The New Wilderness 
by Diane Cook.
Oneworld, 398 pp., £16.99, August 2020, 978 1 78607 821 6
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Recently,​ reindeer herders in the Russian Arctic discovered the perfectly preserved body of an Ice Age cave bear surging out of the Siberian permafrost. Cave bear skeletons have been unearthed before, but this was the first carcass to be found with soft tissue and internal organs still intact. The bear still has all its teeth, its fur, its evil-looking nose, perfectly designed for snuffling the air in front of your face as you huddle terrified against the back wall of your cave. Scientists estimate the carcass is between 22,000 and 39,500 years old.

If this information made its way into a novel about the climate crisis (there have been attempts to get ‘cli-fi’ going as a name for the genre), it would be for expository purposes only. A couple feebly make their way through the scorched/flooded/poisoned steppes. The Husband perhaps mentions the cave bear to the Wife, insisting that this was the point when everything went to pieces, since the only reason anyone got a look at that bear in the first place was because the permafrost had begun to melt. The Husband sounds a lot like a Wikipedia entry as he reminds the Wife that the release of vast stores of once frozen greenhouse gases into the atmosphere led to the climate cascade, otherwise known as the end of the road. The Husband gestures at the festering shoreline, the fish with 16 eyes, the sulphurous gas coming off the maroon water. You know all this already though, he says to his crying Wife. She is always crying now. Most climate dystopia novels are set in this temporal and spatial landscape: well into the obliterated future. The terrible thing has happened, and the details of how we got there are unimportant, as are the bigger questions about complicity and our responsibilities to others. The difficulties of survival expand to fill the vacuum left by society and government and elections.

The setting of Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, her first novel, shortlisted for the Booker and picked up for TV adaptation by Warner Brothers, is unusual in this respect. As in her 2014 short story collection, Man v. Nature, she expands the conventions of the climate dystopia genre, moving away from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape. Her novel takes place in a nearish future, where things are terrible, but in a recognisable way. By the time the novel begins, the climate-related catastrophes that are currently tearing their way through the developing world (and nibbling at the edges of the first world) have crossed the class barrier, so that even the wealthy are in trouble. Everything is worse, but there has been no annihilating event. Rich people are no longer able to buy their way out of the crisis, and the polluted air has started to kill their children too, but there are still governments and cities and postal systems and doctors who make house calls, although ‘almost no doctor worked on emergencies anymore because there were no more emergencies anymore. Because of overpopulation, emergencies were thought of more or less as fate.’ There are even long-running research projects, in one of which a group of people (known as the Community) are given permission to leave the increasingly unliveable City and head off into the Wilderness State, the last protected area of land, in exchange for participating in a study that seeks to understand ‘how people interacted with nature, because, with all land now being used for resources – oil, gas, minerals, water, wood, food – or storage – trash, servers, toxic waste – such interactions had become lost to history’.

When the novel begins, this project has been running for three years. Bea, her daughter, Agnes, her husband, Glen, and the other members of the Community have been interacting with nature pretty much non-stop, living as nomads while trying to manage their check-ins with the increasingly hostile Rangers, who are there to make sure the Community abides by the rules of the study (a Manual – all these words are insistently capitalised – is provided for those who might need to refresh their memories). Technically forbidden from settling in one place for more than seven days, they spend their time fording rivers, carving arrowheads and learning hard lessons about the exquisite cruelty of mother nature as they prepare for the next march. As relations between the Community and the Rangers become increasingly fractious and the forces of the outside world begin to erode the boundaries of the Wilderness State, Bea and her daughter face a series of obstacles: the descriptions of how they overcome them often seem to serve as a substitute for character development.

Cook has done a great deal of research, and the novel is full of information about survival skills and what is involved in ‘living primitively’. There are many lively paragraphs about setting up camp, many lists of the kinds of food you might eat if you had to forage for it:

They handed down their bedding rolls, the pouches of smoked meat, jerky, pemmican, the harvested pine nuts, precious acorns, wild rice, einkorn, a handful of wild onions … the precious box of precious knives, the Book Bag, the Cast Iron, the Manual, and the bags of their garbage they carried with them to be weighed and disposed of by the Rangers at Post.

There is something very appealing about these carefully plotted fantasies of human resilience, which invite the reader to imagine how she might survive and even flourish in similar circumstances.

Very early on, Bea remembers that there ‘used to be a cultural belief, in the era before she was born, that having close ties to nature made one a better person’. Much of what follows seems intended to shatter whatever remains of that belief. From the start, many of the conversations Cook’s characters have with themselves and with one another concern the penalties of ‘these unpredictable days full of survival so plain and brute’. After a check-in with a Ranger in which she explains the Community’s decision to leave one of their members to die after a fall, Bea stoutly reassures herself that the decision was right, because ‘they had seen a lot of death,’ and ‘become hardened to it’. Later, reflecting on the Community’s changing perception of her, Agnes thinks that she is ‘too wild, something uncontrollable and wholly selfish, and that while that had served them well in the past, now her survival instinct seemed to disgust them’. But the argument is put forward again and again by various characters who seem to exist primarily for the purpose of making it: the work of survival does not permit such luxuries as sentiment, which in the world of the novel can be defined as caring about anything other than your immediate family, and even about them.

The limited uses of sensitivity and/or kindness in the Wilderness State are illustrated by a Community member called Carl: ‘He was a child, a bully, dim in everything except survival, and so here he was a king because survival was king.’ A woman called Val is there to show that the fight for survival can make a person pathetic as well as vicious. Children called Sister and Brother demonstrate the brisk pragmatism with which you must consider your offspring when you’re preoccupied with the hard business of staying alive. There is also a baby called Egg.

The purpose of the Rangers is less obvious. They order the members of the Community to set off on marches during which something might happen to allow the narrative to progress.The value and function of the study are never made entirely clear – if Bea is aware that her grandparents used to go on camping trips, why is knowledge of the way people ‘interacted with nature’ going to be ‘lost to history’? If the purpose of the study is to observe people ‘attempting to live primitively’, why are they allowed cast iron pots and fancy ropes and tampons (also ‘sleeping bags, tents, lightweight titanium cookware, ergonomic backpacks, tarps, ropes, rifles, bullets, headlamps, salt, eggs, flour and more’)? If the Rangers find the presence of the Community so inconvenient (‘I’ve always said there is no reason for this. For a group to be here. I said they shouldn’t let you in’), what is preventing them from kicking the Community out, rather than bringing them their post and picking up their rubbish?

This may seem like nit-picking, but it is a natural response to Cook’s conspicuous efforts at world-building, and specifically her attempts to forestall any objections the reader might have. Agnes can’t ‘coo’ into an imaginary mirror without an explanation: this is ‘something she somehow knew to do from watching the women greet one another with air kisses outside their office buildings’. Bea cannot mentally compare far-off hills to whales without the narrator’s reassurance that she only knows about such things from ‘old pictures’. It’s difficult to read these interjections without imagining the questions in the margins of previous drafts: ‘How does Agnes know what butterflies are?? How does a child born in the Wilderness know what a cash register is – explain how he came by this knowledge.’ These efforts to seal off narrative cracks aren’t just intrusive, however, they draw attention to the plot holes that remain.

Reflecting on the differences between her mother’s life and her own, Bea muses that ‘when her mother had grown up on an oak-lined street of single-family houses, the world had been a very different place. They had been in the middle of a timeline, rather than at the precipitous end of it.’ Now, in the terrible City from which Cook’s characters fled, the air is ‘poison to children, the streets were crowded, [and] rows of high-rises sprawled to the horizon and beyond’. Schools are ‘training grounds for jobs that needed filling’. Rooftops are bare, with no ‘paths, flowers, gardens of vegetables’. After returning briefly to the City, one character fills the Community in on how impossible life has become there by saying that she was only able to shower ‘until the water allotment had run out’. At no point does the novel make an attempt to reckon with the fact that life is currently like this, poisoned air and garden-free, for billions of people around the world who didn’t grow up on oak-lined streets of single-family houses. According to Oxfam, around twenty million people have been displaced by climate change every year since 2008, with inhabitants of the developing world disproportionately affected. Cook doesn’t take into account this reality – something that makes you see why writers favour the post-apocalyptic blank slate approach. In The New Wilderness, things like chronic water shortages and lethal air pollution only become interesting when they start to affect the rich, as they are starting to do in our world, in California and parts of Australia.

For most of Cook’s novel, climate-induced migration is presented as undertaken only by the intrepid few. When the project begins, it is difficult for its leader to persuade twenty willing participants to make the journey to the Wilderness State. This changes as the novel progresses, but the vast majority of people choose to stay exactly where they are, and migration is understood as aberrant. As Sonia Shah’s The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet demonstrates, this doesn’t align with current or past reality, and it certainly doesn’t present a convincing vision of what lies ahead.* Using examples from the natural world, Shah argues that our conception of migration as disruptive and anomalous is inaccurate. ‘The idea that certain people and species belong in certain fixed places has had a long history in Western culture,’ she writes, but the urge to migrate is always there too.

Despite the fact that ‘more borders are fortified by walls and fences today than at any time in history,’ more people are living outside the country of their birth than ever before. Some of them were forced to move by the climate crisis, and as its effects intensify, their numbers will increase: ‘By 2045 the spread of deserts in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to compel 60 million inhabitants to pick up and leave,’ Shah writes. ‘By 2100 rising sea levels could add another 180 million to their ranks.’ She suggests that instead of seeing this as ‘a harbinger of terror’, we should understand the urge to migrate as part of ‘life on a dynamic planet with shifting and unevenly distributed resources’ and adopt policies that do not actively seek to destroy the lives of migrants – this is sensible, she argues, as well as humane. Citing a European border official who says that attempting to bar migration is ‘like squeezing a balloon – when one route closes the flows increase on another’, she shows that erecting borders ensures only that migration continues in a deadlier form. While Cook’s characters tell themselves again and again that there is something admirable about being brutal and limiting their care to three people at most, Shah shows that like it or not, we are all in this together, and that recognising this will be the thing that saves us.

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