The Big Idea: Oliver K. Langmead
When you think of things that may outlive you, do you think of your children, your students, maybe even your pets? In Oliver K. Langmead’s Big Idea, he tells you of something else that will outlive you: trash. These objects we throw away, as well as climate change, play a huge role in the concept behind his newest novel, Birds of Paradise.
OLIVER K. LANGMEAD:
Timothy Morton first defines “hyperobjects” in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. Hyperobjects, he tells us, are humanity’s lasting legacy. Long after we’re dead, the plastic bottles we drink from will still be around. Hyperobjects are larger than we are; larger than we can comprehend; distributed so massively across space and time that they transcend us. A plastic bottle is a hyperobject, yes – and so is climate catastrophe. Anthropogenic climate change is so enrmeshed in every part of our lives, and so vastly distributed across time and space, that it becomes difficult to think about. Like Lovecraft’s great old ones, it can become a thing of unthinkable, unknowable, weird horror.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hyperobjects over the past few years. It’s a difficult term for an elusive idea, and I prefer to think about the spatio-temporal distribution of the plastic bottle first. I think about my brief encounter with one; picking it up off a shelf, unscrewing the cap, draining its contents, and discarding it into a bin. In the bottle’s lifespan, I have touched it for a mere moment. The bottle will sit in a landfill, or float in the ocean, long after I have died. The bottle will, in a sense, outlive me; an artefact hardier than many deliberate human monuments.
Climate change is a fact; scientifically irrefutable, and inevitably catastrophic. Its role as a hyperobject makes it difficult to talk about, though – it’s obvious that something about the weather is changing from year to year, but attributing it to a vast global shift in ecological systems caused in large part by wasteful anthropogenic systems makes it feel abstract and distant. It’s hard to reconcile drinking from a plastic bottle with hurricanes and forest fires. But this is where speculative fiction can be useful, because speculative fiction gives us tools to confront the weirdness of hyperobjects.
For Birds of Paradise, the book I wrote in part to express how I’ve been feeling about climate change, I decided to apply hyperobject characteristics to its characters. They are all, much like the plastic bottle, distributed massively across time and space. They are immortals; leftovers from the Garden of Eden. My characters live plastic bottle lives: they are worn and scarred by their endless momentary encounters with the world, but are still recognisably themselves, embodying the characteristics given to them on the day of their creation. And among them is the first man himself: Adam, the first Earthly hyperobject, and the progenitor of Earth’s dominant species.
What if, instead of thinking about climate change in terms of a global network of ecological systems, we think about it in terms of a garden (Eden). What if, instead of thinking about the effect of climate change on entire species, we think about it in terms of its impact on individual animals (Owl, and Rook, and Crab, and Pig). What if, instead of thinking about what humanity might do to prevent climate change, we consider what a single individual might do (Adam). Birds of Paradise has a story with hyperobject characteristics, but it condenses some of the most unfathomable aspects of climate change down to manageable thought-sized moments, in the ways that speculative fiction makes possible.
In the face of climate catastrophe, ecologically minded fiction is a means of finding useful ways to think it through. More often than not, it doesn’t present solutions – but it does offer perspective. Hyperobjects may provoke weird horror in the same way that Lovecraft’s great old ones do, but, just like in a horror movie, revealing the monster often makes it far less frightening.