible future.
And you might be wondering, as I was: where does “climate fiction” fit into some of the tales?
Terese tells me:
“Story titles that refer most specifically to climate change include: Camp Clovis, Dutch Joe, Dirty Thirties, Bomb Jockey, Ogallala Aquifer and Pink Pyramid.”
And are there some clear ”cli-fi” underpinnings in these stories, I asked?
Terese didn’t miss a beat: “Yes!”
2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for novels and short stories about climate change. ”Great American Desert” joins the rising sea of climate fiction and will be published by in March. It’s Svoboda’s 18th book.
”My book is a little doom-y but the characters are alive!” Terese told me in a parting shot.