Cover image of "Above the Ether," a grim novel about environmental collapse

Fear of the apocalypse has been with us for thousands of years. According to the mental health professionals at, “Doomsday phobias are surprisingly common.” They’re found “in some form in virtually every corner of the world.” Sometimes these delusions are rooted in religion, sometimes in technology. But the paralyzing fear the world will soon come to an end has given rise to a torrent of dystopian stories. Human actions lead to some of these nightmare scenarios. Nuclear holocaust or environmental collapse, for example. In other cases—a supervolcano eruption, killer pandemic, or meteor strike—humans have not been the cause. But, of course, all these stories end badly. What’s going on, after all, is the end of the world as we know it.

In Eric Barnes’ haunting 2019 novel, Above the Ether, the catastrophe has not yet played itself out. Surely, the world will end. But not yet.

In fact, this is how civilization will die. Not with a whimper. Not with a bang. But in a slowly gathering succession of minor tragedies, inconveniences, disappointments, and frustrations. Things will stop working the way they used to. More and more, people will lash out at others in savage ways. And, yes, it is our world, as the climate catastrophe gathers momentum. Not yet today. Maybe ten years from now. Maybe twenty or thirty.

Welcome to the apocalypse.

Above the Ether by Eric Barnes (2019) 279 pages ★★★★☆

Painting of environmental collapse in the offing
Is this tomorrow’s world? Eric Barnes suggests it is. Image: Literary Hub

The world is dying

At the outset, we know that the world is dying. What we see is environmental collapse in the making. We join a father and two young children in a car racing north away from the Gulf of Mexico. A monster hurricane and an earthquake below the water’s surface have combined to send a gargantuan wall of water rushing to overtake them. But it’s even worse than that. “Nothing grows here . . . It’s been that way for years.” And, elsewhere, another character reflects, “Hot already, she can feel it, another day in the rising hundreds. . . Mudslides in the winter. Fires in the spring.” Everything that could go wrong is going wrong. The apocalypse is at hand.

Six characters experience the unfolding tragedy

Barnes reveals the story in Above the Ether in three sections. In the first, we follow the lives of three principal characters as that wall of water rushes northward. The Father. The Investor. The Stranger. Three new characters join the cast in part two. The Carousel Operator. The Doctor. The Restaurant Manager. And in part three, they all cross paths in the face of the gathering tragedy.

A universal message

Clearly, Eric Barnes wants us to understand the consequences of a climate crisis run wild. But he’s trying to make another point here as well. There is not a single proper noun in Above the Ether. No character has a name. Every one of them is identified with the definite article “the.” No brand-names appear anywhere. Does this ensure we get the message that there is no escape from the apocalypse? That the tragedy is universal? Let’s hope so. Because this is our world mere decades down the line unless we take far more aggressive action to forestall the environmental collapse that is inevitable if our carbon footprint keeps growing.

About the author

Image of Eric Barnes, author of this novel about environmental collapse
Eric Barnes portrait for the Daily Memphian.

Eric Barnes (born 1968) has written four acclaimed novels and dozens of short stories to date. Above the Ether is the second of his novels on the theme of climate change. He is also the publisher of several newspapers in Tennessee.

For further reading

I’ve written a nonfiction book about scenarios like the one depicted in this novel. It’s called Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. You can find information about it here.

This is one of many Good books about climate change I’ve reviewed here.

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