Three years ago, author Claire Vaye Watkins burst onto the literary scene with her acclaimed short story collection, Battleborn. On September 29th, readers can finally get a copy of her much-anticipated first novel: Gold Fame Citrus, a blistering tour de force set in the drought-blighted California of a near future.
In Watkins’ future, the conditions of today have given way to a desertification so vast and powerful it’s almost sentient. The Sierra snowpack is depleted, the scant remaining water is protected by the National Guard and rationed by the Red Cross. A worst-case drought scenario has resulted in an unstoppable salt-sand dune sea, called the Amargosa after the first mountain range it subsumed. Despite the best efforts of technology, FEMA, and human stubbornness, the Amargosa is grinding away the inhabited Southwest in its wake.
In this near-future world, we meet Ray and Luz, two “mojavs” squatting in “Laurelless” Canyon. They are trapped inside withered California by closed borders, armed thugs, and above all, bureaucracy. After adopting a mysterious child named Ig, they attempt escape across the Amargosa. Their journey puts them directly in the path of the indifferent desert and its inhabitants: a colony led by a charismatic “dowser” with a miraculous ability to find water where none exists.
CREDIT: Heike Steinweg
Though this setting has all the markers of dystopia — from the destructive Amargosa dune sea to Ray and Luz’s use of a starlet’s Hermes scarves as Ig’s diapers — it’s not an apocalyptic tale, according to its author, Claire Vaye Watkins, who spoke to ThinkProgress by phone from her backyard in Ann Arbor, where she’s an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
Instead, Watkins prefers the term “pre-apocalyptic.”
“When you think about the apocalypse, we like to think of ourselves as the ones who lived beyond, because that means that you survived, that you’re the best human. What’s terrifying is that we’re going to die, we are the people who are going to perish, to go to dust. And that’s the reality. Apocalypse stories are escapist, you know, they’re not realistic.”
Apocalypse is also a term that implies an unavoidable act of God — if it’s an apocalypse, then it’s no one’s fault. And that’s not the reality that her book confronts.
Watkins was born in Bishop, California, near Owens Lake. Once a massive body of water, Owens Lake was drained by the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s to provide water for burgeoning LA. The diversion turned the lake into a massive salt flat and the surrounding area into a dustbowl. According to reporting by NPR, it is “the largest single source of dust pollution in the nation.” The draining of the lake and desertification of the surrounding farmland sparked the California Water Wars, reverberations of which are still felt today.
“When you grow up in the Southwest, everyone thinks about water all the time, or tries not to think about water, and has these questions of, is my home going to be here in five years. So it was a very natural thing to write about California,” Watkins said. William Mulholland, architect of the aqueduct that turned the Owens Valley into a salt flat and L.A. into a city, appears in the book as a figure of myth and casual blame.
What she describes in the book is, as a result, “Mulholland’s America.”
Who had latticed the Southwest with a network of aqueducts? Who had drained first Owens Lake then Mono Lake, Mammoth Lake, Lake Havasu and so on, leaving behind wide white smears of dust? Who had diverted the coast’s rainwater and sapped the Great Basin of its groundwater? Who had tunneled beneath Lake Mead, installed a gaping outlet at its bottom-most point, and drained it like a sink? Who had sucked up the Ogallala Aquifer, the Rio Grande aquifer, the snowpack of the Sierras and the Cascades? If this was God he went by new names: Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of San Diego, City of Phoenix, Arizona Water and Power, New Mexico Water Commission, Las Vegas Housing and Water Authority, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.
For a dystopia, Gold Fame Citrus is heavily rooted in reality. Ironically, said Watkins, it didn’t start that way.
“I set out to write a novel that would be dystopian, and futuristic, and fun,” she said. “And then every thing I set out to do, every crazy idea I could come up with, I found that people had already done.” As an example, she said she had the crazy idea of putting a giant plug at the bottom of a lake and sucking out the water “like a sink” — only to find they’re already doing that with Lake Mead.
So while Gold Fame Citrus may be dystopic, it’s not exactly “fun,” nor does it feel terribly futuristic. Indeed, for a book begun five years ago, it is eerily timely.
When considering emigration, Luz and Ray contemplate the reception that waits for them in the lusher areas of the country as “Mojavs.” They think of signs reading: “MOJAVS NOT WELCOME. NO WORK FOR MOJAVS. MOJAVS OUT.”
As inspiration for the rest of the nation’s disdain, Watkins drew on the reception Okies received during the Great Depression, and on Japanese internment camps during WWII. But amidst the refugee crisis in Europe, where desperate migrants are met with barbed-wire and tear gas, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump and his supporters, the allusions feel far more current than historical.
“People who were once human and part of the nation are suddenly not human, excluded — which we saw with the Okies, and [now see] with the Syrians. So I didn’t really have to go to far,” Watkins said.
Even at today’s levels, California’s drought threatens America’s food supply. In many ways, the West’s water problems are a national problem — because much of the water has been used to turn the arid environment into lush farmland in order to stock grocery aisles. One top of that, experts say that if carbon emissions continue at their current rate, California’s current unprecedented drought will become commonplace, resulting in a normal, nearly irrevocable climate akin to the 1930’s Dust Bowl. This map, generated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, projects what North America will look like in 2095 if we don’t take action. The darkest areas — aka the Southwest — have soil moisture comparable to the Dust Bowl.
Like Gold Fame Citrus, it’s a sobering look at our possible future.
“One of the reasons we have been so bad at dealing with climate change is that we have a crisis of imagination,” said Watkins. “We just can’t imagine the consequences, we can’t imagine what the world will be like. Which is something that IRA’s and life-insurance companies know and have been taking advantage of for years…we think of our future selves as another person, one for which we care less.”
Climate change, she reasons, is too large and cataclysmic — and a problem for the future, to be dealt with by our future selves.
Watkins is right about how we think of our future selves: fMRI research by social scientists at UCLA’s Anderson School has shown that different parts of our brains are activated when we think about our current and future selves. By comparing neural patterns of subjects describing their current selves, their future selves, and other people, researchers found that the patterns resulting from thinking about the future self most resembled what happened when participants thought about others.
When we think about our future selves, our brains act as if we’re thinking about strangers. Consequently, we care more about our present happiness than that of our future selves. After all, at a neural level, that future self is a stranger — except, of course, they’re not.
This pattern of thinking underpins poor behavior from procrastination to financial mismanagement, but if Watkins’ logic is right, perhaps its most pernicious effect is inaction on climate change. If that’s the case, then books like Gold Fame Citrus may help: in a study published in Science, researchers at the New School found that readers of literary fiction have increased empathy — exactly that which research has shown we lack for our future selves.
As for being unable to imagine the cataclysm of a changed world — in fiction like Gold Fame Citrus, the hard work of imagination has already been done, with a masterful hand. Watkins once describes the Amargosa as, “A vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West.” Her prose is by turns gritty and fluid, vivid, and often darkly humorous.
This is not to say that Gold Fame Citrus is a moralistic lesson-book — indeed, in speaking to ThinkProgress, Watkins was clear she did not set out to write a didactic novel.
“I didn’t set out to write a novel that will tell a lesson… I set out to use this space and to make interesting characters and put them in an interesting situation and see what they did or said about it.” Nonetheless, it’s a work of imagination that extrapolates on current issues and anxieties, and like good dystopic fiction, it holds a warped mirror up to current times.
Yet despite her bleak imagined future, Watkins is optimistic concerning the water crisis in the real California.
“When I started writing this book, it was five years ago, and when I talked about the water crisis in the Southeast, people would sort of look at me blankly,” she said. “But now, as soon as I bring it up they sort of do my PR for me. They say, ‘This is an issue, this is something we have to deal with, this is something we have to fix, this is a problem we need to face’…It’s actually very interesting, that this is happening in California. This is another chance for California to show leadership and innovation and be politically engaged and do something about this.”