By Invitation
A Tsunami of Smoke in the Distance: Imagining the End of the World

A UN report ahead of the COP 27 climate summit in Egypt highlights a future in which wildfires and intense heatwaves will become increasingly prevalent.  Fire scientists have been issuing warnings of this nature for decades now, while publications like the New York Times warn of a “chaotic future”.  Severe blazes like the Dixie Fire—which destroyed 963, 309 acres of land in Northern California between July and October, 2021—will occur with greater frequency and intensity.  Photographs of apocalyptic flames engulfing land, destroying homes, and taking lives will appear more and more often in the media.  In the short term, at least, human beings will need to learn new ways of living with fire.

Literary fiction offers one way to rehearse reconfigured understandings and relationships with fire.  The Australian environmental historian and bushfire expert Tom Griffiths has commented that story telling is “the most powerful educational tool we possess…Scholars in the humanities know that stories change the way people act, the way they use available knowledge.  The stories we live by determine the future.”[1]  While Griffiths here points to the great potential of the story to bring about change, the novelist and environmentalist Amitav Ghosh sees it as under-utilized.  In his 2016 analysis of the climate crisis, The Great Derangement, Ghosh remarks that “climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena.”[2] Ghosh’s own work stands as a type of ongoing corrective to this observation, but he is right to suggest that fiction connected with climate change, and particularly disaster, can be seen as somewhat schlocky and is not always taken seriously.[3]

In his 2019 novel Gun Island, Ghosh engages with a wide range of contemporary environmental issues and their consequences, from the migration of beetles, snakes and shipworms, to the plight of human climate refugees.  His engagement with fire is particularly striking, not least for the ways in which Ghosh confronts the interconnections between human mobility and rapidly rising temperatures. 

The novel appeared in the wake of the 2018 California fires (which destroyed 2% of the state’s land, causing more than 100 deaths, and millions of dollars’ worth of damage), and part of the action in the opening chapters uses wildfire as a backdrop.  Asking the reader to make connections between air travel and climate change, Ghosh introduces the wildfire into his novel by having the work’s narrator, Deen, view it from a plane beginning its descent into Los Angeles.  Deen operates within the text as a type of everyman figure, who takes some time to recognize what is happening to the world around him.  He acts as a type of foil to the reader through his oblivion—we may register the parts we play in accelerating climate change, but Deen shows himself to be absorbed with the minutiae of modern living.  While other characters show concern for the state of the earth, Deen is distracted by financial planning—the unstated irony being that there may not be a future to plan for.  As his plane lowers, Deen thinks that the passengers around him are discussing a film, when he hears them mention a wildfire.  But then, looking at the smartphone that he uses to mediate world events, he comments:

I learnt that massive wildfires had been raging around Los Angeles for several days.  Thousands of acres of land had been incinerated and tens of thousands of people had been moved to safety.[4]

Deen then becomes distracted, and it isn’t until his plane is landing—the flight path having been altered because of the fires—that he stares out of his window and comments:

It wasn’t long before dark smudges appeared in the distance.  They quickly grew into dense masses of smoke.  Then leaping waves of flame came into view too, lining the horizon with flickering tints of yellow and orange.  Even more striking was the landscape that lay beneath our flightpath – a charred, smouldering stretch of forested hillside that had already been laid waste by the fires.  The plane was now flying low enough that I could see a great mass of blackened tree trunks rising out of a vast field of ash.  I noticed also that many birds were circling over the ashes of the burnt-out forest – this astonished me because the destruction was so complete that it was difficult to think that any living thing would be drawn to this incinerated landscape.

This view from above captures the enormity of the wildfire and its rapid trajectory, focusing on its impact on the non-human world.  The aerial view is a broader motif in Gun Island, suggesting an element of privileged removal from the climate crisis.  In this scene, Ghosh shows readers the widespread impact a fire can have, with charred devastation following the deadly flames. Deen is almost immediately distracted from this apocalyptic vision, as though the desolate landscape is simply too much for him.  The novel also suggests that he is simply not, at this stage, emotionally engaged with the fate of the planet.

Wildfire briefly becomes a prominent aspect of the plot—a plot that is filled with a succession of climate-related disasters—and Deen engages with it again when he attends the conference which has brought him to California. Deen’s account of his arrival at the museum hosting the event reveals some of the difficulties wildfires can cause—there is only one security guard because of road closures.  Later, the delegates voice their satisfaction when the conference has to be relocated because of the danger, and the general attitude the characters display towards the fire is one of nonchalance. 

There is an irony in Deen’s representation of the conference’s first keynote speaker as a “trendy young historian who had gained a reputation as a peddler of Big Ideas.”[5]  The historian gives a talk on “Climate and Apocalypse in the Seventeenth Century” as Los Angeles burns all around them.  While Deen is dismissive of the speaker, the joke is on him, as the young lecturer proclaims:

It would seem that the intellectual titans of the Enlightenment had no inkling of what was getting under way.  Yet strangely, all around the earth, ordinary people appear to have sensed the stirring of something momentous.  They seemed to have understood that a process had been launched that could lead ultimately to catastrophe: what they didn’t allow for was that the story might take a few hundred years to play out.[6]

Up until this point, the speaker could almost be discussing those people in the room with him, all calmly listening to a lecture, with an enormous fire burning outside.  He then, however, continues to highlight that the consequences have taken several hundred years to play out, and gestures to the fires, with the comment “What our ancestors experienced is but a pale foreshadowing of what the future holds.”[7]  Then, things take a  more dramatic turn, “A gale of laughter blew through the auditorium.  And just as it was receding another, far more strident noise, burst upon us: the wailing of a fire alarm.”[8]

On a realist level, the alarm is just a moment of drama.  But if we think about it symbolically, it takes on a much deeper resonance.  It is like a response to the laughter of the affluent, dismissing climate change as somebody else’s problem.  This alarm is sounding for the future of the planet.  As the delegates step out into the intense sunshine, Deen describes a “tsunami of smoke in the distance,”[9] which seems to be moving closer, suggesting that the privileged can only hold the effects of climate change at bay for so much longer.

Ghosh’s novel is global in scope, with characters and events crossing several continents in an intricately woven plot.  As the work brings in more and more disasters, it stages the acceleration of extreme weather events that the world is experiencing.  It also responds to the need that Ghosh has articulated for literary fiction to represent impending planetary catastrophe.  This accumulation of catastrophes might, in another literary genre, seem excessive and implausible.  Yet Ghosh’s depiction of the wildfire brilliantly conveys the kind of cataclysmic imagery that readers might well recall from real-life experiences of fire.  In showing the role that literary fiction can play in narrating climate change, the depiction also evokes the late philosopher Bruno Latour’s observation that we are “living apocalyptically”, yet somehow “lack apocalyptic imagination.”[10]  We simply cannot envision the end of our world, in spite of all the signs that we are hurtling toward it.

In Gun Island Ghosh attempts to bring the apocalypse back into the literary imaginary as an urgent prompt to his readers to take the prospect of the end of the world seriously.  Fire gives way to cyclones, as the characters move around the world, and other disasters include creatures displaced by rising temperatures, and the journeys of human climate refugees.  It is a text that could all too easily leave the reader feeling flooded with negative emotions. The novel’s ending--which some readers have found problematic, owing to an unexpected turn towards magical realism—gestures towards hope, which is often in short supply when discussing the future of the planet.

Climate change is one of the most emotional issues of the present time, in part because the uncertainty of our collective future can invoke feelings of fear, anxiety, and even guilt.  Rising temperatures are already having an impact on mood—heat can make people short-tempered, and violent incidents increase during stretches of excessively hot weather.[11]  Wildfires and their Australian equivalent, the bushfire, can elicit a wide variety of emotions and affective responses, including awe, terror, frustration and more lingering reactions like trauma.  Realist writing has an important role to play in reframing our understanding of catastrophe and its effects, while forcing readers—as Ghosh’s writing does—to consider its causes. 

Fire is often a terrifying and deadly force, but it is also an element whose cyclical qualities lend themselves to narrative.[12]  Fire historians including Stephen J. Pyne and Tom Griffiths have been telling us for a long time that fire always comes back.  Writing of a fire site in Malibu, Pyne comments wryly that “fire returns with almost astrological regularity,”[13] meaning that if a place has succumbed to a wildfire in the past, it will surely burn again.  Griffiths notes a similar phenomenon in Australia, commenting on fire-affected communities, and their propensity to forget:

There is often an emotional need, as people return and rebuild, to deny the 'naturalness' and therefore the inevitable recurrence of the event. Black Saturday, we quickly reassured ourselves, was 'unique', 'unprecedented', 'unnatural' – and it was a 'disaster'. We must never let it happen again! Culture can – and will – triumph over nature.[14]

Survivors can feel as though a fire has deliberately sought them out, characterizing it as malicious or vengeful as they work through feelings of shock and grief at the destruction (and sometimes death) it has caused.  Many seek to rebuild their homes on their original site, believing the fire to be a freak, once-in-a-lifetime event.  We may believe that “next time” we can control the fire, but history tells a different story.

Climate change is shortening the intervals between fires, as Ghosh shows in his novel through an emphasis on history and what we can learn from the past.  It is increasingly important for us to understand that if an area has burned once, it will burn again.  Furthermore, areas that have been traditionally damp, like the United Kingdom, are now experiencing intensely hot summers, accompanied by fires that are large in scale and more and more difficult to control.  One of Ghosh’s characters recounts a wildfire during a vacation in Sicily, which catches up with her unexpectedly, while sunbathing on a beach.  The reference to this European fire is fleeting, yet deliberately positioned within the narrative to demonstrate that this is a widespread problem, exacerbated by deforestation and global warming.

Whether we like it or not, our future will involve more fires, more frequently, and with greater severity.  As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has astutely commented, “The planet can, as demonstrated by the Australian fires of 2019, reduce us to our creaturely lives where we compete with other species…for sheer survival.”[15]  If fire is to be an ever-more-present reality, then we need to learn more about it: to understand its patterns and trajectories. 

As some of the essays in a recent special issue of Occasion, Fire Stories discuss, fire already holds an important place in many cultures across the globe.  The novelist and academic George R. Stewart noted in his 1948 novel Fire that the English colonists who built Jamestown “knew that they had come to a land of fire,” offering an outline of changing settler attitudes towards burning, which was initially perceived as “good for the woods.”[16] In putting the essays together, we sought to understand the positive and negative emotions surrounding fire, and how literature, history, art and film can play a part in helping us to live alongside it.   Essays by the Australian environmental historian Bill Gammage and the natural history writer Danielle Clode highlight Australian Indigenous land management practices, which emphasize periodic burning, rather than attempts to suppress fire.[17]

There is a growing interest in learning more about traditional modes of fire management across the globe.  In Northern California, the North Fork Mono people have been working to restore “good fire” to the landscape.  The Karuk and Yurok tribes have similarly partnered with the federal government to try to restore long-suppressed Indigenous fire regimes.[18]   As Stephen Pyne comments, there is much to learn from non-western approaches to fire and he cites a:

[M]eticulous campaign…most robustly developed in Australia and with a scattering of kindling points throughout the American West to promote “cultural burning.”  The ambition is, through recovered fire practices, to restore both land and culture among Indigenous peoples.  The suppression of fire practices was part of colonizing the land; restoring fire is seen as a means to recover some of those losses.  It’s fire as renewer, as a catalyst for a revived heritage as well as a recovered legacy landscape.[19]

What Pyne outlines here is a less adversarial relationship with fire, which accepts that it is part of our reality, while also suggesting that to “fight” fire is, from an ecological perspective, futile.

 The Indigenous Australian filmmaker and fire consultant Victor Steffensen concurs with Pyne’s perspective.  Steffensen advocates for increased cooperation between government environmental agencies and Indigenous peoples and, in particular, he cautions that change cannot be effected overnight.  He looks ahead to a future in which traditional burning techniques can gradually be reinstated:

What we are facing is among the biggest of environmental challenges in modern human history and we need to start dealing with it now.  It is not going to be easy and it will take a few years before people will start to see a more effective system take effect.  We will still endure bushfires and we will still need the valued fire fighters, but we will see indicators of regeneration to show we are on the right road.  It will be a world where we will see smoke and fire more commonly than our current society has ever experienced before…[20]

Steffenson’s vision is one of reciprocity, not just between settler and Indigenous societies, but also between humans and the land.  His vision of a future in which we see more smoke, rather than less, presents an interesting contrast to the calamitous role that fire can so often play in our visions of the time to come.

It is no longer possible to behave like Ghosh’s character Deen, viewing fire from a safe distance, and regarding it as an inconvenience.  By bringing fire, and climate change generally, more centrally into the literary imagination we may begin to reconfigure the boundaries of our understanding.  In the process we may also learn to live apocalyptically.  This is not to suggest that embracing fire is to succumb to the notion of a “doomed” planet, but rather that imagining it differently might lead to a greater responsiveness to the challenges it presents.  The stories we tell about fire can educate, and they can also re-orient our relationship with a force that we both need and fear.


[1] Tom Griffiths, “The Humanities and an Environmentally Sustainable Australia,” Australian Humanities Review, March 2003, 

[1] Tom Griffiths, “The Humanities and an Environmentally Sustainable Australia,” Australian Humanities Review, March 2003,  

[2] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 7.

[3] As Ghosh put it, “fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction.  Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 7. 

In his magnificent Ecology of Fear (1998) Mike Davis offers an absorbing overview of popular disaster novels from the nineteenth century (focusing largely on catastrophes in London) and the twentieth (many of which involve climatic disasters in Los Angeles).  See Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (London: Verso, 2022), particularly chapter six.

[4] Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (London: John Murray, 2019).  127-8.

[5] Ibid.  135.

[6] Ibid, 137.

[7] Ibid, 138.

[8] Ibid, 138.

[9] Ibid. 138.

[10] Bruno Latour, quoted in Anders Dunker, ed., Rediscovering Earth: Ten Dialogues on the Future of Nature: Conversations with Anders Dunker (New York: OR Books, 2020), 16.

[11] See, for example, Meghie  Rodrigues, “How climate change could drive an increase in gender-based violence”, Nature (13 July 2022): and Rahini Mahendran, Rongbin Xu, Shanshan Li, Yuming Guo “Interpersonal violence associated with hot weather”, The Lancet (Vol 5: September 2021), 571-572.

[12] For a discussion of fire, temporality and recurrence in nineteenth-century and contemporary Australian fiction see Grace Moore “A Taste of Hell: Fear of Fire in the Australian Settler Imaginary”.  SITES, 19:2, 2022:

[13] Stephen J. Pyne.  World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1997),  227. 

[14] Tom Griffiths, “The Language of Catastrophe”, Griffith Review 35: Surviving (35: 2012):  The Black Saturday fires took place in Victoria, Australia on 7 February 2009.  1, 100, 000 acres of land were burned that day, 173 people lost their lives, as did countless animals.

[15] Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 198.

[16] George R. Stewart, Fire (London: Victor Gollancz, 1951). For a more sustained discussion of Stewart’s novel, see Grace Moore “They Would Put Out that Fire Like a Couple of Matches Burning: Climate Change and Reciprocity in George R. Stewart’s Fire,” Occasion (August 2022):‘they-would-put-out-fire-couple-matches-burning’-climate-change-and-reciprocity-george-r

[17] Bill Gammage “Fire in 1788” Occasion (August 2022): and Danielle Clode, “Fire, Fear, and Flames: Emotions and Evolution in Bushfire History.”  Occasion (August 2022):


[19] Stephen J. Pyne, The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), 135-6.

[20] Victor Steffensen, Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia.  (Melbourne & Sydney: Hardie Grant Travel, 2021), 213.

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