The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse, by Dale Pendell
North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Maybe you’ve seen those images of the earth’s biggest cities underwater, edited to show the predicted effects of climate change on the coastlines we know and love. Maybe you remember the summer when Armageddon and Deep Impact came out, or the next year when Y2K-induced panic sent people rushing to 7-11 for more bottled water.
Fortunately, The Great Bay isn’t really like that. Though it’s the story of The End of the World As We Know It, it’s a gradual end, with lots of beginnings. It’s a history of the earth after the Collapse, a global pandemic that kills most of mankind. What happens next happens slowly, over the course of almost sixteen thousand years.
That’s a pretty enormous scope, so Dale Pendell focuses in on California, and the gradual widening of the San Francisco Bay into a basin at the center of the state. While this is the earth’s story, told on a chronological scale only earthquakes, canyons, and rivers understand, Pendell gives it a human voice.
Actually, there are many human voices in The Great Bay, from teenaged girls orphaned by the pandemic, just after 2021, to Buddhist monks traversing the southwest in 2221. The novel is divided into segments, telling the story of the changing earth over the course of decades, then centuries, and finally millennia. Each new section of the novel begins with a ‘panoptic,’ an omniscient view of the earth’s response to pre-Collapse behaviors.
Ultimately, that panoptic perspective brings a difficult reassurance: long after we’re gone, the earth continues and human life persists. The oceans rise and the planet warms, cools, shakes, and eventually freezes over. Humans struggle to survive, achieve a kind of stability, rediscover old ways of living, and rely on community. Famine and harsh weather rearrange priorities. Communities grow more isolated in order to prevent the spread of disease. There is violence and madness— but there are also gardens, technological innovation, creativity, and peace.
Those digitized images of underwater cities make an attempt to tell the story of the consequences of industry-induced climate change. But beyond a frightened disbelief, their possible effects on our emotional response remain limited. We see, but how do we identify with this new world? How do we sustain empathy for its future inhabitants, people who may or may not be ourselves, or even our distant heirs?
I’m drawn to those rare novels that try to envision a functioning “post-Collapse” society: Starhawk’s Walking to Mercury for its quasi-magical utopia; Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood for its dystopian warning.
The Great Bay is a remarkable blend of both. It doesn’t suggest there is any one way to survive the collapse, though it outlines the ways in which that collapse is inevitable. Instead, Pendell provides a wide range of possible human responses to a rapidly-changing planet, including a return to a reliance on the wisdom of plants. This is familiar Pendell territory. In the trio of books in his Pharmako series, the author ingests and describes the effects of a variety of “plant allies,” from coffee and tobacco to peyote and DMT. The books defy categorization, though ethnobotany comes close.
As in the Pharmako books, Pendell draws on a wild and wide-ranging knowledge of poetry, philosophy, history, and chemistry to bring us the world of The Great Bay. We should be so lucky to have such a guide— in a fictional or actual post-apocalyptic world.
What do you think, Canaries? Do you have your favorite post-world-end books?