Could bringing Neanderthals back to life save the environment? The idea is not quite science fiction | James Bradley

The climate emergency is unsettling our future, and erasing what we thought was certain about the past

In 2015, flooding exposed the frozen bodies of two cave lion cubs in the Yakutia region of Russia. Members of a species that vanished at the end of the last Ice Age, the pair were buried approximately 12,000 years ago when the roof of their den collapsed and trapped them in the frozen ground. In photos, their faces are so well-preserved one might almost believe they are only sleeping.

Yet despite their unusually perfect condition, the cubs are not the only such relics to have appeared in recent years. Throughout the Arctic and subarctic, animals and artefacts buried for thousands of years are reappearing, liberated from their frozen graves by the rapid warming in the region. In the Alps and elsewhere, bodies of people lost for decades in the mountains are emerging from the ice as glaciers melt. In Australia, towns submerged for generations are resurfacing as dam levels fall due to drought and heat.

As British author Robert Macfarlane has observed, these uncanny emergences or “Anthropocene unburials” are part of a larger process of unsettlement and unhinging. As human time and geological time collapse into one another, the deep past is erupting into the present all around us with terrifying and uncanny consequences. What was fixed is now in flux, what was settled is being swept away faster than we can save it. Nor is it just the past that has become unstable. The climate emergency is unsettling our future as well, erasing what we thought was certain, what we thought we knew.

For many people this process became suddenly tangible last summer when fires devastated south-eastern Australia. Over weeks and months we watched helplessly as the conflagration consumed lives, livelihoods, even entire ecosystems, while images that seemed wrenched from a dystopian future flickered across our screens. In the months since, those images have been superseded by the spreading catastrophe of coronavirus, a moment of discontinuity that has only reinforced the vulnerability of our society, the speed with which natural forces can overwhelm the structures that sustain and shape our world.

Part of the job of any art is what the cultural theorist Donna Haraway calls staying with the trouble. Art exists to record how it feels to be alive here, now, to capture the confusing, conflicting, sometimes terrifying, sometimes joyous messiness of the moment. It exists to bear witness. But art also needs to do more than just capture the here and now. We need it to help us see beyond the immediate, to understand how our stories connect to those of other people, in other times, to help us recognise we are part of a larger story.

An old chair sticks out of the mud on the shore line of Lake Eucumbene at Old Adaminaby, a town that was flooded as part of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric scheme in 1956.
An old chair sticks out of the mud on the shore line of Lake Eucumbene at Old Adaminaby in 2007, a town that was flooded as part of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme in 1956. Photograph: Mark Nolan/Getty Images

A desire to give shape to some of these connections drove my 2015 novel, Clade, which traced the experiences of three generations of a family as their world was transformed by climate catastrophe. When I was writing Clade it still seemed possible we might avoid the worst effects of global heating. But in the years since finishing it that hope has become harder and harder to sustain. Every day brings new stories of loss and extinction, every day our world seems to grow more violent, more deranged. Every day the spectre of collapse seems closer at hand.

Faced with this reality I began to ask a series of slightly different questions, questions about inevitability and the new reality we inhabit. At what point, I wondered, does what we are losing become unbearable? At what point does hope become just another form of denial? How are we to live in such a world?

My new novel, Ghost Species, seeks to explore these questions by asking what it would mean if the deep past were to come to life in a literal sense, through a scheme to recreate a Neanderthal child from remnant DNA. Although this idea might seem pure science fiction, it isn’t, or isn’t quite. Many scientists believe cloning may offer a way to de-extinct species wiped out by human activity. Here in Australia researchers have already laid many of the building blocks to resurrect the thylacine, while in Russia scientists in Siberia are working on a scheme to hold back the collapse of the permafrost by recreating the ecology that existed in the region 12,000 years ago, complete with woolly mammoths.

It seemed to me this technology and its possibilities offered a way of thinking through not just the idea that the world might have become unhinged, that time might be out of joint, but also the processes of grief and mourning so many of us are grappling with. What is it we are losing when a species or an ecosystem vanishes from the world? What it is we think we are bringing back if we recreate them? What would it be like to be such a being?

As the story and characters took shape, I found myself asking other questions. Questions about the super-rich and their planning for the end of the world. Questions about love and loss and the bond between the child and her adoptive mother. Questions about the boundary between human and the non-human.

Along the way I began to write differently as well. Environmental crisis and climate catastrophe collapse distance and time, bringing the deep past rushing into the present and the distant to our doorstep. Approaching them in fiction brought the boundary between fiction and real life crashing down as well, until finally it seemed I was processing my own fears and feelings directly into fiction, resulting in a book that was often frighteningly personal.

Yet most of all, I found myself having to confront a series of questions about the fragility of the structures that shape our world, the onrushing cost of climate catastrophe, and how we are to live in a world in which our most basic assumptions are collapsing.

I began writing Ghost Species just after my father’s death. It will be published a few weeks after my mother’s. It was edited while bushfires raged up and down Australia’s east coast, in a city thick with smoke and grief, and will be published in a world paralysed by a pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, it is a book that is, in many ways, defined and suffused by the sense of loss so many of us feel at the moment. But it is also a book that seeks to remind us that even out of the most seismic loss and grief, new configurations are always possible.

Ghost Species by James Bradley is out on 28 April 2020 through Hamish Hamilton


James Bradley

The GuardianTramp

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