Eating Out in the Apocalypse

Can pleasure take place against the backdrop of climate crisis?

In a future of world-devastating smog—not to mention fires, xenophobia, pandemics, and famine—an unnamed chef struggles to build a restaurant career. Forced to work with government-issued mung bean flour and deprived of produce, she quits her job in frustration, taking instead a position as a private chef for an elite research community. High on a mountain—in one of the last places where the sun still shines and things like radicchio are readily available—she gradually uncovers her employer’s plot to reimagine the world. She also falls in love with her employer’s daughter, has a lot of good sex, and a lot of good food.

On their own, the sex scenes in C Pam Zhang’s second novel, Land of Milk and Honey, are fun. Refreshing in their refusal to capitulate to writing workshop norms of spare syntax and elegant allusion. Unafraid of excess. “Yes to oysters swollen through butter,” the narrator relates. “Yes to thighs cooled on glass, my hand a hot knife between. Yes to prosciutto, its salt slick … Yes to the fatthicksweet of it, to cream, to froth that rises, to the crunched lace of the ear and the tender behind the knee.” The narrator and her lover, Aida, spend the middle portion of the novel in a haze of pleasure. “Like chimps like finches like gilas we glutted on plums … I cut a sturgeon nose to slit and ransacked its body for that other fruit, pure caviar. I looked to Aida for the salt.”

But what makes this novel surprising in its sensuousness is less the quick slide from pâté en croute to cunnilingus and more the fact that these doubled pleasures take place against the backdrop of climate crisis. Because of the bleak details of life for most people off the mountain, the narrator’s pleasure is all the more consuming.

It is also all the more provoking. Zhang is noncommittal on her novel’s genre: “I’m really curious about how this book is going to be read,” she told Elle in an interview. “I love hearing different interpretations about whether people call it ‘dystopia’ or ‘utopia’ or ‘climate fiction’ or straight ‘science fiction.’” But rather than focusing on questions of genre, reviews of Zhang’s book have focused on its indulgent sensory details. Land of Milk and Honey is, for the Times Literary Supplement, “the most sensuous novel of the year.” It has been described as “luscious” (Kirkus), “seductive” (Publisher’s Weekly), “sumptuous” (Booklist), and “decadent” (San Francisco Chronicle). “To read this book,” as one review memorably puts it, “is to know yourself as a being made of skin” (Bookpage). If this reads as the overblown praise of the book jacket, it is in part because of the missing generic context. Yes, this conjunction of food and desire—especially queer desire—has a long literary history. Yes, Milk and Honey might be put in the same loose category as other recent entries into the sexy eating subgenre.

But climate fiction—and, given Milk and Honey’s eco-apocalyptic setting, it surely is that—has a vexed relationship with pleasure. On the one hand, the genre is premised on the fact that reading can be a pleasurable act. Climatologist Judith Curry, for instance, claimed that fiction could be an “untapped way of …. smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness of readers who may not be following the science.” Fiction, here, is framed as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, a device “geared to useless pleasure but necessary in a time when ‘serious topics’ need their audience.”1

Despite Curry’s hopes, however, pleasure—for both readers and characters—is often surprisingly absent from climate narratives. Instead, climate fiction describes bad feelings (fear, anxiety, loss), and it produces bad feelings. Climate anxiety novels like Jenny Offill’s Weather and Madeleine Watts’s Inland Sea—argues Rithika Ramamurthy—trap the reader within “an emotional atmosphere where the endless fact of cosmic hardship looms over the insignificance of personal life.”

Seeking to prove this point empirically, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to solicit accounts of reading experiences from 161 readers of climate fiction. “In response to a specific question on affect,” he writes, “‘how did this book make you feel?’ only 26% of the responses could be remotely qualified as positive. Negative emotions were often intense, immediate, and self-directed.” “Though these responses clearly reflect engaging storytelling,” Schneider-Mayerson concludes, “it is worth questioning whether they make for effective environmental persuasion.”2

To consider the relations of power and care and sacrifice that go into any good meal or any good tryst. But the crisis’s smooth resolution belies that commitment to nuance.

Even here, in the realm of emotion, the discursive context of climate fiction renders action the primary rubric for success. As Heather Houser asks in a set of questions that typify ecocriticism’s orientation toward feeling, “How might emotions make us pay attention to our … environmentally precarious present? How might they ferry us from awareness to an obligation to respond?”3

Emotions, in other words, are worth attending to in part because of their power to make us pay attention and to remind us of our “obligation” to take action. Insofar as positive emotions—especially bodily pleasure—get coded as distractions, they seem an improbable tool for this kind of call to arms. Pleasures are for languorous forgetting and fleeting escapism. They are not the stuff of duty and responsibility.

In recent years, however, scholars have begun to resist these frameworks of obligation, in favor of rearticulating pleasure as a crucial part of sustainable activism. “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy,” explains adrienne maree brown, whose Pleasure Activism is perhaps the most prominent contemporary example of this new resistance to discourses of guilt and duty. “Pleasure activism asserts that we all need and deserve pleasure, and that our social structures must reflect this.”4 Milk and Honey is an exciting entry into the climate fiction corpus because it echoes this trend. The novel jettisons the generic tropes of the “info dump” and the guilt trip, and replaces them instead with the notion that there might be things worth working for.

Thinking more specifically in the climate sphere, Kate Soper’s “alternative hedonism” makes a similar move away from guilt: emphasizing instead the possible satisfactions of walking instead of driving, or the robust flavors of farmer’s market produce.5 Similarly, Jiaying Zhao and Elizabeth Dunn’s “Happy Climate Project” emphasizes the ways that limiting one’s carbon footprint might yield a greater sense of “time affluence” and less cognitive dissonance. These latter projects sound fairly chaste compared to brown’s orgasmic injunctions. But even so, they represent something of a departure from the scared-straight tactics of some earlier climate messaging.

Zhang’s novel, for all it concedes the satisfactions of previously extinct mammoth meat and MDMA, ends up surprisingly aligned with Soper’s more limited gratification. “Part of the intellectual work in the novel,” Zhang says, “—and part of the work of the chef as she lives on this mountain—is to find her own definitions of pleasure, to realize that she finds it often in simple things like a strawberry, or even processed food, and that there is some kind of moral center to her pleasure.”

Some of this moral center emerges through contrast. The narrator—and the novel—find the mountain retreat’s purpose “decadent, gluttonous. Selfish.” The vast resources of the mountain go to projects like returning golden chimps from extinction, setting them as bait for a hunting party of wealthy potential donors, and then roasting the fresh kills over an open flame. When it comes time to dine, “staff members have removed the heads but still the comparison to a human body, a small human body, say the body of a child, is undeniable.” The primary donor cracks a shin from a thigh, “whirls a forearm above his head like a boy with a fairground prize. They promised the rarest meat on earth. Fuck me if this isn’t cooked to perfection.” It is not hard, when the mountain’s inevitable downfall comes, to cheer alongside all those left off the guest list.

That downfall, in a perverse turn of fate, ends up saving the world. As Milk and Honey is narrated postfactually, I can say without spoiling things that the novel’s environmental crisis is ultimately resolved. It is resolved, however, not through pleasure or activism, but through the magic of venture capital. The very public failure of the mountain project meant investors looked for a more “diversified, time tested solution.” “The language of business moved businessmen,” Zhang writes, and “private funding poured into research on air purification and crop development.” Funded by 80 million euros from investors, a lab in Berkeley discovers a dandelion that can nullify smog particles by binding them with simple sugars. Cloud seeding technology increases rainfall, the narrator opens a successful Italian Chinese fusion restaurant in Paris, and the United States opens its borders and apologizes for the agricultural tests that contributed to the smog in the first place.


5,000 Years of Climate Fiction

By Wai Chee Dimock

In this quick resolution, some of the provocation of the preceding pages recedes. The narrator is skeptical of the way the rhetoric changes in the wake of the dandelion discovery, criticizing both the lionization of the investors and the quick shift from dazed gratitude to smug triumph. But her skepticism doesn’t change the fact that the world’s future pleasures are chalked up to the success of private funding. The novel’s bad billionaires are replaced with good ones, the gluttonous technological developments replaced with the virtuous.

What does it mean that a rare work of pleasure-driven climate fiction is so fully reliant on techno-optimism? That the existing structures of science and capital get to save the day, even after so many luxurious sentences, so much profitless sex?

The message of the novel’s first 200 pages was to take pleasure—in all its emotional and ethical complexity—seriously. To consider the relations of power and care and sacrifice that go into any good meal or any good tryst. But the crisis’s smooth resolution belies that commitment to nuance.

“I’ve sampled this world in the years I was given,” the narrator offers by way of closing. She knows, “at the end, what was sweetest. The spice of loam. The sting of salt and sedge. The tongue, dumb beast, believes.”

The narrator is left satisfied by remembered pleasures. The reader, wanting. icon

  1. Curry’s quote, and the subsequent point regarding “gearing,” are from Derek Woods’s excellent new “Genre at Earth Magnitude: A Theory of Climate Fiction,” New Literary History, vol. 54, no. 2 (2023), pp. 1143–67.
  2. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, “The Influence of Climate Fiction: An Empirical Survey of Readers,” Environmental Humanities, vol. 10, no. 2 (2018), pp. 473–500.
  3. Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia University Press, 2014).
  4. adrienne maree brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (AK Press, 2019).
  5. Kate Soper, Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (Verso, 2020).
Featured image: Prosciutto Small Plate by Allan Francis / Unsplash (CC by Unsplash License).