Earlier this week, the New York Times profiled Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Powers. He spoke mainly about his upcoming novel Bewilderment, a near-future speculative work that takes ongoing ecological collapse as a primary theme, as well as the current state of both climate awareness and climate fiction (he finds them in equally dire situations). Powers comes off as a crusading curmudgeon who has little patience for the entirety of the human race. “I don’t understand my species,” he complains. Tough, neither can I. More irritating than his would-be Sage of the Mountains pretensions is his assertion that both human beings and our art suffer from a failure of imagination because neither are sufficiently ecologically minded. “If you look at contemporary fiction, the stories these books tell have no agency except humans,” he says.
It’s a strange claim, that rocks or rivers should have “agency” in novels. But it also inaugurates Powers into the large and boring class of literary novelists who, when dipping a toe into the realm of speculative fiction, claim they have a kind pioneering insight that is both misunderstood and unpopular. After all, if Powers “wants to challenge our innate anthropocentrism, both in literature and how we live,” as the piece claims, he could perhaps start by picking up a copy of one of the longest-running ecologically explicit and thoughtful series of climate fiction around.
If he did, he’d probably find a lot to like in Swamp Thing, which features a pantheon of enterprising climate scientists, corporate hacks drilling the environment for precious resources, and a host of sentient plant life that not only do cool shit like prank Batman, but also harvest the collective, time-spanning memory of everything green and good that’s ever lived on this planet in order to fight for the mutual survival of fern and fauna alike.
Swamp Thing, DC Comics’ gothic superstar, has always been one of my favorite characters from any medium — a brooding, weird creature who speaks with frequent pauses….like….this and struggles to accept his task of watching over the plant world. And it has always struck me as a bit strange that this work is rarely considered when people talk about climate fiction.
Recently, I had a phone call with novelist Jeff VanderMeer, one of the writers who is generally name-dropped in such conversations. I wanted to ask him about climate activism and the genre-spanning appeal of climate fiction, but mostly I wanted his take on Swamp Thing, “a walking pile of mold and lichen and clotted weeds that thinks it’s a rational man.” VanderMeer lives in the lush greenery of Florida and his works, including the popular Southern Reach trilogy, are not only concerned with the ecological trajectory of our world, but simultaneously fascinated and haunted by it. “I’m interested in closing the gap between climate fiction and more general work that involves the biosphere,” he told me.
At first glance, Swamp Thing would seem to be an entity born out of contemporary environmental concerns: a scientist named Alec Holland working on a bio-restorative formula to end world hunger is exploited and murdered by a greedy corporation, and subsequently becomes a sentient mass of plant life in tune with every living green thing on the planet (well, the sentient mass of plant life thinks it’s Alec Holland, it’s a whole thing). He’s a buff, green, soft-spoken brute with a penchant for righteous fury. But he started out as a fixture of horror, shambling through the bayous of Louisiana fighting against demons, evil geniuses, and, at one point, the Antichrist. The early days of the Swamp Thing comic marked a period of trial and error, where the question of Alec Holland’s humanity and the ideological purview of the character were constantly in flux. Was Holland still a human being or did his “accident,” and his subsequent connection to the natural world, cause him to turn his back on humanity altogether? This is a question that continues to resonate throughout the series. Not only is it plain to see the devastation wrought by climate change, but it is even easier to abandon any hope that there is anything to be done about it.
But even that existential and slightly cynical line of thought wasn’t as consistent in the series, until Alan Moore began writing for DC. Sales for Swamp Thing lacked promise and a variety of writers stepped in to try and revitalize the character with even more fantastical elements (aliens, Nazis, a long-lost and subsequently non-canonical brother). Eventually, in the early ’80s, right as it seemed Swamp Thing was going to be cancelled, Moore took over, bringing a refreshingly poetic sensibility and combining overtly political commentary with stirring gothic tragedy, granting the character a trashy kind of sophistication. Swamp Thing became an Avatar of the Green, the plant world’s most powerful soldier, as well as a tortured soul frightened by his seemingly dwindling relationship to humanity. Not exactly Captain Planet.
When I asked VanderMeer what he thought of Swamp Thing, he sounded split. “Swamp Thing almost seems to paint biodiversity as hostile. But most things are not out to get you. I think that partly comes from pest control companies wanting to sell the idea that nature is dangerous.” VanderMeer makes an interesting point, though I'm not sure that people are afraid of rampant biodiversity, per se. It might be that, if anything, people are afraid of the consequences of our own actions.
It is true that, across the series, Swamp Thing appears as an ecological harbinger of justice, whether reseeding the forests or rescuing innocent people from manmade ecological disasters, the whole time striking fear into those who take their relationship with nature lightly. But Swamp Thing isn’t concerned with hoping people fear nature so much as reorienting the focus onto what can happen when people ignore nature altogether.
That Swamp Thing is almost always fending off the encroachments of large companies intent on exploiting the environment for non-renewable resources, while living alongside indigenous groups that have protected their lands for generations tempers an ecofascist reading of the series — a naive version of which you could see during the early days of the pandemic. As plant life grew back and animals roamed through empty cities, the refrain “Nature is healing” reached a belligerent tenor. But the momentary awe caused by watching sea lions take over Argentinian harbors masked the potentially dangerous notion, that, as Naomi Klein said to Teen Vogue, “there are too many people anyway, so there’s going to be a great purge and perhaps that’s all for the best.”
Swamp Thing, as a character, constantly wrestles with this question, especially when supernatural forces weaponize the environment in order to destroy or enslave mankind. In a two-part arc from writer Ram V’s current run in the series, an evil entity called the Pale Wanderer, once a man like Alec Holland, becomes subsumed by the desert, turning into a monstrous creature that feeds off crude oil and kills anyone who passes by. The Pale Wanderer is corrupted by manmade environmental disruptions, not so much a cautionary tale as an uncanny manifestation of the lasting effect such disruptions will have on the planet, long after we’re gone, even if we’ve managed to redress a fraction of the damage caused. Per Freud, “The uncanny is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”
Which is where so much of the horror in Swamp Thing comes from: a mirroring and exaggeration of the worst possible environmental outcomes, personified through ghosts, spirits, and most often, ordinary people transmogrified into half-human monsters, all the result of past human action. Even those villains who appear hellbent on saving the natural world do so with an all-consuming destructive fervor. The Floronic Man, one of Swamp Thing’s primary antagonists, shouts, “Destroy the creatures that would destroy us, that would destroy the ecosphere with their poisons and bulldozers! Cut them down, like blighted wood. Let us have another green world.” When Swamp Thing defeats him, he admonishes the Floronic Man for believing the chaos he wrought could be the will of the natural world. “This...is not...the way...of the wilderness. This...is the way...of man.” By contrast, Swamp Thing himself, convinced he is monstrous because he was once human, continues to fight for humanity not because it is “worth saving”, but because the natural world needs us to redress the mistakes we’ve inflicted upon it.
That’s a point that VanderMeer can get behind. “The shambolic nature of Swamp Thing, pushing aside the idea of what we should value, that feels true. Things will look messier if they’re healthy, as opposed to orderliness and control,” he said. Of course, that’s easier said than done. People desire nature that is contained, a destination one can point to, rather than the embedded and irrevocable force of life that it is. As VanderMeer writes in the second Southern Reach novel Authority, “This was what most people wanted: to be close to but not part of. They didn't want the fearful unknown of a 'pristine wilderness.' They didn't want a soulless artificial life, either.” This tension can be frustrating. Especially given the obvious failures of our drive to control or dominate the natural world. The same instincts that brought us to this point are unlikely to be our salvation, and it can be difficult to know how much hope one should have. “It’s not about prediction,” VanderMeer told me. “It’s about being aware that this is an unevenly distributed reality. You may not be able to live where you are in 10 years.”
Take the Icelandic island of Heimaey. In January of 1973, early in the morning, Heimaey began splitting apart. A fissure, caused by sudden volcanic activity, began to rip across the island, eventually reaching a length of nearly two miles. Lava fountains as high as 450 feet spouted along the entire fissure until, eventually, most of the activity concentrated around one vent, which continued to spout lava into May of the same year. Over the course of weeks and months, local engineers and volunteers struggled against the volcano, stopping lava flows with sea water, digging out houses from beneath feet of ash and debris, evacuating parts of the island that couldn’t be salvaged.
Perhaps Heimaey’s most dramatic scene came when a chunk of the volcano over 650 feet long and 150 feet thick broke off and slid toward the town of Vestmannaeyjar and its harbor. In John McPhee’s essay collection The Control of Nature, he writes, “It was landscape on the loose, an incongruous itinerant alp...It weighed two million tons. People looking up from almost any street in town could see its silhouette filling the sky - today in place, tomorrow in another. Someone named it Flakkarin. And no one called it anything else. Flakkarin the Wanderer.”
The Control of Nature charts three separate instances where people fight to stave off seemingly invincible forces of nature. While each endeavor is ostensibly for the benefit of a community, like the saving of Vestmannaeyjar and its economy, each comes with unforeseen consequences. When locals stopped Flakkarin before it could reach the harbor, the blockage created pathways for subsequent lava flows that destroyed over 200 houses. “In making war with nature,” McPhee writes, “there was risk of loss in winning.”
My generation may not live to see a truly sustainable world. That thought has led to a lot of depression and resentment. How can it be fair that not only must we shoulder the burden of previous generations’ wanton carelessness and greed, but that we won’t see the benefits of that work? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t fair. That might not be good enough for a lot of people, understandably so. It’s not good enough for Swamp Thing. Alec Holland is not the first Avatar of the Green, but one in a line of thousands who have presided over the green world for millennia. Because he has the benefit of collective memory, Swamp Thing knows that the human learning curve is basically vertical. Hubris stands in the way, as well as laziness. As Sam Kriss and Ellie Mae O’Hagan write in The Baffler, “If humanity is the capacity to act meaningfully within our surroundings, then we are not really, or not yet, human.” It is a realization that Swamp Thing continually returns to, the balance between action and observation, a seemingly idyllic past that must face a terrible present. “I understand now...why this lonely task is mine,” he says. “Only I know the memory of the trees.”
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.