New graphic novel 'Celestia' wanders an Earth that's no longer home
The question popped into my head when I first started thinking about “Celestia,” Manuele Fior's new cli-fi graphic novel: Does anybody actually read cli-fi? (That's "climate fiction," the trendy-since-2013 genre whose authors delve into the narrative and thematic implications of the Earth boiling and killing us all.) Confession: I don't. Call it moral weakness, call it a dereliction of journalism — I simply don't have the energy for it. Just like everyone else in cli-fi's intended audience, I am acutely aware of the problem of climate change. But that means that I'm also terrified down to my core by the problem of climate change. Every day, as I go through my little, human-sized daily routine, the fact of incipient planetary destruction throbs in the back of my brain like a chancre. When it's novel-reading time, the last thing I want to do is viscerally experience the flooded Manhattan of Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 or the nested catastrophes of James Bradley's “Clade.”
One of the many delights of “Celestia,” though, is that Fior knows how I feel — because he feels exactly the same way. Both this book and its predecessor, “The Interview” — published in English in 2017 — explore the ever-present sense of cognitive dissonance that our era inflicts on anyone who's paying attention. Fior even seems to have planned both books' artistic schemas to go easy on stressed-out sensibilities. “Celestia” — translated into English by Jamie Richards — is remarkably beautiful considering its post-apocalyptic setting. Its pages are dominated by soothing sky blues and warm tans. The characters encounter patches of lovely green vegetation from time to time and even dream broad bands of rainbow light.
Fior's palette isn't just a balm for his anxious reader, though. It's also an organic expression of his theme. “Celestia's” pretty pages evoke the same disconnect we all experience these days between our lives and our fear. Though it may seem at first like an unrealistically gentle version of the world after the 1.5-degree tipping point, “Celestia” takes place in a Europe that's been reduced to deserts and brackish seas. Fior avoids specifying that he's writing about climate change per se, implying that the devastation was caused by some sort of alien invasion. But the sea is everywhere, and the characters constantly fight against tides, heat and fog. This world offers its inhabitants little ground to stand on (and even less sustenance).
Even so, many of “Celestia's” characters manage to fill their lives with the same sorts of pastimes we do now. The book is apparently set 50 years or so in the future and two or three decades after “The Interview.” In the titular city, located on a concrete island that's cut itself off from outsiders, people congregate in bars to flirt, barter, share information and blow off steam. Just like us, they seek a mix of solace and excitement; the difference is that all their efforts are governed by the tide that regularly floods the city. Meanwhile, in a building that's been preserved to look like a modernist university hall from our era, a few members of a self-selected elite embrace what they consider to be a more noble goal: They're devoted to developing humans' potential for telepathy (a potential discovered by the New Convention cult in “The Interview”), but this project seems absurdly detached from the exigencies of everyday life. Certainly Fior's hero, the poet Pierrot, has no use for it. Accompanied by the spacey and curvaceous telepath Dora, he takes off in a boat to the mainland. There, in the expected manner of quest stories, the pair encounter different people and groups who represent various possible destinies for the human race.
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Fior embraces and balances all sorts of oppositions in this book, his longest to date. Besides the triviality of human routine set against the terrible reality of death, he meditates on memory vs. forgetting, individuality vs. family, youth vs. age, hiding in place vs. venturing into the unknown. All this thematizing bogs down the narrative, unfortunately — or maybe it would be more accurate to say it fogs it. Pierrot and Dora often seem to be traveling through the hazy realms of dream rather than the real world, an effect that's heightened by Dora's psychic visions and Pierrot's penchant for speaking in rhyme. As a result, even their life-and-death scrapes lack urgency. The other characters, meanwhile, are all the kind of representative "types" that generally figure in quest stories, and they often speak in riddles, too. It's hard to care about any of them.
But maybe Fior means for his reader to feel this unwilling, perplexing emotional detachment. Maybe his aim is similar to a surrealist's goal of inspiring alienation. As I enjoyed each new spread's lovely artwork while watching the characters struggle through their devastated world, I thought of Freud's term for the uncanny, unheimlich — un-homelike. In its emotional timbre as well as its physical characteristics, the world of “Celestia” is no longer our home.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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