It’s well-known in literary circles that Frankenstein originated on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. A group of famous or soon-to-be-famous writers was on a summer holiday, but chilly weather was keeping everyone indoors. Lord Byron, the host of the gathering, proposed a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Mary Godwin won with Frankenstein, which she later expanded into a novel. The weather is no mere incidental detail, however. This was the Year Without a Summer, caused chiefly by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The eruption killed tens of thousands and ejected enough ash into the atmosphere to lower temperatures worldwide, which in turn caused further erratic weather events. The little writing competition that birthed Frankenstein was but one of innumerable domino effects kicked off by this one event.
Today we face an opposite climate crisis, the looming eventuality of a year without a meteorological winter — when the coldest winters around the world will be warmer than the warmest winters of the past. It is against this backdrop that Columbia Books on Architecture and the City has put together A Year Without a Winter, inspired by Byron’s Geneva bet, but setting it in drastically different circumstances. Edited by Dehlia Hannah and distributed by Columbia University Press, the book presents four short stories by contemporary science fiction writers (Tobias Buckell, Nancy Kress, Nnedi Okorafor, and Vandana Singh), written on their own retreat in the desert in 2016 (the 200th anniversary of the Year Without a Summer, also the hottest year on record). The book also includes selections from works by Byron and Mary Shelley, as well as photo series, graphs, essays, and interviews on the history of the Tambora eruption, making art in the age of climate disaster, and more.
While A Year Without a Winter examines both the established and theoretical impact of climate change on culture, another new book by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City (also distributed by Columbia University Press) addresses the geographical fallout of warming temperatures. We generally think of the physical ramifications of global warming in terms of rising sea levels or spreading deserts, but it’s literally changing the planet itself as well. The melting of glaciers in the Alps has changed the geography of the region, which in turn means that markers used to establish the borders between Italy, Switzerland, France, Austria, and Slovenia have shifted. Written by Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual, and Andrea Bagnato, A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change examines the logistical and political challenges this poses to officials in these countries.
A quiet sense of dread lurks in the subtext of both these books. A Year Without a Winter features multiple stories about worst-case scenarios for the future, but even the nonfiction parts are blunt about the challenges facing humanity. A Moving Border, meanwhile, demonstrates how natural phenomena become bureaucratic issues, which in turn affect the lives of countless people. The particularities of borders in Europe are not a minute concern for pencil-pushers, but play an important role in how these countries handle the ongoing crisis of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East. The pervading sense is that people are completely unprepared for the world we have to look forward to.
In this respect, A Year Without a Winter‘s supporting texts are more interesting than its main section. The four sci-fi stories are mostly boilerplate — a post-apocalyptic adventure, a conspiracy thriller, etc. — invoking overly expositional prose to render their worlds in which climate change has definitively come for us. (They especially suffer when juxtaposed with Shelley and Byron’s Romantic mastery.) The essays better explore the same themes as the stories. In “Tambora and British Romantic Writing,” David Higgins surveys how other writers responded to the Year Without a Winter. In “Narrating Arcosanti, 1970,” James Graham explores the Arizona experimental town of Arcosanti, which was the setting for the book’s writers’ retreat. The town was founded by architect Paolo Soleri on his principle of arcology (ecological architecture). He wanted to find ways to accommodate growing populations of people without harming the Earth.
A Moving Border is much more specific in contrast to the other book’s sprawl of ideas, but in zeroing in so deeply on what’s happening with this one specific issue, it better suggests the myriad of problems posed by climate change. It is a meticulous work, incorporating some stunning landscape photography, detailed maps and charts, and even scans of handwritten notes and documents into its survey. It works to get the lay reader to examine geography from both a cartographer and a politician’s point of view. The sheer scale of climate change can be difficult to comprehend, but this makes for a good, if disquieting, starting point.
A Year Without a Winter, edited by Dehlia Hannah, and A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, by Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual, and Andrea Bagnato, are both available from Amazon and other booksellers.
Clarification: A previous version of this post stated these books were “put together” by Columbia University Press. They were published by the independent press Columbia Books on Architecture and the City and distributed by Columbia University Press. We’ve adjusted the text accordingly.