Rebecca Campbell, Arboreality

I'll get to the review eventually, I promise. It'll take a few paragraphs before I get there, but there are things to be said first. (Alternatively, just scan down for the section title "Review," which should appear in larger font.)

Before the Review

This isn't an announcement as such, but on the other hand, as I'll explain in a bit, there's no straightforward mechanism for making an announcement about this.

Anyway, I'm incredibly excited to say that the Environmental Humanities Collective at UVic (EHCo) has chosen Arboreality, by Rebecca Campbell, as its inaugural "Book of the Year." This novella from Stelliform Press is a stunning, fierce little book, and I'm delighted both that it exists and that I'll be teaching it in company with a great many colleagues in September 2024 and January 2025.

What, you may ask, is the EHCo, and what is its "Book of the Year" program?

Sorry, but don't go a-googling just yet, because in fact the EHCo is so new that we're still working on what should go onto the website once we build one. (We haven't even formally declared the name to anyone administrative, to be honest. Someone should get on that.) Because we have no website and no social media presence, there's no way for us to be found or to make an announcement.

The UVic EHCo is a group of faculty from several units across our Faculty of Humanities. All of us have taught courses with an environmental humanities approach over the last several years, almost all of us teaching explicitly about climate change, and many of us have written either academically or publicly about these issues.

The "Book of the Year" concept is our first initiative. Every year, we'll identify a single book that we think will work for a wide range of courses within the capacious tent of the environmental humanities. We'll then develop a suite of teaching materials and learning resources that we'll post to the EHCo's website. Once we get a budget (did I mention how new the group is?), then we'll be looking to bring each year's author to campus for some sort of larger event.

In theory, this should mean that our "Book of the Year" would be taught widely within the Faculty of Humanities: courses in literary studies, philosophy, gender studies, history, cultural studies, professional communications, and so on. We'll also be working to place our selected book in courses all across campus, in all kinds of programs: geography, creative writing, political science, biology, business, wherever an environmental humanities approach could help the class make sense of how to face the climate emergency.

See why I'm so excited about all this?

Anyway, we haven't yet approached Rebecca Campbell about this, and we barely exist within the university's admin structure, so who knows how the initiative's first year will go! Regardless, I'm very excited about the whole affair, and I'm wholly convinced that this inaugural selection of her Arboreality will give the program a great footing.

Now, on to the book!


But first, one last deferral: I want to acknowledge Dana McFarland's exceptional review of Arboreality in the irreplaceable BC Review. Her review is on point and precise and impassioned, so you should go and read it. (I'll quote from her, but you shouldn't miss the context for what she has to say.)

Where to start?

Arboreality is Rebecca Campbell's second novel, after her 2013 The Paradise Engine. A novella, Arboreality is an expansion of her 2020 Clarkesworld story "An Important Failure," which won the 2021 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the novel itself received the 2023 Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for fiction. Some will quibble with the book's categorization, because it's scarcely distinguishable from a set of linked short stories, but where there's heat, maybe there'll be light: disagreement is fine by me, as long as we're all reading the book together.

In brief, Arboreality traces the path of human, cultural, and natural evolution across about seven decades on southern Vancouver Island, beginning in the 2030s, through the gradual but decisive collapse of contemporary global society due to climate change. Each chapter steps another decade or so forward in time, with its final chapter taking place in the year 2100, as generations of related characters play their successive roles in keeping civilization alive in this particular place, on the way toward what may turn out to be a new and genuinely sustainable future.

Even after the collapse, bits and pieces of the former society continue to function sporadically, and humans keep being human, but the systems themselves break down, especially in marginal communities. The great majority of the population retreats from Vancouver Island, leaving for Vancouver, the north, or further afield, abandoning Vancouver Island to the few who won't or can't leave. Those who remain have no choice but to build their own community, in some ways to build their own world given what's happened to the ecology (rising sea levels, rising temperatures, new wildfire regimes, etc). Over several decades, the shattered remnants of the old system get left behind, more or less, while the beginnings of a new, beautiful, and genuinely sustainable human future start getting built out of those shards and out of a deeper, more intimate, and historically rooted sense of place.

The first chapter/story takes place mostly on the campus of the University of Victoria, where I teach. The narrator's connection to UVic is that in spite of the global societal collapse, he's continuing doggedly to teach online a course entitled "Engineering Communication and Design." (We offer a course by this title now, and on a personal note I loved Campbell's mention of regular rumours that the school would shift back to in-person teaching just as soon as it gets through the crisis!) UVic's McPherson Library has seen the bulk of its most unique holdings taken to the University of Toronto for safe-keeping, but the narrator and what seems to be the lone remaining librarian realize that the remaining holdings won't be safe there because the building is gradually failing around its collections. So, the two of them hatch a plot to distribute as many volumes as possible, the most useful volumes they can think of, to places where they'll make the most good.

Through the rest of Arboreality, these books and their lessons turn up occasionally, their lessons getting taken up by successive generations trying to build and sustain their communities. This novella isn't about the books, and certainly not about the rapidly vanishing university, but that's where we first encounter Arboreality's social breakdown, and that's part of how the post-collapse world goes.

But this is no dystopic novel, even if its depiction of climate change plays out as a rupture in the entire fabric of ecology and of human civilization. Rather, Arboreality is a novel of firm though uneasy hope.

I want to close with Dana McFarland's closing words, and if you didn't hear me the first time, you really do need to go read her review:

"Arboreality offers to a present readership a humane vision from an imagined future, of the potential that arises from valuing connection and collaboration in and with place. I highly recommend reading it, and considering what might be different if we were to let this story change us now."

 I'm not going to tell you anything more about the other chapters, either. It's a novella, and it's easily purchased in hard copy or digital format at the publisher's website: go buy it, read it, and tell me I was right to recommend it to you!


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