Review of Fauna
Vadnais, Christiane. Fauna. Translated by Pablo Strauss, Coach House Books, 2020.
Christiane Vadnais’ Fauna draws the reader into a near-future scenario where humanity has changed the planet so drastically and irrevocably that unexpected variations are occurring more and more throughout the animal and plant world. Through evocative and creative language, masterfully translated by Pablo Strauss from French into English, the text pulls the reader into a nightmare world, hauntingly different and yet strangely familiar. In ten short chapters, Vadnais’ various protagonists try to make sense of this transforming and often hostile environment. Amidst them is Laura, a biologist attempting to determine the origin of the profound changes she observes around and inside of her. Parts of the earth have been flooded, altering ecosystems which take on a wilder, more dangerous shape. “Don’t swim in the evening, the villagers say. The lights dancing like a bonfire are far too alluring, drawing the lake monsters from all sides” (27). The story may be set in the future, yet humanity seems to have been set back into a darker past, where nightmarish beasts roam the darkness. On four black pages inserted throughout the book Vadnais writes about the night, about dreams, imagination, and fear. She sets the underlying tone for her book already on the first black pages when she tells her audience that “To dream of a future where our species survives, we must get back to wilder times” (9). As Vadnais’ protagonists struggle to comprehend their new reality and fight for survival, the reader soon learns what exactly these “wilder times” could look like.
Ecological discourses and the examination of human-nature relationships are central to science fiction literature, either in the world-building of other planets such as in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or in near-future scenarios of planet earth such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). While Wells explores the question of human evolution in a distant future, Robinson’s New York 2140 investigates humanity’s adaptation and technology in a post-apocalyptic world. Vadnais’ Fauna combines both aspects, the ecological discourse of evolution and the apocalyptic setting, to pose questions about human evolution in an environment transformed by anthropogenic climate change.
Like many current climate fiction novels, Fauna contemplates the question of humanity’s survival in relation to the aftermath of a drastically changed climate caused by human interference. However, unlike Robinson’s New York 2140, where the focus lies on various characters and their everyday business as well as adaptive technology in a now flooded city, in Fauna the human protagonists appear small and insignificant amongst the overwhelming forces of nature. Futuristic technology is absent. Instead, not elevated by superior technology, the characters in Fauna are presented as simply part of the mutating fauna on earth. Visiting a permanent settlement on the water, Laura meets one of the residents and observes his changed skin: “Curiosity makes her linger over the hard, scaly skin, a patch that grows larger by the day, increasing Thomas’s likeness to the other lake creatures” (33). Fauna explores the changing environment caused by human intrusion but now spiralling outside of humanity’s control: a parasite has emerged, infecting animals through the water and triggering rapid transformations. As the infection spreads, it is only a matter of time until all of humankind too will be affected irreversibly. The interconnectedness between humanity and nature is highlighted: as one changes, the other is bound to change as well.
Due to vivid descriptions in Fauna, nature takes on a life of its own, at times invasive, fierce, and almost like an alien foe. “Under a toxic green moon, the mist crawls along the centre of the zoo’s deserted walkways until it reaches the strand of trees and wraps itself around the trunks” (39). The intrusive quality of the fog foreshadows the threat that a changing environment can pose, not only to our surrounding flora and fauna, but to human existence itself. By further blurring the clear borders between animals and humans, Vadnais’ novel evokes a similar feel to the 2018 film Annihilation directed by Alex Garland, where an alien presence distorts the area around itself, causing all lifeforms in its vicinity to transform and merge in beautiful and horrible ways. Even though the transformations in Fauna are not caused by alien interference, the novel still poses questions central to science fiction literature: What does it mean to be human? And how do we imagine the future survival of our species?
Vadnais’ protagonists struggle with the profound transformation of their environment and are, like this environment, shaped by these changes. Fauna invites the reader to look inwards. Instead of asking questions of society’s large-scale adaptation to climate change, the audience is left to contemplate adaptation on a cellular level. How fast can evolution happen? How much can we transform and still be human? Fauna can be seen as a warning, showing in vivid details and through haunting language that humans are part of nature—vulnerable, fleeting, and wild—and that, as we change nature around us, we will inevitably change with it.
Susanne Roesner is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Swansea University in Wales. With her PhD project she explores current technological innovations regarding the climate change crisis to imagine and convey optimistic paths into the future. The insights she gained while conducting research for her master thesis on knowledge and worldview in Indigenous Australian storytelling inspired her to further investigate human-nature relationships. Susanne is interested in all kinds of positive visions of the future, be it in Solarpunk fiction, Climate fiction, or Indigenous Futurism.