That’s No Man on the Moon: Review of Erin Swan’s Walk the Vanished Earth
Walk the Vanished Earth. Erin Swan. Viking, May 31, 2022.
The end of the world comes so quickly. We’ve been watching the slow crawl towards destruction for decades. The ocean claims more and more of the sandy beaches we once built sandcastles on; the summers come sooner, they last longer, ice cream trucks can hardly keep up with demand as they pass ice cream cookie sandwiches already melting in their plastic to the red-faced and sweating neighborhood kids. Thomas Hobbes — philosopher, King Charles I simp, and most annoying man in your creative writing class — wrote that human life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” and so too is our fall into the hungry and violent ruins of the apocalypse.
There is comfort in the depiction of the world’s end in Erin Swan’s Walk the Vanished Earth. Solutions rise quickly in the face of environmental devastation, and while it would be easy to imagine cruelty — assuming that violence is humanity’s reaction, destruction met with more destruction — Swan’s characters work to achieve something different in their future. Thinking about the world he wants to build out of the floods of the old, one character wonders, “What would it look like without kindness?” Hope for the future flows freely, and it inspires action. Very little time is wasted wondering what should be done as plans are executed, modified, and changed. As the world ends, the determination to survive and build community perseveres. This isn’t a story that fetishizes individualism — it’s family and community and friendship that carries us into the future. And yet, for all there is to love about the burning and guiding hope Swan’s book holds for our future, Walk the Vanished Earth leaves behind too much to be considered a critical vision of the future.
Told over generations of a family lineage, Walk the Vanished Earth is rich with futurity. Spanning hundreds of years, journeying decades into the future, the history of the family is lush, disturbing, and hopeful. The complications of the family legacy haunt the characters, and as the story progresses in linear time, so too do the characters take steps to distance themselves from the trauma of the past. Around the family, the earth changes, the environment turns hostile against those who have abused it, and fragments of our own history bleed through. American buffalo are skinned, tongues removed, meat left behind to rot. New Orleans becomes a lake, devastation watched from the comfort of dry land.
Stories hold power. History tells us who we were. History also tells us who we remember, whose values and, crucially, whose visions for the future. In the introduction of Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, George Monbiot declares, “Those who tell the stories run the world.” Like the adage “history belongs to the victors,” the sentiment is more than a quote-worthy one-liner. It’s the truth of the history books; the stories, peoples, and values remembered, recited, recycled, regurgitated.
Stories of the future are important. They are powerful. And much like history, who shapes the stories of our future is important. Yet, for a title that stretches pole to pole, nothing outside of the United States seems to have a place in the future. As the oceans shrink the coasts, entire states are abandoned to the waters, and it is only through the dedication of the text’s central family that survival outside the shrinking U.S. government is shown as viable. Decades into the future, Earth’s national songs are boiled down to a tune that follows “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and any language outside of English is relegated to the past, spoken only on an Earth that no longer exists.
Womanhood is central to the text. But it is more fair to say that cis-womanhood, gender essentialist womanhood, reigns supreme. Motherhood — menstruation, penetration, pregnancy, and vaginal birth — is lionized. Women tasked with birthing a new future amongst the ruins of the past don’t read literature, only baby manuals. Of the three new babies born, the two biological males are deemed monsters; it is only the first biological girl that is deemed “human, or close enough.” In such a text, where biological function is of the utmost importance, trans, nonbinary, and intersex people are absent. Women incapable of biological motherhood don’t have a place in a story about (cis) girls and (cis) mothers. Trans men and nonbinary people who have the potential to give birth are equally absent.
For example, twenty-one years after the fall of the U.S. government as we know it, a band of all-female survivors faces off against cannibalistic marauders. Their leader has “spent time with each of the women” as an indication of her rank, a bizarre ritual that appears nothing more than a gender-swapped “alpha male” mythos. The woman who leads a multi-planetary mission to populate Mars, leader of the project since she was only a girl herself, feels inadequate compared to women chosen to incubate and birth the next generation.
Swan’s breakdown of family legacy and trauma is complex, but the prioritization of certain narratives undermines the book’s lofty attempts to imagine a future for everyone. In the end, I was left wondering what was happening in the rest of the world. Had other countries fared better, or worse? And while climate change is the cause of the breakdown of society, the unequal effects of devastation received no consideration. BIPOC and low-income communities in the US are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, an issue ignored in the book.
By the end of the book, I felt unsatisfied. A white writer, whose main characters were primarily black, glossing over environmental racism, delegating anything outside of the United States as periphery, and integrating outdated feminist talking points felt flat. The end result is a beautiful, but ultimately two-dimensional, story of family overshadowed by a gender division and U.S. focus that reads poorly in 2022.
hvnly is an MA candidate in the PNW. Her work allows her to justify reading and watching science fiction of all kinds, and her passion for the genre and its ability to help sculpt the future gives her plenty to think and write about. Bored with hopeless pessimism, hvnly advocates for radical community care as a tonic necessary for change. She lives with a small goblin, a medium dog, and a large dog. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Adam McLain. The author and editors were unacquainted prior to this review. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Viking.