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Literature’s changing climate: The responsibility of raising awareness

The ‘cli-fi’ genre looks set to play an important role in raising awareness of the environment emergency

Image: The New European

“No weather will be found in this book,” wrote Mark Twain as the opening line of his 1892 novel The American Claimant. “This is an attempt to pull a book through without weather.”

Intended as a joke at the expense of less skilful novelists who padded out
their work with endless descriptions of prevailing meteorological conditions, Twain’s once-pithy opener seems quaint these days. The weather,
that traditionally harmless common ground of conversation between strangers, has become a charged subject in this age of climate change.

Even once you’ve discounted the tedious falsely equivalent discussions
on whether it exists or not, climate change is the dominant issue facing
our world today, from the strawcoloured expanses of parched grass
currently covering most of these islands to the recent deadly floods in

If importance were the only factor in putting together news bulletins, climate change would be the main story in every outlet every day. Even the
most optimistic predictions suggest that unless we change our attitude to
the relationship we have with the planet, life as we know it will be all but
unrecognisable in a matter of decades.

Getting that message across is a challenge. After all, the past couple of summers might have been a bit sweaty but hey, it only took a knotted hankie on the head and a Raspberry Mivvi ice lolly to get us through 1976, so we can put up with this, right?

Humans are notoriously reluctant to take a long view, especially when there are cash cows to be milked for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t help that there have never been consequences for the privileged class, who also happen to be the most polluting. They have no reason to change their behaviour.

Governments should be focused on plans to ensure that the planet is habitable for the generation after next – but most can’t see further than the next election.

One unlikely source of optimism can be found in literature and the growing genre of climate fiction. Last week Emad Akhtar, director of fiction publishing at Orion, noted the increasing number of submissions from agents and authors of fiction related to the changing climate.

“Cli-fi, as it may or may not be called, is definitely growing its part of the pie in terms of submissions and books being published,” he said. “Clearly conversations about the environment are going to dominate art as well as politics and hopefully business in the coming year.”

It’s six years since the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh published his literary manifesto The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, in which he called for the world of books to play a greater role in raising awareness of climate change.

“At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament,” he wrote, “humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.”

He saw that contemporary literature had an obligation to serve as a reflection of the times in which we live. “In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance?” he wrote. “And when they fail to find them, what should they – what can they – do other than conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight?”

If Akhtar is right then maybe authors are at last heeding Ghosh’s call. Yet how does one go about writing a climate change novel? For one thing, nobody likes being hectored in print, whatever the cause. Imagine how worthy a book like that could become.

Also, while it seems to be picking up pace at a rate faster than even some of the most pessimistic forecasters predicted, climate change is a gradual process that is hard to transform into a page-turner. If your protagonist finds themselves trying to outrun a retreating glacier it might not be a chase scene that’s going to enthral your readers. Add in the fact that the weather as a subject beyond brief exchanges at bus stops is chronically dull – I say this as
someone who’s written an entire book on the subject – and it’s going to take
exceptional writers to produce engaging works of fiction that deal with climate.

Margaret Atwood, whose MaddAddam trilogy described a climate-related near-future ravaged by genetic engineering and plagues, summed up the issues facing climate change as a literary topic. “I don’t even call it climate change, I call it the everything change,” Atwood said in 2014. “It’s a change of everything. We think climate and we think, more clouds, more rain, oh, who cares? The everything change can never be the front and centre of a book because it’s not a human being”.

Earlier than Atwood, and a possible originator of the climate fiction genre, is Frank Herbert, whose 1965 novel, Dune, is currently undergoing a renaissance in screen adaptation. It is possible to go even further back and to Jules Verne’s 1890 novel The Purchase of the North Pole, which imagined a world knocked slightly off its axis.

Arguably the first literary novel to tackle the subject head on was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, published in 1993. Set in a future California blighted by drought and wildfires brought about by rising global temperatures, Parable of the Sower is written as the diary of Lauren Oya Olamina, a black teenager living with her family in a privileged middle-class compound outside which the poor and sick struggle to get by, and are constantly at the mercy of water-pedlars. Private militias are employed by corporate giants and there’s even a politician vowing to “make America great
again”. Such prescience means Butler’s book has hardly dated at all – earlier this year a musical version was staged in Boston – mainly because it was based on the author’s meticulous research into the subject. What’s most sobering about Parable of the Sower is how this story of a parched, fire-ravaged future is set in 2024.

Other examples include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, published in 2013, which tells the story of a swarm of monarch butterflies, displaced from their winter habitat in Mexico by climate change, and which lands on a small town in the Appalachians. Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 novel The Overstory followed a group of people whose relationship with trees becomes a collective battle against deforestation, while Rosa Rankin-Gee’s brilliant Dreamland, published last year, is set in a nearfuture Margate, baking in blistering heat and facing imminent inundation by the rising sea.

If Ghosh’s treatise had a flaw, it was perhaps a failure to acknowledge the role of genre fiction in taking on the issue, especially science fiction. Perceived by many to be the preserve of men with wispy facial hair in faded t-shirts reading earnestly about wars fought in distant galaxies, it’s certainly the best-informed genre when it comes to climate change.

The American science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example. His novel 2312, published a decade ago, sees the earth all but abandoned by humanity for other planets. Our 21st-century inactivity, known as “the Dithering” has become a source of acute embarrassment. 2020’s The Ministry for the Future is set three years from now and switches from the conventional climate fiction device of inventing a desperate aftermath to placing the story almost in the present. The “ministry” of the title is set up to represent the rights of future generations, which are regarded as equal to those already alive.

“I decided that it was time to go directly at the topic of climate change,” Robinson said. “The real story is the one facing us in the next 30 years. It’s the most interesting story, but also the stakes are highest.”

What sets Robinson’s work apart, other than the quality of the writing, is their grounding in real science. So highly respected is the author outside
the world of science fiction that he was invited to address the Cop26 summit in Glasgow last year. In an emotional speech he summed up the importance of literature to raising awareness of the issues facing the planet, telling the crowd: “It should not be the solitary daydream of a writer sitting in his garden, imagining there could be a better world”.

There’s been a pretty decent start, but the best and most effective climate fiction is yet to come. But coming it is, hopefully accompanied by sufficient change in global policy that means there will be future generations to read it.

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