Review: “I’m With The Bears” Is a Bad Book For a Good Cause

By Sam Gold

While statistics on rising temperatures abound in the media, “I’m With the Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet”, published by Verso, offers a personal perspective on the effects of climate change on the humans that caused it. Royalties from the collection, which features contributions from literary superstars like Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, go to an anti-carbon emission grassroots organization founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben. According to McKibben’s introduction, the collection offers an artistic complement to the usual warnings that will help us “understand what things [will] feel like” in a world without resources.

But despite its good intentions, only half of the ten stories in “I’m With the Bears” make the reader feel anything other than disappointment. The contributions fall into two categories: lamentations of the present and bleak visions of the future. The stories of the former are tired and flavorless, with the exception of T.C. Boyle’s wry story of an environmentalist’s bungled attempt to stop bulldozing in the Sishiyou Mountains (spoiler: the plan involves cement and adult diapers). What remains offers little insight and even less feeling. Kim Stanley Robinson’s account of a California hiking trip is a reminder that only Hemingway can make an interesting story about other people camping, and the sentimental, transparent dialogue of Nathaniel Rich’s “Hermie,” a tale of a biologist’s encounter with a talking crab, reads like an extra credit assignment for a high school science class.

Thankfully, Helen Simpson’s “Diary of an Interesting Year” marks a thematic and qualitative shift in the collection. The later stories, all set in a desolate future, suggest that society is built upon the shrinking foundation of our resources. For Simpson, The Collapse (as the environmental and economic meltdown in the story is called) triggers a social and moral collapse; her diarist witnesses her husband’s murder and records her sexual enslavement to the murderer. David Mitchell presents a similar retreat from humanity in “The Siphoners,” in which an elderly scholar and her senile husband are evacuated from the government’s protected area because they are too old to be useful to the withering state.

Margaret Atwood, the collection’s most highly regarded contributor, provides its shortest piece, which presents, in effect, the end of the human story. “Time Capsule on the Dead Planet” is a mordant account of the stages of human history: the creation of gods, the creation of money, the apotheosis of money, the creation of deserts “from the desire for more money,” and the end of life. Adopting the persona of history’s final chronicler, Atwood presents the rise and fall of civilization with startling brevity.

Yet even in these dark visions there are still glimmers of light. Simpson’s wily diarist overcomes her captor and moves forward, ending her notebook with wishes of good luck for herself and mankind. WuMing1’s “Arzèstula,” the story of a writer’s visit to the ruins of her home town, ends with a group of survivors performing a ritual of thanks and gratitude for the fragile planet that remains.

However, if these moments of perseverance provide redemption within their stories, they do not redeem their collection. “I’m With the Bears” remains a selection of minor works on a major subject, which makes its failure even more regrettable.

Sam is a staff writer. Contact him at books@nyunews.com

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