What is climate fiction for?

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We start the Outside Book Club this week, and to celebrate, we’re releasing a series on how the booming genre of climate fiction is helping us see our changing planet in a new light. You can learn more about the book club Here, or join us Facebook to discuss our October selection, Confusion, a new fictional climate work by Richard Powers.


In the 2017 novel New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson described impressive scenes of people driving through a flooded New York City. That September, kayakers soared through flooded city streets in the northeast after Hurricane Ida. In 1993 Octavia became E. Butlers Parable of the sower drew a forward-looking picture of inequality, corporate greed and racism amid climate change. Today these issues have only become central in the climate crisis, and in Trump we even saw something of the President-elect of dystopian society, Christopher Donner, who describes the minimum wage, environmental regulations and labor protection laws as “too restrictive”. Since then, dozens of new books have appeared in the genre of climate fiction, which can roughly be defined as literature on climate change, often with elements of speculative fiction. But in the past few years alone, the experience of reading Kli-Fi has grown stranger as real life becomes more and more similar to some of the dark futures presented in these novels.

I write about culture for a living so I read a lot of novels about the end of the world as we know it, often in the context of climate disasters, both on and off the clock. For years I’ve been following new cli-fi releases (often for this post) as I soak up daily headlines about drought, forest fires, climate migration, floods, historic storms, heat waves, and ocean acidification. I tend towards speculative books set in a world that is at least partially recognizable as our own (no space cities or magic!), But which take creative liberties to ask how bad it would have to get for us, for us to change life? How would we live if it was too late? These range from mostly realistic (Imbolo Mbue’s How beautiful we were) a little bit out there (Diane Cook’s The new wilderness) too pretty awesome (Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy).

When I look up at the world around me from these novels, I have a lingering feeling of exhausted, confused fascination. I first realized it around this time last year when I started reading Ling Ma’s severance pay during quarantine. I couldn’t explain why I was drawn to a book about a fictional catastrophic pandemic in the middle of a real pandemic, and I was almost ashamed to admit it in front of everyone (even though I wasn’t alone). At best it seemed like staring into space; At worst, it felt like I was looking for some sick form of escapism by reading about a strangely similar disaster while I was fortunate enough to suffer minimally from the tremendous losses of COVID-19. Since then, I’ve wondered if my fascination with cli-fi is purely nihilistic. Books don’t always have to be beach reading, and they don’t always have to be useful, but can we learn something about our situation or ourselves, or at least feel something other than the horror, in the eerie valley of fictional climate change? If we are already going through a climate catastrophe, what is the point of wallowing in all the possibilities presented that it could go under?

Most cli-fi readers don’t need to be convinced that climate change is real and urgent.

Of course, there are smarter people who spend a lot of time grappling with this question. “In a way, climate literature is a very old genre. The great biblical story of Noah’s Ark is the story of a climate catastrophe, ”says Tyler Harper, assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College, who describes himself as an innate optimist (but not one who would deny that we could actually be). lost). This outlook contrasts with one of his main research interests: science fiction about the possibility of human extinction. “What is special and interesting about contemporary climate sci-fi is that it was only in the last 150 years that Western civilization really realized that we can produce our own catastrophe,” he says. Cli-Fi creates a rich historical record of our chickens coming home to sleep, and as it grows in popularity, it has been sold to the public to deal with our troubles. A series of short stories by well-known authors commissioned by Amazon, called Warmer, happily sells every morbid plot: “In a climate-ravaged future, it is not easy to grow up.” “After the earth has been destroyed, the age of man is over. For some it is a blessing in this tender and tragic cautionary fable. “

But that blunt message now feels inadequate. Most cli-fi readers don’t need to be convinced that climate change is real and urgent, and Harper fears that an impulse to read future narratives into those narratives will only lead to hopelessness. What does someone who already understands the real effects of climate change need from a fictional report? Elizabeth Rush, professor of English at Brown University and climate journalist, recently reported on how rising sea levels are changing US coasts for her nonfiction book Rising: Shipments from the New American Shore. In addition to this work, she reads Cli-Fi, but looks for the kind that goes beyond the dark messages of our damnation without denying reality. Fiction can be a way to get out of the repetitive headlines about record-breaking storms, floods, and heat waves that make us think the conclusions are pre-programmed, she says. “I started deliberately looking for fictional climates that took the opportunity to write the book as an opportunity to imagine how climate change could not only be a catastrophe, but also needs for other types of human relationships with the more than … human world. “She refers to Claire Vaye Watkins Gold glory citrus and James Bradleys Clade, Books in which the characters start out in a pretty screwed-up world, but are still looking for love, meaning and new ways of life. “These are not blindly optimistic books, but they play the story out in ways that are different from the way we think,” she says.

The idea of ​​giving up a break in thought made me reconsider my doubts about the ability of climate fiction to be escapist. The cli-fi books I love don’t make me forget the world around me – they hold a mirror to the dynamics of climate change, which seems most insurmountable, and urge me to break out of fatalistic thought patterns. The best cli-fi of course tells us something about the real world, especially when it comes to understanding that some people are already disproportionately affected by climate change. “There is often the notion that when the disaster happens, the starting conditions are suddenly even,” says Harper, referring to books like Cormac McCarthys The street in which an extinction event puts everyone on earth into survival mode with no mention of race or class. “A climate catastrophe will not wipe out the racial and class divisions, but deeply intensify them.” There’s a reason Octavia E. Butler is so often upheld in cli-fi canon; she portrayed these dynamics so precisely in her fiction. Shelley Streeby, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in science fiction and ethnic studies, recalls reading files Butler kept about news clippings from disasters. Butler writes: “I cannot wish for the kind of catastrophe it would take to distract the tiny minds of world leaders from ideology and power struggles. Such a disaster would probably kill me. Me and millions of others. “

Butler models a kind of climate fiction that takes an honest look at reality, but also points the way to hope and action. Parable of the sower, About a black teenage girl who founds her own religion in the hope of literally escaping her dystopian society (and earth), is about redefining community, stepping outside the boundaries of an exploitative society, and promising black feminist leadership and indigenous science . In Streeby’s new book Imagine the future of climate change She writes about how speculative fiction can influence real activism and vice versa. “If we want to get the social movement, to change something, we basically make worlds,” says Streeby. “We imagine how the world will be different. We plan it. We tell a story about it. It’s a kind of bridge to activism. ”Authors like Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown both create and champion a kind of climate fiction that goes beyond empathizing with the struggle of a particular character; Instead, it envisions the collective action necessary to live in another future. Environmental movements, led mainly by indigenous peoples and other colored people, do exactly the same.

By imagining how we might live in a disastrous future, we remind ourselves that the present does not have to be what it is now, and that the real shaping of the future is now available to us in the real world.

Speculative cli-fi can build a world, not in the traditional sense of science fiction or fantasy of invented languages ​​and stories, but by really rethinking what is possible beyond the limits of the economic and political systems that perpetuate our current crisis. Harper points to Frederic Jameson, a literary critic who is often quoted for arguing that science fiction is not about the future. “Science fiction circles back to our present because by giving us a picture of the future, it also tells us that the future has not yet happened, that changes are still possible,” says Harper. Whether a utopian or apocalyptic vision of the future, the message is the same: this future is still not there (even if it comes close). “I would encourage any reader to read it as a genre that prompts you to do something in the present,” he says. This, as I now realize, is what I got wrong with Cl-Fi: the qualities that make it feel so awful can also confirm it. By imagining how we might live in a disastrous future, we remind ourselves that the present does not have to be what it is now, and that the real shaping of the future is now available to us in the real world. Brown says: “Everything organizing is science fiction”.


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