Planet Earth’s in trouble and everyone’s affected. But somewhere between denial and doomsday, a new genre of fiction has exploded, hoping to help make sense of it all, perhaps even offer hope
In October 2016, Amitav Ghosh wrote an essay in The Guardian that hinged on a pertinent question: Where is the fiction about climate change? Scientists were losing sleep over the environmental emergency. Newspapers had blaring headlines about it. Even the kids were concerned. Ghosh had just written a climate-related non-fiction book, ‘The Great Derangement’. But novels about the subject – the kind with rich storytelling, strong narratives and memorable characters, he said, were missing. He called it “a crisis of culture and of the imagination”.
It wasn’t quite that. Novels featuring the changing environment were being written all through the 2000s. They just hadn’t captured the public imagination. You know why? The climate crisis is terrifying. It’s also boring. Bar graphs slowly get redder, line-graphs fluctuate upwards, the prediction models are complicated and no one can quite connect the local crises. Most novels just couldn’t grapple with the scale of what was happening.
Then, a month after the essay, a climate change denier won the US presidential election. If you were low-key worried about the planet’s future before, you now had full-blown anxiety about it. Blockbuster disaster flicks just wouldn’t do. We weren’t “all gonna die!” We were going to live, watching the world inch towards apocalypse, at increasing risk of losing our homes, our communities, our minds, our identities, our histories and our humanity.
Here, then, was what the novel could do – flip science’s bird’s-eye view to the human’s, match internal anguish with environmental collapse, connect what we know to what it might mean, perhaps even offer hope.
Three years in, Ghosh has his answer. Climate fiction spans hundreds of literary novels (including Ghosh’s own, Gun Island), adventure series, romances, thrillers, satire and young-adult books. There are graphic novels and collections of poems and short stories. They’re coming from all corners, and cover all kinds of responses to the crisis.
‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’, by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk (released in an English translation this year), seems like a mystery – an eccentric granny investigates murders in a wooded Norwegian village. But Tokarczuk weaves in feminism, comedy and the politics of vegetarianism. Lucy Ellman’s ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, on the 2019 Booker shortlist, may seem like an Ohio woman’s unravelling life – but it’s unravelling alongside America’s hold on its natural world. Richard Powers’s ‘The Overstory’, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year, is structured like a tree, connecting nine Americans and their relationship with forests.
The tales are finding a global audience. This month, Karishma Jha, a litigator from Mumbai, picked Maja Lunde’s ‘The History of Bees’ for her 13-member book club. It’s set in China of 2098, when bees have gone extinct, forcing humans to apply pollen by hand to fruit trees or there will be no food. It’s the first in Lunde’s quartet about how man and nature are intertwined. “We wanted to read ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, but that’s non-fiction, and quite alarmist,” she says. “Fiction is not lighter, but it acknowledges the emotional toll of facing a bleak future.”
There are other tolls too. In the short story ‘Boca Raton’ by Lauren Groff, a woman wonders if bringing a daughter into a world falling apart was a terrible mistake. ‘Stillicide’, by Cynan Jones, features a future Britain where water is sold via a train. Characters wonder if building an ice dock will bring hope or more unrest.
And there are authors have approached the crisis through unexpected lenses. Nnedi Okorafor’s short story ‘Spider the Artist’ imagines a future Nigeria where marine life is dying, but she brings in spider beasts from African legends as guards for a water source. Dominican novelist Rita Indiana binds the climate emergency to gender, race and colonialism in the Caribbean in her work ‘Tentacle’. In Louise Erdrich’s ‘Future Home of the Living God’, evolution is reversing. Babies are born as primitive species, and the government is rounding up pregnant women.
Bittu Sahgal, environmental activist, writer, and the founder of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, welcomes the idea of climate-themed narratives. “It normalises the facts for a wider audience. People care about characters, not statistics,” he says. “And descriptions of extreme dystopias, like we’ve seen in films, generate disbelief. But a subtle change, one that affects you or your neighbour’s dog, affects readers more.”
Sahgal believes it’s not necessary for novels to be scientifically accurate – they must first be true to their story. Much of the current crop of works are rooted in actual science and prediction models. So it’s not unusual that speculated events like floods and riots from a story occur before or after the book comes out.
All’s not doom and gloom. Climate fiction is popular enough that it’s spawned satires and its own sub-genre in Solarpunk. These are works that envision a better future for the Earth once we take action now. The stories typically look at realistic solutions, drawing on the young generation’s maker culture for creative hacks and collaborative ways forward.
At Stanford, biological anthropologist and environmental scientist James Holland Jones is asking another pertinent question: Can stories lead to social action? His work examines the impact of climate fiction, how the prospect of a bleak or better future might change present behaviour. He believes it can. “It’s a mistake to think that facts speak for themselves. Facts are always incorporated into narratives,” he said in a talk hosted by the non-profit LongNow Foundation in San Francisco in January. “In a world where politicians and others frequently peddle fictions, the fiction author can tell truths that people otherwise wouldn’t hear.”
HOW CLI-FI DIFFERS FROM HOLLYWOOD
Everything happens at once. Storms, floods, volcanoes all synchronise conveniently over a weekend to create drama, and eventually stop before the credits roll.
Plots focus on survival, specifically of one group of deserving folks (and ONE dog) who must outrun the flames, the cloud, the tsunami or something equally cataclysmic.
No one believes the nerds. Early warnings go unheeded. Politicians are myopic. Even the geeks are unprepared.
Montages depict tourist spots getting destroyed the world over. But the focus remains squarely on how America copes.
No one collaborates. It’s usually the hero against the circumstances. It’s alarmist and pessimistic.
In climate fiction…
It’s far less dramatic. The climate is a backdrop to other plot developments. Post-apocalyptic settings focus on social and psychological dynamics.
It’s not about escaping disaster, it’s about the cost of survival – loss of plant diversity, carbon rationing, bio-terrorism, new species, community breakdowns and the like.
Scientists are often the heroes. The limitations of science are addressed. Plots are often scientifically accurate.
A greater diversity of writers, means books that are set in lesser-known locations, feature women prominently, look at capitalism’s role, race relations and colonialism.
Societies form collectives to govern isolated communities, share knowledge, take up new roles to keep society intact.