JULY 9, 2021
MOUNTAINS OCEANS GIANTS is perhaps the most forgotten modernist epic of the Anthropocene. It was written in the tumultuous years following World War I — marked by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the Bolshevik Revolution and (counter)revolutionary seesaw of paramilitarism and pogroms, and the all-but-forgotten 1920–’21 global depression. It evokes an equally tumultuous world, but of melting icecaps, new geological strata, and the unfettered hubris of humans. Rediscovering this strange book means rediscovering how, over a century ago, one of Germany’s greatest writers thought and wrote about climate science. Originally published in 1924 as Berge Meere und Giganten, it has now been translated into English by Chris Godwin.
Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) is best known for the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which the critic Michael Hofmann has described as “that tombstone overlaying, nay, burying, crushing, obliterating the possibility of any interest in his other work.” With his translation of Mountains Oceans Giants, Godwin demolishes this one-novel mausoleum by showcasing Döblin’s breadth.
Döblin enjoyed challenging literary convention. In climate change, he chose a topic that was not considered particularly important or worthy at the time, often sidelined as the province of extraterrestrials or space travel. Writing about it, in other words, was a risk; it could mean banishment to “the generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction,” according to writer Amitav Ghosh. The irony of the realist novel, Ghosh explains, is that “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real.” But the improbable — the melting of the icecaps — is of course not so improbable in geological reality. Döblin’s Mountains Oceans Giants exposes the geologically real when it still seemed unthinkable.
A book of two halves, the first reads like a demented edition of The Economist magazine. Döblin transposes a catalog of 1920s anxieties — Malthus, Suffragettes, miscegenation, decolonization — onto the 27th century. Europe is under siege from “hordes” of migrants “flooding” from the Global South. “India-China-Japan” rises as a rival bloc to the New York-London “Anglo-Saxon Imperium,” while fierce clans of women find success in an “unending struggle against patriarchy,” even preferring “taboo” relationships with the alien migrants. All of this was meant to be positively apocalyptic to Döblin’s 1924 readership.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea is the rise of synthetic food as a weapon of political control. Döblin is channeling the widespread trauma that starvation, thanks to five years of total blockade on Central Europe, had wrought, as well as the corresponding drive by wartime governments to devise new sources of calories for their fighting populations. In Mountains, this doesn’t so much mean autarchic policies of sourcing domestic production but rather reengineering the needs and desires of the human species altogether. As one of Döblin’s Hegelian scientists puts it, “the only way left for humanity is to become either a solitary animal, or a vegetable mass. The solitary animal is impossible. That leaves the vegetable mass. Result: the end of history.”
Then the Urals War breaks out. Conceived as a pointless “diversion” for Europe’s unruly populations, the invasion of Russia leads to scorched-earth campaigns on an industrial scale. Two immense walls of flame diverge from the battlelines, transforming human and animal refugees into an indiscernible mass of fleeing life. Mice, wolves, frogs, bears, and birds race out of “nature” into towns, onto roads, across armies. “Flocks of bats clung to carts. At a touch they flapped up, swooped on outstretched arms, settled.” The disaster has no punctuation. “People houses rocks hills animals forests sent sprawling flying soaring tumbling, river valleys torn apart filled in.”
The Urals War is inconclusive and gives way to the book’s second, more lyrical half, and its raison d’être: a daring plan to melt Greenland’s vast icecaps. As fleets of ships descend on Greenland to transmute it into a new continent for colonization, they disgorge droves of nameless engineers who scuttle across their destructive machines like expendable ants. When Greenland is finally ready for “melting,” Döblin imagines a scene that eerily foreshadows J. Robert Oppenheimer standing in the New Mexico desert at the Trinity test site 20 years later:
Every throat choked. Terrified helpless whimpering as the glow on the horizon rose and rose unchecked. […] Some lay, would not raise their eyes to the blinding light. If only it would disappear. Gnawing fear, near to madness. If only you could wash it away. They’re guilty. […] But then they pulled themselves together. Look to the light. The light, the fire, higher and higher over the endless vault of the heavens. The eyes must see it. […] Swallow it down wide-mouthed like a drowning man the water.
The spectacular transformation of Greenland into a kind of nuclear reactor sends (quite literally) shockwaves across the planet. Ocean currents are disrupted, and the Northern Hemisphere’s climate devolves into a torrent of unpredictable hurricanes, floods, and droughts. As with the Urals War, Döblin stresses the pointlessness of his characters’ terrible endeavors. They, however, persist in forging ahead, citing the inscrutable Aesopian rationale that “the horse must not be allowed to gallop unharnessed out of the wilderness.” All they really want, they confess, is to know “how to harness unleashed forces.” The consequences matter little, in other words. Döblin suggests that the Promethean urge to control nature often stems from blind fear of it — which may indeed explain why the “harness,” an arcane leather strap for fixing horses (but etymologically traced to “military provisions” in Old Norse), is still the defining trope used to explain our relationship to the environment.
Döblin was part of a larger community in 1920s Central Europe that helped launch the genre of speculative planetary fiction we call science fiction today, alongside H. G. Wells in Britain and Yevgeny Zamyatin in Russia. This community congregated in the pages of The Orchard Garden magazine, launched from Vienna in 1919 with the help of an eccentric Austrian mountaineer. German translations of old Edgar Allan Poe tales rubbed shoulders with new creations from the Czech Čapek brothers (inventors of the “Robot,” and also murderous newts…). In a region where three empires had just collapsed, its mixture of planetary catastrophe with human invention grew on particularly fertile soil.
But Döblin was also a physician and self-styled man of science. Günter Grass called him a “stenographing visionary.” He sucked in the world around him, which included, during the period of Mountains, the latest research in the climate sciences. Immersing himself in the environmental backdrop for his novel, he drew detailed volcanic and geological maps of Iceland and Greenland (better ones in fact than any commercially available); frequented Berlin’s Marine and Natural History museums; and took copious notes on the leading works in oceanography, meteorology, mineralogy, geology, and planetary physics. His archives are scattered today, but we know from the detective work of scholar Gabriele Sander that he slipped ideas and even whole phrases from these academic books into Mountains, blending their scholarship with his feverish poetry.
Mountains Oceans Giants represents a pioneering attempt to combine literary fiction with climate science long before there was a market. But the book is also a deeply personal exorcism of his generation’s war traumas. Döblin attempts to make sense of the dynamic relationship between humans and the environment through war. And so the trenches and wastelands, mustard gas clouds and tunnel warfare, of the Western Front feature prominently in his book. In an unpublished draft, unearthed by Sander, Döblin describes the Alsatian town where he had been posted as a military doctor during the War’s climax in 1917. “It was summer,” he writes “but no one would recognize it.” Trees dotted a “greenish-white” landscape and “oozed” when scratched. “These were no longer the banks of the Rhine.” The once-mighty river had no coherence. It “bore bumps and ulcers, festered from wide wounds that been inflicted upon it,” and driveled off into shell-crater pools. Döblin describes a landscape effaced, transformed into the nightmare of a medical textbook where trees and rivers bore human maladies.
The postwar French government declared it the Zone Rouge, the world’s first exclusion area: impossible to clean, impossible to inhabit. Subsequent generations of scientists have puzzled over World War I’s full impact. Besides total deforestation, there was soil contamination from copper, lead, arsenic, and unidentified agents (approximately 125 million tons of 46 different chemicals were used in combat). But scientists also began to find strong evidence of geological change: the rerouting of underground rivers, the permanent uplifting of land by hundreds of meters, and a new process they named “bombturbation.”
World War I introduced a new vocabulary for describing geography. Döblin’s novel is full of it: barriers, zones, frontlines, sulfuric fogs, blockades, “desolation belts,” and caverns of underground bunkers. This way of seeing space has also shaped how we describe environmental destruction in fiction and film today. The Zone is especially prominent: think of Andrei Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky brothers’ Stalker; W. G. Sebald’s description of Orford Ness in The Rings of Saturn; or Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant Southern Reach trilogy.
VanderMeer is at the vanguard of Anthropocene literature today. His mission, he explains, is to render Earth unfamiliar and alien. Like Ghosh, he eschews what he calls the “false behavioralism” of writing predictable, “realist” nature into fiction. As I was reading Döblin, I was struck by parallels in how both writers attempt to unsettle their readers. Döblin and VanderMeer imagine fantastical transgressions of our Linnean system for classifying the world. Rocks, plants, animals, and humans are fused together into new, integrated organisms. Annihilation describes inter-species mutations taking place in a mysterious Florida “Zone”; Mountains has leviathans composed of the flotsam that litters Earth’s unrecognizable surface. Like J. G. Ballard’s The Crystal World, another brilliant novel to do this, the anatomical boundaries that traditionally exist between things are broken down to reveal the specter of looming but intangible environmental transformation.
To elaborate an entirely new way of seeing nature is hard; doing so in demented, beautiful prose is harder still. One of Döblin’s editors described him as “the Energiser” whose writing “sweeps like a wild flood over cozy descriptive narrative.” But after three years of research and writing, and months of enforced isolation from his young family in rented digs, Döblin was exhausted. He sent the manuscript for his Anthropocene epic to the publisher and moved on. The “fantasies became too wild, and my brain could not release me.” Döblin returned to writing about the urban zoo of Berlin, which is what we know him for today. But with Mountains Oceans Giants, Döblin should also be added to a forgotten literary canon of writers who have sought to collapse human and natural histories into a new genre worthy of our changing environment. In peeling back the familiar stratum of the planet to reveal something unfamiliar and unsettling, their futuristic dystopias were really histories of the present.