We still think of the California drought as a problem that’ll eventually go away. But if perennial dryness is in our future, life in the West will be radically transformed. A new novel gives us a vivid and disturbing portrait of what our parched future might look like.

Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the award-winning short story collection Battleborn, is back with Gold Fame Citrus, the gritty tale of Luz Dunn and her boyfriend Ray as they struggle to survive in a drought-ravaged West—set about five minutes in the future. What’s most impressive about Watkins’ debut novel is its ability to marry the hopes and desires of its characters with the shapeshifting, harrowing landscape that surrounds them.

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The novel opens with the young couple camped out in a derelict mansion in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon neighborhood. Unrelenting drought drove most LA residents out of the city years ago; Luz and Ray are among the last holdouts. Filled with inertia, unable to let go of their former lives, the couple passes their days play-acting newlyweds, and surviving off ration cola and scavenged supplies. But after impulsively adopting a neglected child on the beach, Luz and Ray resolve to leave the forsaken city and head East in search of a better future.

Against a backdrop of apocalyptic climate change, Gold Fame Citrus is a novel about dreams. Which is only fitting, seeing how California has embodied so many different ones across the generations. From gold-hungry argonauts to wannabe actors to migrant farm workers, those who chase the California dream have seen their ambitions shaped and reworked by the changing face of California itself.

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In many ways, Luz seems to embody the constant evolution of that dream. In a previous life, she was a model and a poster child for the Bureau of Conservation. At 25, Luz is a washed-up squatter, searching amidst all the destruction for a new sense of purpose. Motherhood, and the allure of greener pastures, are as good a project as any.

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Slowly, context filters into the world. Leaving California is no longer easy; many states closed their borders to refugees long ago. The couple calls in a favor with an old friend, who agrees to get them on a train East if they can make it to Utah. But to do so, Luz, Ray and the child must cross the Amargosa, a vast dune sea that blossomed out of the Mojave Desert, creeping across mountain ranges, filling valleys and devouring towns as it went. Watkins’ descriptions of this wasted landscape are like nightmare fuel:

“From space it seems a canyon. Unhealed yet scar-tissue white, a wound yawning latitudinal between the sluice grafts of Los Angeles and the flaking, friable, half-buried hull of Las Vegas. A sutureless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be. In the pixel promises of satellites it could be the Grand Canyon, its awesome chasm and spires, its photogenic strata, our great empty, where so many of us once stood feeling so compressed against all that vastness.”

When things inevitably go wrong during the perilous journey, Luz and the child become separated from Ray and are taken in by a group of wandering desert people. These men and women—the self-styled “colonists” of the Amargosa—find themselves drawn to the raw, lifeless landscape, which is said to emanate a curious energy. “It was chemical, pheromonal, elemental, a tingle in the ions of the brain, a tug in the iron of the blood,” Watkins writes. “The dune beckoned the chosen, they said.”

Knowledge of the Amargosa—its history, science, ecology and culture—is as dubious and shifting as the topography itself. It’s a wasteland, as sterile as the surface of Mars. It’s got an emerging ecology, filled with drought-hardened predators. It never rains. A Biblical flood is coming. The US government is going to nuke it. There are radiation-mutated mole people living in the swallowed mountains. And so forth.

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And then there’s the colony, living on the outskirts of the Amargosa, following the water and staying a hop-skip ahead of the encroaching sand. Just a handful of outcasts, searching for meaning in a drug-soaked existence on a stark frontier. The community embraces its new mother and child, and for the first time in ages, Luz starts to feel like she’s on solid ground again. But is this new life just another hollow, transient dream?

Gold Fame Citrus is a welcome addition to emerging “cli-fi” genre; near-future stories in which people and societies are coming to grips with the devastating consequences of climate change. Watkins’ novel will certainly rank among this year’s most acclaimed, as captivating as it is distinct from cli-fi aficionado Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife; another dystopian future set in a drought-hardened West. While The Water Knife keeps readers running on adrenaline through cinematic action sequences, Gold Fame Citrus forces us to look inward, to gaze uncomfortably upon the fraying seams of the realities we construct for ourselves.

Ultimately, Luz and her companions must discover the world for what it is. Those who can’t let go of dreams are swallowed by them; ambition fossilized in the endless dunes.


Follow the author @themadstone

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Top image: Mojave Desert, via Wikimedia