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What Makes Good Climate Fiction?

Updated: Aug 24

Climate fiction – or “cli-fi”, as it is popularly stylised – is the new realism. The stories that I have read that are typified as such have all been speculative – if science-informed – renderings of our near future, yet each yielded, for me, a more accurate and evocative picture of life today than any other story or genre that aspires to verisimilitude.

Given that we are alerted, hourly, to horrific news stories about the latest real life disaster consequent of human-made climate change, it might seem that fictional accounts on the same topic will soon be superfluous. What, after all, can be more real and persuasive of the impact of climate change – at least to populations still able to naively bask in more and longer spells of warmer weather – than rolling footage of flooded streets and buildings, of burning woodland and habitats; than statistics totting up the dead, the missing; than the trillions of currencies lost, and the trillions more to be found to start again from scratch? As a character in Jessie Greengrass’s novel, “The High House”, puts it: ‘Turning it off won’t make it go away’. However, much like the news coverage of COVID-19, we risk becoming immune, inured, and unable to continue to be moved, emotionally, by numbers and reportage, no matter how graphic. With COVID-19 our human knack for normalisation struck, and will soon, I fear, if it has not already, strike again with the climate crisis.

What news stories can lack is not people per se but a full accounting of the psychological responses that underpin how we continue to live in the face of multiple crises and with a complex of known unknowns. That is to say, we know climate change is happening everywhere – and right now – but we cannot know when, exactly, it will force each of us to change – either incrementally or radically – who and how we are and to what extent.

Above all, then, the reason I value climate fiction is that its modus operandi is to engage at length not only with sometimes abstruse science and the multiple realities of environmental degradation and disaster, but with how we feel about and process both the present moment and the onrushing world to come. In fact, I now find it difficult to innocently read fictions uninflected by the climate crisis: those stories organised around increasingly anachronistic structures of feeling: stories written at an earlier time, or written now but with different stories to tell. We still, and will always, need other stories – old and new – to help us forget, to continue, to be consoled, to preserve, to nurture the imagination, and to offer an immediate, temporary but regular escape from all shapes of reality. However, in the decades to come, such stories are in danger of being categorised as, at best, historical fiction, or, if the rupture with our past is total, fantasy.

Is it possible to sell you an encounter with “fictional” lifeworlds devastated by changes in the conditions that have enabled human civilisation to expand to and very nearly go beyond the point of collapse? Can it be said that stories about climate catastrophe have the potential to galvanise the reader to take ameliorative actions (by, for example, reducing one’s “carbon footprint”, petitioning decision-makers, or igniting community activism)? Are such stories able to augment the reader’s capacity for empathy with the other? Or do they, sentence-by-sentence, chapter-by-chapter, map the variegated forms the new world might take and thus better prepare the reader, a form of survivalism by proxy?

I sometimes worry that – reading climate fiction – I am little more than paralysed and pathetic and waiting for the end times – and that, in fact, I am, almost, through reading, willing them into being, if only to measure how near or far from reality each author falls. The trap to avoid at all costs is the simple belief that reading climate fiction alone is a noble and productive response to tackling climate change; that it is anything more than the pacifist’s choice. Reading in this context should only ever be a goad to redesign how we live: to alter (for the better), adapt to and cope with the changing conditions of life on earth.

In this series I will share short summaries of the climate fiction I have read and plan to read. I will not review stories critically, meriting or faulting them against any specious literary criteria. Rather, I will relate them to my own ideas about what makes for effective climate fiction. To this end, my list of imperatives, below, is an amalgam of features drawn from across several stories I have already read and amount, in my mind, to a provisional “ideal type” of climate fiction:

• The author must not be afraid of writing the worst for fear of being labelled a doomsayer or of simply being proven wrong. Unfortunately, one motor of human history has been blithe optimism – blind faith – and each new generation has demonstrated again our propensity to sleepwalk into one disaster or another, in part because we do not believe that it – that the worst – will ever happen to us. We have, it seems, an infinite capacity for displacement allied to a finite capacity for worry. We already live with so much of the latter that, until our house floods, or our possessions burn, or our convenient truths are blown away, we will live in denial. Done well, climate fiction, perhaps more than any jargon-heavy, unpeopled scientific exegesis, can bring to life and charge climate change with meaning, even for those whose lives are, presently, at least by the likely standards of the future, “comfortable”.

• The author must avoid projecting their version of climate catastrophe too far into the future. Novels set much more than a decade from now risk obscuring the unravelling crises of the present; risk absolving us of our responsibility to act now to avert the worst, given that every fraction of a degree really does matter and is already determining how habitable our planet will be for all forms of life.

• The author must name real places and centre the action of the novel on those places, to bring the future to bear on everyone who lives there and in other, synonymous places – western cities or coastal areas, for example.

• Through temporal and spatial proximity, the author can safely unsheathe people of their complacency.

• The author must create characters that readers can identify with and refuse techniques of distanciation that lull the reader into believing that they, in their relatively privileged position as reader, are impervious to the worst impacts of climate change.

• The author must not be fatalistic or generate the fallacy that we are without hope. The reader must not be rendered entirely powerless: should be piqued enough to act, but not so much that they feel their potential actions to be entirely ineffectual.

• The author must not exonerate anybody. While some actors – corporations, national governments, the “super-rich” – are more culpable than others for the climate crisis, we are in a state of species-level malfunction. It is important to neither deify the green, virtuous citizen nor demonise the actions of those less able to afford an environmental conscience. Moreover, weighing the rights and wrongs of any individual’s actions must not be elevated above the necessity of levelling the inequities of systems. And yet, at the same time, the choices of individuals – in our guise as consumers, however gulled by the culture industry – must not be seen to be of no consequence. The author must attempt an impossible balancing act: must reflect the complexity and indeterminacy of the social and political worlds they write about.

• All that said, the author must reserve at least a modicum of additional wrath for non-believers: for climate heretics who, despite all evidence, continue to pick holes in and noisily subvert the science; for the green-washers who, in bad faith, peddle false or insubstantial remedies as cure-alls; and for the fantasists who believe we can grow unceasingly, or until our whole planet is immolated and they are ready to colonise another.

• The author must account for climate injustices; must not equivocate when showing the reader how class, race and gender are the key determinants of the likelihood of adapting to and coping with changes in the conditions of life on earth.

• The author must invoke the people that come after us; not only our own children and grandchildren on whom we dote and claim to be willing to sacrifice anything for, but all future inhabitants unlucky enough to be born into the forecast ecological turbulence. Our own survival must be secondary to the continuance of life in general.

• The author must not be anthropocentric. People are the principal driver of climate change. (We live, unofficially, in the Anthropocene). We have subordinated nature and every other species with whom we cohabit to, first, our survival, then something far more malevolent: our ego – to our need to monumentalise our time on earth. We have countered our individual transience with a collective megalomania for building things we plan to outlast us, to outlast everything. We have countered our individual limitations – our eternal struggle to know how live a fulfilling life – with the twin reproductive pursuits of procreation and capitalism. There are not necessarily too many people on earth; it is more that – writ large – we are living wrong, captives to ideologies of profit and growth, unhappily parcelling out our time and labour for an income to expend, to survive. Bluntly: the author must not be anti-humanist but pro-life; can mourn human suffering at the same time as denouncing us for the fate to which we have consigned other species.

• There is no golden age to go back to, but climate fiction can – if not quite must – be utopian as much as dystopian and write a future where people are no longer in various forms of servitude and we live in relative harmony with other species and an enduring ecosystem. In effect, the author must siphon-off and memorialise the things we value from the world as it is and has been at the same time as helping the reader loosen their grip on our collective vices. In the process, the author of climate fiction is tasked with pointing to and priming us for new ways of living and surviving.

Initial books to be reviewed:

• Kim Stanley Robinson – Ministry of the Future

• Jessie Greengrass – The High House

• Vicki Jarrett – Always North

• Diane Cook – The New Wilderness

• Ben Smith – Doggerland

- By Michael Huddleston

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