Apocalypse 1908: The First Anthropogenic Climate Change Novel

Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Evacuation of England (1908)

Digging the Panama Canal in 1907
Digging the Panama Canal in 1907

One of the pleasures of reading older post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing how the major themes and plot ideas of today’s genre were first introduced more than one hundred years ago. But just because writers came up with these great ideas doesn’t mean that their books are any good. Many of them are; however the American writer Louis Gratacap’s pioneering post-apocalyptic novel wins the prize as the most turgid and unreadable novel I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ll admit it: I didn’t actually read the whole book; my reading quickly changed into a slow skim. Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute has the same opinion:

Gratacap’s range was wide, incorporating much material which has become central to sf, but his books are overlong, choked by his compulsive didacticism, and nearly unreadable today.

So why bother with The Evacuation of England? Because Gratacap came up with a major innovation that is absolutely central to post-apocalyptic SF today. To my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong), Evacuation is the first novel in which civilization is destroyed by a natural disaster caused by human beings. It’s the world’s first anthropogenic climate change novel.

Yes, there were plenty of catastrophes in the future war stories of the late 19th century (of which War of the Worlds is the most original). But the destruction was caused by weaponry and not by nature spinning out of control. Writers from the same era also cooked up images of almost every kind of natural disaster. (The French Omega covers nearly all disasters in a single book.) But their causes had nothing to do with human actions. Shiel’s Purple Cloud comes close, with an expedition to the North Pole triggering, in some mystical way, volcanic eruptions in the tropics. But nobody before Gratacap wrote a story in which humans bring about massive destruction by making major changes to the planet.

The trigger for climate change in this book is one of society’s largest intentional efforts to reshape the planet at the time: the Panama Canal. When Gratacap wrote his novel in 1907, construction of the canal was moving forward on an unprecedented scale. The canal wasn’t finished until 1913, so Gratacap had a few years before his predictions of catastrophe were proved completely wrong.

There isn’t much to the story. Alexander Leacraft is an Englishman visiting the United States in 1909, where he attends a cautionary lecture on the geological risks of the Panama Canal. It’s the classic trope of scientist as prophet of doom. The speaker is a distinguished geologist, and the audience is made up of famous scientists and political dignitaries, including President Teddy Roosevelt himself.

After working through a convoluted theory about earthquakes and the earth’s axial wobble, the speaker predicts that the canal will trigger the geological collapse of the Isthmus of Panama, leading to a merger of the Pacific and the Atlantic. Once that happens, the Gulf Stream, which is so crucial for Europe’s mild climate, will fail, and Europe will be plunged into an ice age. Or, as Gratacap’s lecturer says, in a typically baroque passage:

Science in the last resource to her councils must be austerely judicial. She cannot take cognizance of man’s projects or respect his hopes. The Panama Canal as part of the Isthmus of Panama participates in all the vicissitudes of the latter, and we know that those vicissitudes mean dislocation and subsidence. When such frightful results will happen, it is impossible to say; that they must happen, we can positively assert.

But those who have invested their prestige and money in the Canal won’t hear the message. The distinguished Senator from South Carolina replies to the lecturer:

We are not required to credit you with prediction. This scientific discussion will not alter our confidence nor stop the work on the Canal. It can’t. I’m not inclined to think that this nation will be stultified by the oracles of geology; it is a matter of simple determination that science makes mistakes—and I would advise no one in this room within the hearing of your voice, and no one outside of it, to whose eyes your reported views will appear, to allow them a scintilla of serious import.

(Now imagine 300+ pages of prose like that, and you’ll have a good feel for the book.)

The_Frozen_Thames_1677You know how this turns out. The Canal goes ahead, disaster ensues, and the climate changes all over the world. England is plunged into a deep freeze. After some discussion and, as they say in movie ratings, mild peril, the British stiffen their upper lips and execute an orderly evacuation to Australia.

What’s remarkable about Evacuation is how optimistic it is. Unlike the nuclear wastelands or climate change apocalypses of later decades, this novel is not much of a cautionary tale. The effort to build the Panama Canal triggers unintended consequences, but humanity moves on, and even benefits. The discussion in the book is strikingly similar to our conversations about climate change today. There are climate change skeptics who dismiss the risks, and argue that massive climate change will actually benefit the world. Gratacap’s story endorses this latter view. Despite the enormous disruption, society basically shrugs it off:

It is the voice of that very science which has made us such powerful masters of her utilities that now tells us: We must go [out of England]… Nature opposes us, indeed, in forcing us away, but we thwart her niggardliness by subterfuge and endurance and courage. We can make her plastic enough for our purposes if we do not overstep the limits of her last negation.

If only we would be so lucky.

I’ll leave the last words to Gratacap and his hero:

“His thought engaged itself with the mechanical structure of civilization, as affected by new discoveries, allied with an increasing utilitarianism, in which the individual vanished before the imperious supervention of the State, the incorporated multitude, the abstract Wisdom of the most knowing minds, influenced by a solicitous paternalism for the Whole.

But now he found himself confronted by a new exigency, the geological interferences of Nature, and it piqued his curiosity, it assailed his fancy with indubitable fascination. By reason of his intellectual proneness to these questions, which quite deeply occupied his mind, he felt at this moment that the tremendous and supreme chance of his own mighty nation, succumbing to the accidents of a tidal caprice might offer him an alternative refuge of interest which would help to dull the pain of his misfortune. So convulsing a spectacle as the pitiless war of nature upon the embedded bulwarks of a great commercial nation’s prosperity, terrified him as a possible historical factzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Read a copy of The Evacuation of England online (if you dare) at the Internet Archive.

Read more entries in my post-apocalyptic science fiction series, and my other science fiction reviews.

Image credits: Panama Canal construction, 1907, public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons; “The Frozen Thames, 1677” by Abraham Hondius, via Wikimedia Commons.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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